New Zealand is looking down the barrel of a global food revolution, a tsunami-sized amount of disruption, where consumers are demanding "clean food" looking for alternatives from meat and dairy, and there is uncertainty if the country is quite ready to meet this need or is positioned to capitalise on it.
As this global food revolution hurtles our way, and the world population looks set to rise to 9.5 billion by 2050, are our big agriculture industries, our traditional food sources from dairy and meat, really moving fast enough?
Critics say incremental changes in our dairy and meat industries are not going to cut it when internationally plant-based meat alternatives are competing with meat producers, foods are being made through fermentation and no traditional foods are safe.
"What I don't think we understand in New Zealand is the speed of change, and the level of resources going into some of these technologies," says Dean Tilyard, a leader at the agtech Sprout Accelerator in Palmerston North.
"These will be available to you in the near future, it's not science fiction, it's serious. People are putting serious resources focused on disrupting some of the key ways that we make a living in the world," he says.
Tilyard argues there is a need for urgency in our understanding and engagement, and New Zealand needs to move its innovation faster.
"You've got to realise the world is changing faster. People are saying there won't be beef or lamb or dairy — it's all getting made in fermenters. What would happen if that were true?
Innovation always happens faster than you expect. Think about how fast smart phones have become a fixture.
For New Zealand, it will be about playing to our strengths, says Tilyard. And leveraging them through tech.
"We are really fortunate with our science base, with food tech, animal health environment – what I'm interested in is allowing those coming from that science platform to make it to market and enable entrepreneurs to take it on to the world.
"Start-ups are a valuable way of getting tech to market, we can do so much more by opening up science institutes to encourage and measure this — at the moment we are not measuring spinouts from our science system," he says.
There are very good long-term science programmes, you see that in forest tech and in animal genetics, we are world leaders, there is that IP that entrepreneurs can pick up, he says.
In agriculture's production systems, farm management systems, there is not a lack of willingness, but there needs to be an oiling of the wheels to bring urgency to innovation, says the agtech expert.
According to Tilyard, while New Zealand has good food production capability, is well resourced with very good science and institutions, the country's science and tech is not being commercialised, and taken to companies which will grow and internationalise.
Tilyard also heads up Silicon Valley company, Finistere Ventures' New Zealand Palmerston North office. Finistere co-founder, New Zealander Arama Kukutai, says New Zealand has to make the most of what it is doing with its resources. And he says, the country is playing catch up.
"New Zealand represents 0.3 per cent of the world's agricultural GDP — our tech is the chance of being much more impactful than what we produce with livestock," he says. "I am a huge believer in Kiwi ingenuity, we just have to lose the naivety."
He doesn't think anyone has a silver bullet. New Zealand just has to be adaptable and nimble in a world that is changing much faster than ever.
"We need that scientific fuel to come back — it's why we are investing in New Zealand, we see a lot of opportunities that need smart capital," says Kukutai, who is based in San Diego.
He is heartened by Fonterra's latest strategy and openness to innovation, particularly in looking to start-ups both locally and globally as a means to bring innovation through. "Innovation is coming from the start-ups who are the disruptors," says Tilyard.
What New Zealand and Fonterra should be doing is producing high-quality ingredients, around which clinically-supportable claims can be made, says Kukutai.
"If New Zealand continues to do nothing when starting from behind, it's incredibly risky and catastrophic," he says.
The world's top 20 food companies are all losing market share, says Kukutai, because the needs of millennials, boomers and Generation X are changing. "I know I'm not buying the same thing in my grocery basket that I was 20 years ago."
In New Zealand, innovative agritech start-ups like Halter, Robotics Plus and BioLumic are the trailblazers, says Tilyard. "What we have to do is look at these exemplars and have others follow in their footsteps, let's look at what is good and replicate it."
Collaboration among science institutes, the Government, universities will be key to New Zealand's future, he says. And Palmerston North will be the hub of agriscience innovations.
