New Zealand's food industry is already a strong player internationally in the efficient production and processing of animal products and has a reputation for high quality and strict safety standards, says Distinguished Professor Harjinder Singh, director of the Massey Institute of Food Science and Technology.
"We must maintain this competitiveness and further enhance our ability to innovate if we are to capture a larger share of the massive growth in demand," he says.
"Whether it's developing strong brands for specialty cheeses, yoghurts and fermented meats, or creating natural functional foods for the health-conscious middle classes, New Zealand will need to maintain world-class programmes in food research and training, underpinned by investment from government and industry."
Fortunately New Zealand has an excellent research base through its Crown Research Institutes and universities. And, in recent years, a number of cross-institutional and cross-discipline collaboration networks (for example Riddet Institute, Food Safety Science Centre, and the High Value Nutrition National Science Challenge) have brought the nation's scientific resources together to bear on specific food issues.
We asked Massey University's food and agriculture experts to identify the five key trends New Zealand must lead if it's to protect its economic future.
Genetic modification for good
Science and technology will play a key role in solving complex food production challenges, according Professor Singh. "The latest developments in genetic modification and nanotechnology show great promise in increasing plant and animal productivity, with minimal environmental impact," he says.
This area of science has the potential to reduce the need for irrigation and pesticides, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing food safety and improving the nutritional quality of products. It could mean clover that doesn't cause bloat, ryegrass that can survive drought conditions and kiwifruit that doesn't get Psa, says Professor Peter Kemp, head of the Institute of Agriculture and Environment.
"The world is in the middle of a genetic revolution but, when it comes to agriculture, New Zealand is in a time warp created by the 2001 Royal Commission on Genetic Modification," he says. "We make use of molecular genetic techniques to improve our breeding of agricultural plants and animals but we do not use genetically modified plants or animals. Yet other countries do, and we use their products."
Science will have to overcome the hurdle of public opinion before farmers can take advantage of genetically modified crops and consumers are willing to eat them.
Professor Kemp also believes precision agriculture, using GPS (global positioning system), sensor technology and robotics, has the ability to revolutionise the agricultural sector by decreasing both production and environmental costs. Clever weed control and precision fertiliser application systems are a good example, he says.
"Sensors on sprayers can recognise weeds so the use of herbicide is kept to a minimum. Fertiliser applied from a plane can be targeted to pastures that will respond, with poorly responsive areas such as steep slopes or environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands left untouched."
Meanwhile, Massey University's Fenix hyperspectral sensor gives a peek into the future of land monitoring. "It can be used to map whole catchments from a plane to determine the pasture production and feed quality, fertility of the pasture, the pasture species present, tree diseases, slope erosion and other variables," Professor Kemp says.
"In the future this technology will be used to monitor the health and productivity of agricultural and indigenous vegetation over whole river catchments regularly so action can be quickly taken as required."
Food sources you can trust
The city dwellers of the future, particularly in Asia, will continue to demand foods that are rich in animal-derived proteins, characterised by the consumption of fresh meat and milk.
"Animal products are generally seen as nutritious and healthy - particularly dairy - by these consumers, but they are highly susceptible to risk of contamination," says Professor Singh. "Ensuring safety across all aspects of animal production and processing, as well as distribution systems, will become even more critical in the future."
Another key trend, Professor Singh says, is the traceability of products as consumers increasingly pay attention to the origin of their food and whether it is safely and sustainably produced.
Functional foods for personalised nutrition
In developed markets there is a gowing demand for more specialised protein products that are tailored to a person's individual nutritional needs. This trend is reflected in functional foods, where staple foods have health-promoting minerals and nutrients added to them.
"The co-processing of milk and meat protein components with other uniquely New Zealand products - for example manuka honey and kiwifruit - offers a huge opportunity," Professor Singh says. "There is great consumer interest in the health-promoting properties of 'natural' functional foods and their ability to prevent the onset of diseases like diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer."
Back to the future fermentation
Professor Richard Archer, the national leader for a new $16.65 million research project into food processing, says processed foods get bad press, but it wasn't always this way. "Seventy-five years ago it was the opposite," he says. "Only the poor made do with in-season, local food. The rich chose processed for safety and for out-of-season variety.
Today, while modern preservation techniques strive to preserve nutrients while killing bugs, he says, it's the treats section of the supermarket aisle that is one of the food industry's biggest growth areas and "a large part of processed foods' villainy".
Professor Archer says one of the really exciting processing trends is fermentation - it's a traditional method that consumers understand that has many health benefits. Unlike the refining processes of many food staples, fermentation doesn't lead to the loss of fibre, micronutrients and healthful phytochemicals.
"The fermentation process adds vitamins, renders inedible foods digestible, destroys pathogens and adds tang!" he says. "The challenge, then, for food scientists is to develop the processes to produce fermented foods at an industrial scale, while maintaining those features that consumers associate with healthy 'unprocessed foods'."