The future of food - especially the emergence of “synthetic foods” and what this might mean for New Zealand as a major food producer - has certainly been prominent in media and BBQ conversations this summer.

by Chief Executive, Dr Tom Richardson

As a science organisation dedicated to growing the value of New Zealand’s agri-food sector, AgResearch is highly attuned to both the challenges and opportunities posed by these new technologies. From where we sit, the claims of an impending collapse of New Zealand’s traditional food exports in the face of this alternative protein revolution just don’t reflect what we are seeing and experiencing.

There is no question the technology to produce “synthetic foods” (including animal cell culture to produce meats and milk without animal farming, and plant-based substitutes that emulate the taste, smell and texture of animal products) is advancing rapidly. Those advances are dramatically improving the quality of these products whilst at the same time reducing costs.  In the last four years, the cost of cell cultured meat patties has dropped from US$325,000 to US$12 and Impossible Foods is now able to produce four million plant-based protein burgers a month, and selling them in restaurants at the same price as a premium meat burger (around US$15).

As we seek to feed a global population heading beyond nine billion by 2050, we need a host of sustainable food production systems. These new technologies, and others not yet in development, will be an important component of our global food system, and more and more of us will meet some portion of our dietary requirements through them. And in fact I think NZ can carve out its own niches in “synthetic foods” – which we will see play out over time.

However, as most are well aware our food exports are not targeting the billions, but rather those niches where our products can attract the premium price that our small producers - a long way from customers - need.  This has been our journey as a nation and it continues today and will tomorrow as technology makes it easier and easier for us to describe and demonstrate our unique provenance stories to customers around the world. Our challenge is to be ever more finely attuned to the changing wishes of those consumers, which are amongst the fastest growing groups globally.

The longer term opportunities for New Zealand’s agri-foods, and the experiences they offer, is borne out at AgResearch by the strong demand we are experiencing from both New Zealand and international firms seeking to reposition their supply chains and innovate their products to succeed in these growing markets.

In November, AgResearch signed up to a relationship with South Korea’s largest pharmaceutical company, Yuhan Corporation (who will invest significantly to bring NZ’s deer products to Asian markets).  More of these bilateral innovation partnerships that enhance the value of NZ agri-food products are being confirmed, or are in the pipeline for AgResearch and NZ. We’ve also seen new investment such as Japanese food company Itoham approved to grow its stake in ANZCO Foods to 100 per cent.

These investments reflect how favourably New Zealand’s agricultural products are viewed by those firms with close ties to these markets, and the potential seen for much more value creation.

To realise that potential, we need to be highly attuned to what attributes those customers value.  We have exciting science underway looking into how meat could be personalised for people’s individual health needs, and how dairy products can be designed to boost brainpower in adults and enhance brain development in infants.  These are exciting advances and we are working with the world’s best to develop scientifically validated health benefits for a range of NZ products and ingredients.

However, much of the “added value” achieved by NZ food exports is created by our production systems and the certification, branding and provenance storytelling that we build around those systems. These production systems will underpin the uniquely NZ value proposition in the coming decades too. As production systems diversify to meet changing consumer demand for different food sources, AgResearch is well-equipped to support the agri-food sector to successfully make those shifts.  

So we need to be finely attuned to the expectations of consumers and we need to recognise that advances such as social media, micro-sensors and blockchains mean that every production and supply system in the world is heading towards total transparency. If we do it on a NZ farm we should expect that a customer sitting down to a meal in Tokyo, Palo Alto, Paris or Tauranga to know about it, and make a personal value judgement on it.

As a scientist myself, I find this evidence-rich future exciting. As one of our AgResearch board members used to say “Sunlight is a great disinfectant!”.  But it also means that our practices have to be totally consistent with our claims.  And as an agri-food sector we know there is work to do here as the bar is constantly rising. Again, at AgResearch we are seeing leading businesses investing much more aggressively in areas like animal welfare, novel farm systems and technologies that greatly enhance environmental sustainability.

I think we are fortunate that in many of these areas the overseas consumers’ expectations are no different to what we as New Zealanders want from our production systems, and the surrounding landscapes and rivers. New Zealanders have spoken loud and clear on this issue of the environment – a Colmar Brunton poll released this month (Jan) found pollution of lakes and rivers was one of the top two concerns for Kiwis, ahead of the likes of the state of the health system. People are demanding action on cleaning up waterways and making rivers swimmable again.

So, the good news is that we have alignment locally and globally and there is every motivation to achieve those goals. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Of course, predicting the future is notoriously difficult, and none of us know exactly how the food revolution will unfold over the next decade or two. But we can bank on a more varied source of foods than ever before, much more individual eating preferences (think flexi-vegans), total transparency and traceability of our food production systems, and a greater number of people willing to pay a premium for a special eating experience based on the provenance of the meal.

Since our first refrigerated food exports left Dunedin for Britain in 1882, through Britain’s entry into the European Union and the shift to Asia, our farmers and agri-food business have shown the adaptability that is now more important than ever. We have lived in a disruptive world for our entire existence as a country.

That same cultural DNA within our farmers, agribusiness and scientists leaves me very confident that New Zealand is well positioned to be an even more prosperous provider of safe, high quality foods to the world’s most discerning consumers.

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