Plant-based food products likely to expand
Massey University Professor Richard Archer from the school of Food and Advanced Technology is doing research on supporting farms in producing sheep's milk with a quick freezer. Sheep's milk is higher in protein and fat than cow's milk and makes very good cheese. He is also doing work on turning apple pomace — the cell wall material after apple juicing — into good dietary fibre, an ingredient product that can be used for bakery products, for instance.
Professor Archer sees plant protein meat alternatives or meat analogues, currently selling to vegetarians, working its way into broader consumption. It will be made available in institutions, from prisons, to hospitals and the military, he predicts.
He says sometimes the consumer doesn't understand what they are saying yes and no to. "Consumers may be against processing, but I think food processing is saving the world now. There may be processed food in the supermarket which is rubbish but there are also a lot of frozen foods where the nutrition is really good and enables the shifting of nutrients from times and places of plenty to scarcity."
Components New Zealand can add He likes the idea of New Zealand coming up with ingredients which add something to a product that may be being made overseas.
"If we came along with an ingredient that did the business, if they put 1 per cent of our ingredient in, they have saved the money and we can clip the ticket of going overseas," he says. The dairy industry has done this in the past, adding whey proteins to food like ham to add body and succulence.
The New Zealand food industry will have to stay smart on fads and trends. Some things are just not built to last, he says.
Likely future foods
Dr David Everett, Science Team Leader Food Nutrition & Health at AgResearch as well as principal investigator of AgResearch's Future Foods programme — says the drivers of future food will be consumer values, processing capability and sustainability. The consumer wants safe, sustainably produced food that addresses animal welfare issues, he says.
"We don't want to mess up the environment when producing, processing and eating our food."
With New Zealand producing ten times the food we consume - enough to feed an extra 45 million people - the programme is asking the question: What can we do, what clever ideas can we have in order to feed 45 million people? What can we do to add value to food in a sustainable fashion to grow our export economy?
Consumers driving the food revolution/debate tend to be middle class, the younger millennial generation, and the expanding middle class from around the world. They are demanding that we incorporate these important values into our food production and processing systems.
And, he warns, today's high value food is tomorrow's commodity product. "We have to stay one step ahead of the game, continuing to provide the value proposition, that's the difficult part."
Cellular agriculture growing trend
Dr Everett sees cellular agriculture being a big trend — taking bacteria and yeast, with some genetic modification, to enable them to produce, for instance, milk proteins.
"Companies in California are jumping on this," he says. But it can make for very expensive ice cream at this early stage of introducing a new technology. Especially those consumers who no longer want animal-based products.
Their argument is that this technology is more sustainable than producing milk from dairy cows, however the comparative environmental footprint is often difficult to precisely calculate, says Dr Everett.
Plant-based meat substitutes have been available on the market for many years.
The next technological leap is genetic engineering of microbial cells to produce non-animal components of meat. Companies such as Impossible Foods are currently doing this in the United States with their Impossible Burger using modified yeast to produce the heme molecule that gives meat its red colour.
The other driver is the pushback from consumers on animal-based products. People want things more aligned to value systems, such as being plant-based and with a focus on animal welfare and protection of our environment. Pea protein is this year's hot ingredient.
"The problem with pea proteins is they taste like peas," says Dr Everett.
Meanwhile certain "hot foods" are losing their popularity. Soy is on the decline and almond-based beverages have calcium added to make it more closely resemble the nutrition of milk.
This introduces a further processing step and consumers have an increasing preference for minimal processing of food. Cashew- and oat-based beverages, and goat and donkey milk exist as cow milk alternatives.
Fermentation is an area New Zealand could become better at to stay competitive.
The oldest people in the world live in places such as Japan and the Caucasus region of Asia, and they frequently consume yoghurt containing probiotics. Fermentation is used in the production of beer, wine, bread and it's also very big in Asia in the form of fermented cabbage, such as kimchi in Korea. "New Zealand has a great ability bring in and adapt ideas from other countries. I think fermented food products are going to be increasingly important in the future," says Dr Everett.
Innovation from Beef + Lamb NZ
At centre stage of what's next for the meat producing industry, Beef + Lamb NZ chief insights officer Jeremy Baker says with emissions down from 1990 by 30 percent, while maintaining production, there is still a lot of work to be done.
