Thought for food

By Brierley Penn

Brierley Penn looks at efforts to collaborate for innovation in the food sector

Steve Maharey was a former member of Parliament and is currently Vice-Chancellor at Massey University. Photo / NZH
Steve Maharey was a former member of Parliament and is currently Vice-Chancellor at Massey University. Photo / NZH

The Government's target of an increase in the value of New Zealand's food sector exports from $25 billion to $60 billion sets lofty goals for the industry.

The Food Innovation Network, established three years ago to build collaboration between universities, research institutions and private food companies, operates four "food hubs" - in Waikato, Manawatu, Auckland, and more recently, Lincoln.

The genesis lies in New Zealand's need to move up the value chain in terms of food production - in the words of Coriolis Research director, Tim Morris, the need to become a country that can produce "finished goods", as well as "ingredients".

Morris' research found other nations with a food production focus overwhelmingly have systems in process to allow for collaboration in food and innovation.

Though New Zealand's network is relatively young in comparison to some of the hubs operating in other food producing regions around the world, Morris suggests it is on the right track towards developing our country's potential.

"It's gotten off the ground, it's had a good start. Early days it was working out the basics, and getting the equipment all to work and everything else, speaking particularly about the Foodbowl, now we're moving into rolling out of some of the other concepts about marketing advice and business advice."

But we still have a long way to go to reach our global potential.

As Morris points out, although we are often considered to be a tiny nation we have the opportunity to compete against some of the world's most significant players.

"No one knows how big the New Zealand food industry can be, so we're all just speculating," Morris said. "We're actually not a small country, we're the same size as Italy. And no one says: 'That small country, Italy'... Italy produces twice as much food as us, and feeds the 60 million people that live there, give or take. They produce 17 times as much fruit and vegetables as us."

Of course, one of the advantages countries such as Italy have is that they have been engaged in food production for thousands of years.

So, while Italians have been making wine for 3000 years, with grapes that are now perfectly adapted to their climate and soil conditions, the majority of New Zealand's food products are relatively young by international standards.

"In 1960, New Zealand had five dollars worth of wine exports, today we have over a billion.

"If you look at global best practice, think Food Valley in the Netherlands, Innovation Place in Canada, what the Irish Food Board are doing.

"There's a lot more we can learn from those global models and we're a long way from global best practice, but we're heading in the right direction.

Sometimes it's just as simple as pooling together the things that are done by different government agencies and in different places."


Manawatu / Massey

A pilot plant operates out of the Manawatu hub, with Massey University a central player. Currently ranked 21st in the world for food research and development, the university is carving a niche for itself in the sector.

"Massey as a university has positioned itself right through the value chain, from molecule to mouth," says Massey vice-chancellor Steve Maharey "We have a lot of farm work, we're working in marketing, we're working in statistics, food innovation research, we're working in the way all of that links to health... we are strong right through the whole chain of agriculture and food."

Massey is working with research institutions and private food partners to develop the region's food hub, and is confident of the potential for Manawatu to build an international profile. Maharey cites an aspiration to be the largest food hub in the Southern Hemisphere, with a consortium of a university, research institutions and private food companies cohabiting on a single, large campus, but is realistic about the fact that more work needs to be done to realise this vision.

"It's not new to talk about the fact that innovation is needed to drive products up the value chain, we have to be cautious that this idea has been around for a while, and we are still largely a commodity producing nation," he cautioned. "So if we're going to make that step change, one of the things hopefully that will help, and it will be new, is the emergence of world capacity around food innovation, which is currently fragmented."

More specific success stories from the Manawatu hub will be released at the launch of the second stage of the food hub on July 29, and Maharey is confident progress coming out of the network has been positive.

"There is absolutely no question that people understand that this is the way forward, " he says. He suggests a lot of the work coming out of partners in the hub shows promise for the food industry, but continued steps need to be made to integrate the capacity of individual players.

"Each of the organisations has a good rich range of things that they are doing right now, but the question is, how do we bring that capacity together, and our scientists together, to hopefully move into a whole new range of work?"

With more than nine billion mouths to feed by the middle of this century, there is an ever-increasing global demand for food, but also higher quality food to feed a growing affluent population. To get smarter about how our country can fill this demand, growing the strength of our food hubs may be the only real formula to achieve this.

Projects

• The Riddet Institute's research on Omega 3, and ways to integrate it into food without compromising product taste.

• Massey and Riddet's work on protein and the ways it relates to health.

• Fonterra's development of milk-based products.

• Agrifood's work with farmers to ensure products coming out of our agricultural industry are market as well as producer-oriented.


The Foodbowl

The Foodbowl is one of the initiatives run through the Food Innovation Network, operating out of a facility near Auckland airport.

As part of the Auckland food hub, it offers technology and space, which can be leased out by companies engaged in new product development, providing a platform from which those products can be developed, tested, and eventually taken to market.

This provides a growth opportunity for companies who may otherwise be unable to gain access to the necessary technology and resources to bring their product to consumer shelves.

"A lot of the start-ups use us because they have no facilities of their own," said CEO Sarita Males. "We also work with some SMEs who have facilities, but need to scale up to be able to get to that next level, whether that be for domestic, or intentionally for export.

"We've also been working with a number of medium-large companies, who are looking at our new processing technology, something that they wouldn't have within their own companies and they use our cutting edge technology to be able to produce enough commercial samples to substantiate the market, prior to making their own capital investment decisions."

Over the past year, the Foodbowl has been involved with more than 240 companies, with around 70 of those conducting project work at the facility. All have expressed an interest in working with the Foodbowl at some point, depending on what stage of product development they are at.

Males cites the larger focus of the Foodbowl, and the Food Innovation Network generally, as being to facilitate and accelerate product development, particularly for export.

One company now looking at developing a new product for export is using the facility's new technology, their high pressure processing plant, and has reached the stage where they will look to use this for the next one to two years, before making the next large capital investment decision, which would allow them to buy the technology themselves.

The network has a number of success stories; companies that have graduated from the Foodbowl and gone on to work with their own commercial manufacturing contracts.

Culley's Chillis, specialising in the manufacture of chilli sauces is one example of this, having started at local farmers' markets, and now - with the help of the Foodbowl - distributing nationwide, considering export to Australian supermarkets, and having won international awards for their products in the United States.

Hulu Dips Ltd also started product development in the Foodbowl, initially launching in a couple of supermarkets, quickly growing to distributing in 54 supermarkets and having recently been sold to Life Health Foods Ltd.

- NZ Herald

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