Research strengthened by te ao Māori

2022 Unlocking the secrets of Aotearoa's native tree fern Mamaku

AgResearch’s relationship with Māori skincare company Ora Innovation Group Ltd was further cemented in the 2021/22 financial year with a focus on three key areas: developing knowledge to sustainably grow and harvest mamaku for commercial supply, developing intellectual property (IP) around processing of mamaku, and identifying future opportunities for research collaborations.

Mamaku (New Zealand Black Tree fern) has traditionally been used by Māori as a rongoā for treating various skin conditions, and clinical trials conducted by AgResearch and Ora Ltd have shown that mamaku extract has excellent potential for the management of eczema and other inflammatory skin conditions.

Starting as a KiwiNet funded programme to turn mamaku into an extract, then an MBIE-funded Vision Mātauranga Capability Fund programme that provided scientific validation of the effectiveness and value of mamaku as a skincare ingredient, and now Ora moving into AgResearch’s pilot plant in Ruakura.

This past year, as part of a MPI funded project, AgResearch scientists visited a number of Māori landowner groups who are looking at mamaku as a potential land use option and if feasible, be a supplier of raw material to Ora Innovation. AgResearch also planted mamaku trees on our Ruakura campus in an ongoing signal of our long-term interest and support in the research, with the knowledge we attain from the plot trial being of direct potential benefit to those landowners wishing to grow mamaku as we begin to intimately understand the plant and the conditions needed to make this a viable land use option.

The next stage in the journey is building international research collaborations to understand the science of mamaku. This will involve understanding mamaku’s composition and characterisation (New Zealand/AgResearch) and its bioactivity (Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences). The research collaboration also aligns with Ora’s aim to grow market penetration into China including rebranding and product development in line with Chinese consumers.

2022 Research strengthened by te ao Māori

Te Pū Oranga Whenua (TPOW) is a kaupapa Māori organisation seeking to redesign land use and development in a way that works for whānau. It is an inter-regional collective of diverse Māori agribusinesses led by wāhine that is building the capability of Māori agribusinesses so they can be more resilient and self-sustaining and achieve more than they could alone. Te Pū Oranga Whenua’s usual activities are conducted for charitable purposes, whether relating to the relief of poverty, the advancement of education, or to help whānau thrive in their relationship with Papatūānuku.

AgResearch and Te Pū Oranga Whenua have built a relationship, described in a formal Heads of Agreement signed in May 2022, that formally explains our shared vision to use tikanga-led science and research co-design in our future endeavours.

AgResearch recognises that the world is rapidly changing, and we are seeking ways to respond to this change in partnership with Māori agribusiness land stewards and other partners. AgResearch’s New Zealand Bioeconomy in the Digital Age (NZBIDA) programme seeks to gain a shared understanding of how Māori see a transformed agricultural sector, what is needed to achieve this, and the role that research can play to realise these needs.

We want to utilise ao Māori frameworks to guide the use of innovation and digital technology for Māori land utilisation.

Te Pū Oranga Whenua are our guides on this journey and have introduced us to organisations that we can support. They include the Trustees of Ngāporo Waimarino Forest Trust (and Pipiriki Incorporation) who, with Te Pū Oranga Whenua, we have begun to assess their future land use options and build the capability of mana whenua and helping the trust extend the network of people who could contribute to achieving identified aspirations.

Te Pū Oranga Whenua has also helped us create a relationship with three farms who want to adopt biological farming practices and a farm gate to whānau plate business model. The relationship is integrating the western theory of a circular bioeconomy with a traditional ao Māori-led approach that enables the creation of future-smart, sustainable, circular agri-food systems that eliminate waste and optimise resource use.

2022 Te Puāwaitanga a success

AgResearch successfully relaunched and revitalised our longstanding Summer Student Internship Programme during the 2021/22 summer when we hosted seven Māori interns and five Pūhoro STEM Academy interns to feed into our Māori capability pipeline.

The internship programme, now known as Te Puāwaitanga (meaning ‘to flourish’), is designed to create a thriving community of Māori students within AgResearch, who feel well supported and understand the value of diverse perspectives and knowledge, and use manaakitanga and whanaungatanga as guiding principles in their work.