The organisation has identified a strain of sheep genetics that reduced emissions and published information on that last week.
Injecting animals with vaccine as an inhibitor to reduce methane and bacteria in the gut — there is growth in all of these areas, says Beef + Lamb innovation marketing manger Lee-Ann Marsh.
"There is an allure around disruption and new things. The younger generation don't want the stuff their grandparents had," says Marsh.
New Zealand is seen to be a natural competitor over plant-based proteins, she says.
"But the industry has been thinking about this for a long time, it's not new. We are not just waking up to this now."
Alternative protein companies can be very savvy and deliver a compelling narrative that if you eat alternative meat it's better for the environment. But Beef + Lamb NZ also has a very strong narrative, says Marsh.
Beef + Lamb NZ has been getting the story out about New Zealand's natural and sustainable story in its Taste for Nature global origin branding in which it is explained how we farm in New Zealand, what it looks like and why New Zealand is different. "We are in a great space, we have to be as savvy as these other groups, in how we connect emotionally with people," she says.
New Zealand has to be the most sustainable agricultural country in the world, and it has to be leading, says Marsh.
"Free range is a huge part of what we are selling as opposed to meat," she says.
One thing Beef + Lamb NZ has been working on is the fact that grain fed beef has been perceived as more of a premium item in overseas markets but grass fed, the New Zealand preference, is on the rise going from $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016.
"Consumers are deciding more what premium means to them and it means different things to different people," says Marsh.
Beef + Lamb farmers are not trying to sell meat to everyone but to conscious foodies, who want to know how their meat is raised. "It is the start of de-commoditising meat which is good for New Zealand," says Marsh.
Says Baker: "It's a 'false dichotomy' that if you like meat you are not interested in vegetables. Anybody who eats meat has plant on their plate.
So much plant-based food is processed. It is about the framing of it, he says.
DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle is well aware of the steps of improvement New Zealand needs to take although DairyNZ maintains that the world could benefit from the country's dairy farming expertise.
The organisation says if all dairy producers were as efficient as New Zealand, more than half of the global emissions from dairy production could be eliminated.
New Zealand dairy is 64 percent more emissions-efficient than the global average, meanwhile soy beverage production can have double the green house gas footprint of New Zealand milk per unit of nutrition and rice beverage, 10 times.
Mackle is excited to see what comes out of the work by the Cawthron Institute with methane-reducing native seaweed, Asparagopsis armata which, has been proven to reduce methane emissions in cattle. "We have got to keep pushing hard for game breakers just like any sport," he says.
Mackle points out that there are some practical problems with giving additives in feed when your animals are roaming the farm — it's much easier to give an animal locked up in a barn. "We have to have our own technologies," he says. And New Zealand will likely work closely with Ireland which has largely pasture fed animals too.
Meanwhile Dairy Action for Climate Change, a commitment by DairyNZ to build the foundation to support dairy farmers and the wider industry to address on-farm methane and nitrous emissions over the longer term, has been a toe in the water' and useful.
"We also want to socialise the whole issue with farmers and play a key role in this," he says.
There are now 15 climate change ambassador farmers talking about issues to other farmers.
Riparian planting to help farmers is one of the key things, he says, where planting acts like a sieve between the land and a river or stream.
Having strong advocates
As with meat, with dairy it's about messaging.
The dogma out there is that people make the assumption that plant is better. It's not the case. If you compare the amount of carbon emitted, dairy milk "kicks butt".
Fermentation-produced proteins, using cells, also have substantially higher footprints, up to 50 times higher, DairyNZ says.
You need people arguing on your behalf. Scientists and academics who independently come forward and speak up on the dairy industry's behalf.
Mackle admits DairyNZ has got to be open to all options — sheep and goat's milk are growing in popularity.
"I think there's a place for everything as long as we continue to get better, farm better and the animals we look after will have a very bright future," he says.
Collaboration will be key. The Dairy Tomorrow strategy has been linking up more with livestock, beef and dairy industries which are inextricably linked. Announcements will be coming up in early December around these relationships and branding, Mackle says.