Thursday, 08 February 2018 11:55

Challenges and opportunities in the future of food

Written by  Tom Richardson, chief executive of AgResearch
AgResearch chief executive Tom Richardson. AgResearch chief executive Tom Richardson.

The future of food – especially the emergence of ‘synthetic foods’ and what this might mean for New Zealand as a major food producer – has been prominent in media and barbecue conversations this summer.

As a science organisation dedicated to growing the value of NZ’s agri-food sector, AgResearch is highly attuned to both the challenges and opportunities posed by these new technologies. From where we see it, the claims of an impending collapse of NZ’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’ is advancing rapidly. Those advances are dramatically improving the quality of these products and reducing costs. 

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.

However, as most are 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. 

In November, AgResearch signed up to a relationship with South Korea’s largest pharmaceutical company, Yuhan Corporation (which 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. We’ve also seen new investment such as Japanese food company Itoham approved to grow its stake in ANZCO Foods to 100%. 

These investments reflect how favourably NZ’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. 

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. 

As a scientist myself, I find this evidence-rich future exciting.  But it also means that our practices have to be totally consistent with our claims.  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. 

None of us knows exactly how the food revolution will unfold over the next decade or two. However, 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.

• Dr Tom Richardson is chief executive of AgResearch

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