The internship programme was held to coincide with the standard AgResearch Summer Student placements. However, the approach for Te Puāwaitanga is very different from previous and current internships. Instead of advertising for students to join specific research programmes, this programme seeks out talented students and then matches them to AgResearch programmes or initiatives based on their background, skills, and future aspirations. Interns co-design the contributions to their research projects with their supervisors, Māori mentors, and programme managers.

Over the 2021/22 summer, Te Puāwaitanga interns were brought in as a rōpū with regular meetings, presentation practices, and wrap-around support (including science support, personal and professional development opportunities, and holistic support). This model will continue to be used as it ensures students are well supported, both personally and professionally.

The students represented 10 iwi across the motu and stemmed from 5 universities and 1 kura kaupapa. The internship programme brought together 4 science teams, 1 of AgResearch’s enabling platforms, and 1 MBIE programme. At the completion of the internship programme, AgResearch offered 1 intern a fixed term contract and 2 interns casual contracts. One intern was offered a new opportunity at Lincoln University as a result of his engagement in Te Puāwaitanga programme; the remaining students returned to complete their studies at university or kura. The support provided to students by this internship programme continues beyond the duration of the internship itself, with regular post-internship rōpū catch-ups.

2020 Indigenous knowledge at heart of Waikato-Tainui AgResearch partnership

Waikato-Tainui and AgResearch have signed a new partnership agreement that will combine indigenous knowledge and science to enhance environmental and community wellbeing.

Waikato-Tainui executive chair and AgResearch director Rukumoana Schaafhausen says the partnership is about using the tribe’s matauranga (indigenous knowledge) and scientific research to deliver better outcomes for communities and the environment.

“In the past, our people prospered from a thriving circular economy that integrated whenua, water, people and wairua. That knowledge and experience is applicable to the challenges we face today.”

AgResearch chief executive Sue Bidrose says the partners to the agreement will work on areas of mutual interest, especially the quality of waterways and tackling environmental challenges on farms that employ and support many iwi members.

“Our scientists are doing a lot of research into protecting and preserving the land and waterways, whilst acknowledging the matauranga and kaitiakitanga (guardianship) of iwi.”

Waikato-Tainui is currently helping to develop the AgResearch ‘Hyperfarm’ tool that uses big data and digital simulation to visualise land use changes on farms and their consequences, which has significant potential to improve outcomes for the agriculture sector.

Dr Bidrose says AgResearch is on a journey to incorporating Te Ao Maori into its everyday work and the new partnership agreement is a critical part of that commitment. AgResearch is a cornerstone tenant of the Ruakura Research Centre owned by a subsidiary of Tainui Group Holdings.

2022 New drive to harness Mātauranga Māori for Aotearoa

Mātauranga Māori should be seen as adding to the toolbox to tackle the big issues for agriculture and other sectors, rather than something that threatens the science status quo, says the head of AgResearch’s new Māori Research & Partnerships Group, Ariana Estoras.

The new structure led by Mrs Estoras is central to AgResearch’s vision to have the knowledge system of Mātauranga Māori in equal footing with Western science and existing structures that have helped support positive change in farming practices and food production in Aotearoa over the decades. The move also helps embed Te Ara Tika into AgResearch’s everyday work, which is a national plan to embrace Te Ao Māori values and tikanga based principles to better respond to Māori needs and better deliver to Māori aspirations.

“What we are striving for is an approach where we are adding knowledge and impact to the important science we have always done, so that we can respond with Māori to their needs and aspirations, but also help provide better solutions to farmers and all of society in Aotearoa,” says Mrs Estoras, who herself comes from a background in science.

“Unfortunately, some have viewed Mātauranga Māori as somehow diluting or being out of step with the science we’ve always done in Aotearoa. Some of this seems to be based on a lack of understanding and therefore an inability to see the value we can create. Our approach is centred around the strength of having more than one knowledge system contributing to solutions for some of the most complex challenges facing our communities. One way of looking at it is having the benefit of a `wise old head’ who has gathered knowledge not just from formal settings but also from life experience learning and interacting with farming and the natural world.”

Mrs Estoras says it is encouraging to see the increasing recognition across the science and research sectors of the value Māori people, resources and knowledge can bring. In agriculture, this means growing connections between the scientists and Māori farmers and landowners who bring huge collective wisdom and a hunger for positive change in line with Kaitiakitanga (living in balance with the natural environment as guardians) of the land.

“The environmental challenges for farmers and Aotearoa as a whole are obviously front and centre right now, and I have no doubt that this is an area where Mātauranga Māori can enhance what the science already has to offer where it comes to best use of productive land, water quality and reducing the climate change impact.”

