AgResearch has received close to $13 million in government funding to help advance opportunities for New Zealand in both plant-based food ingredient and cell-based protein markets.

The two programmes led by AgResearch are among 68 successful applications for research from the recent 2023 funding round for the Government’s Endeavour Fund, with a total of $246 million allocated.

Close to $12m has been committed over five years to a programme that AgResearch will lead called “Plant-Based Food Ingredients: a Systems Approach to Sustainable Design”.

“Crops grown on arable land are an abundant resource and already provide most of the calories in people’s diets,” says AgResearch senior scientist Alistair Carr.

“Consumers are increasingly looking to these plants to do much more – to meet a wider range of culinary and nutritional needs, and to help address global concerns around sustainable ecosystems and animal welfare.”

“Food manufacturers have been quick to respond with many novel products. However, these are often highly refined and stripped of their whole-food benefits, have poor taste and texture, carry high sodium content, and can have hidden damage to essential amino acids. The next generation of plant-based foods will need to be prepared more sensibly with gentler handling of the inherently healthy raw materials and better guardianship of environmental impact.”

We want to inspire entrepreneurs in the emerging proteins sector to become successful international suppliers of high-value plant-based food ingredients

Dr Alistair Carr

The research will test at pilot scale how a new industry could operate by using crops known to grow well locally, like green peas, oats and hemp.

“New Zealand can participate in this opportunity by developing the science and technologies to produce unique highly functional plant foods,” Dr Carr says.

“We have gathered some of the brightest minds in process engineering, food science, sustainability evaluation, economic analysis and human nutrition. The team also includes many industry partners, from plant breeders, growers and processors to ingredient-users and food manufacturers.”

“Our aim is to support the arable crop processors of Aotearoa. We want to inspire entrepreneurs in the emerging proteins sector to become successful international suppliers of high-value plant-based food ingredients.”

The second programme, with just under $1m in funding over three years, will focus on the use of cutting-edge technologies to advance NZ’s cell-based protein industries, where for example meat may be grown from animal cells.

“While it’s an exciting time for cellular agriculture there are still major challenges to overcome,” says AgResearch science team leader Gale Brightwell.

An example of cellular agricultrure/lab grown meat

“The biggest barriers are the cost of large-scale manufacture including the use of food-grade growth media (substances in which the cells can be grown), loss of cell lines due to biological contamination and high requirements for food safety testing. To date, no large-scale cost-effective technology is available to maintain sterility for cell-based protein manufacture nor an online monitoring system to detect changes in quality and safety.”

This is where the research comes in, drawing on cold plasma, hyperspectral imaging and machine learning technologies, to help ensure sterility is maintained and any contamination is rapidly detected and responded to in the production process.

“The research will result in the development of new knowledge, IP, and technologies that can significantly enhance the sustainability, safety, and ethical appeal of emerging NZ cellular agricultural companies,” Brightwell says.

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