Mrs Estoras hails from Ngāti Uekaha and Ngāti Maniapoto, and as a child spent a lot of time learning from her grandfather on his Waitomo farm. After studying molecular genetics and gaining her Master’s degree in biochemistry, she worked with the Manuel whānau on the East Coast with a genetic disorder that resulted in members of the whānau losing their sight. Her work helped provide the whānau with some answers and was a launching pad for a career in science in Aotearoa and overseas that has since led to her moving into the primary industries, and more recently into leadership as AgResearch’s Director of Māori Research & Partnerships.

The focus of the new Māori Research & Partnerships Group is “to continue to build Māori capacity and beneficial Māori-centred research led by and with Māori partners, while taking everyone with us”.

“I have been able to work at the coalface with many Māori groups across my lifetime and was able to create bridges between science, policy and funding and what they were looking to achieve, and I get a real buzz from that. I also feel privileged to be among the wāhine Māori in leadership roles in Aotearoa and helping to provide a path for our young people to follow.”

AgResearch’s Māori Research & Partnerships Group is currently running an expression of interest process for new roles, and these opportunities can be viewed here.

2020 Going bananas with some help from science

New Zealand may not be viewed as a natural home for producing bananas, but AgResearch scientists can see great potential after bringing their expertise to support growers and kickstart new growing trials across the country.

Bananas are one of the most popular fruits in New Zealand, with more than $220 million worth of bananas imported annually to satisfy the demand. The fruit is typically grown in warmer climates, but it’s been noted by a visiting Australian expert that with New Zealand’s longer daylight hours and the option of growing under covers, the results can often be just as good, while also offering unique Kiwi flavours and characteristics.

“Once they are established, they grow quickly when it’s warm enough (over 14degC),” says AgResearch scientist Dr Jane Mullaney.

“They are generally very tolerant of drought, with what is described as vertical water storage holding much of their water in the stems. Unlike some plants, you don’t have to keep planting again every year.”

AgResearch Urungi (Māori strategy and engagement manager) Chris Koroheke says the scientists’ work with banana growers and Māori communities is a good example of cutting across boundaries to support Māori landowners to unlock the innovation potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people to assist New Zealanders to create a better future.

“I hope this helps the Māori communities, landowners and agribusinesses we work with build new connections and opportunities across Aotearoa to make the best choices for their whenua and people. This is about giving our communities the means to create their own opportunities.”

The AgResearch scientists used in-house technologies to sequence the DNA and identify origins of and variations in New Zealand-grown bananas. They produced new plants through tissue culturing in the lab to create opportunities for growing trials in different regions and communities. They can also see opportunities for unlocking components of local bananas with defined health properties.

Dr Mullaney says the work began with she and fellow scientists partnering with Gisborne-based growers Tai Pukenga, led by Trevor Mills and Laurie Te Nahu, with the assistance of funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Fruit is not the usual domain of AgResearch scientists, but in this case, some existing relationships and relevant expertise lent itself to the work.

“In places like Gisborne and Northland, the bananas were already being snapped up as fast as they could grow them.”

The initial role of the scientists was to bring their expertise in DNA sequencing to learn more about the bananas already being grown in New Zealand, and where they might be able to grow. What they soon found was that their work with the Gisborne growers and other experts was leading to new connections with communities throughout New Zealand, particularly Māori communities, which were interested and wanted to get involved in growing.

“Our forage team at AgResearch has well-established expertise through plant breeding programmes. We were able to take the banana plant tissue and start growing it in an incubator, and from one stem you can generate plants that can, in turn, grow to thousands of plants,” Dr Mullaney says.

“We’ve also been able to train people from Tai Pukenga Gisborne and from Northland how to grow the tissue cultures themselves.”

Tissue culture plants have been sent to places like Papakura, Gisborne, Wairoa, Mahia, Manawatu, Northland and even Nelson for growing trials. Aside from the opportunities to share with whānau or sell the bananas locally, Dr Mullaney says there are also opportunities to supply the domestic market with different varieties of banana that are chemical-free because they are not imported.

Dr Mullaney, who is affiliated with and works alongside the Riddet Institute and is an associate investigator with the High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge, says there is also scope to consider investigations into whether New Zealand bananas could provide any other health benefits beyond their nutritional value.


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