New Zealand's export markets might suffer if our industries don't branch out into high-end, plant-based foods, a leading scientist says.
A fast-growing global "clean food" industry has already turned out new items like meat made from plant-protein, chicken and beef grown from self-producing cells, and chicken made from pea protein.
It wasn't just "mock-meat" like the much-debated Impossible Burger on the menu, but a wider generation of foods that could combine the nutritional power of plant proteins with the meat and dairy products we eat today.
Plant and Food Research's science general manager Dr Jocelyn Eason, who is speaking at a major conference in Auckland today, described them as "the hero" of tomorrow's dinner plates.
"We envision these future food products to be 100 per cent plant-based, nutritious, sustainable and entirely made in New Zealand," she said.
"Although there are a number of challenges including flavour and texture, allergens, anti-nutritional factors, plant-based foods can deliver good nutrition.
"Our challenge is in how we might develop new raw material streams from plants in such a way that we don't strip out all of the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, some of which are not available from other food sources."
The future she envisaged wouldn't come without a "mind-set change" in how the country produced food - along with a mass shift in land use and new investment and infrastructure.
"There may be a time lag to the introduction and use of novel foods, ingredients and technologies as extra work is needed to prove they are safe," she said.
"The commercialisation process of some future foods may be slow if they are perceived to be 'novel' in our export markets.
"It will take a bit more planning, design and time to achieve commercialisation."
It was here that she saw a big role for Kiwi science. That included developing new ingredients isolated from plants which could be incorporated into foods, along with new processes that could isolate plant proteins while boosting nutritional value.
Innovation was needed to form food protein structures, ensure they had an acceptable taste and texture, and deliver the finished product itself.
But recent advances in technology had allowed scientists to pin-point potential ingredients and quantify their make-up.
This opened the door to scaling up these processes so they could be used in production.
Further, Eason said they wouldn't need to involve introducing or even editing any genetic material, which remained heavily regulated by current New Zealand laws.
On the environmental front, with lower water and nitrogen use, plant production could help New Zealand reach its aspiration to become carbon neutral by 2050.
"As rough estimate, New Zealand has more than 1,737,000ha of land suitable for growing plant protein crops," she said.
"Consumers are also becoming more aware of the sustainability limit for animal foods and considering the social impact of food production."
This was helping making plant-based foods more acceptable and economically viable.
Failing to offer products that catered to "flexitarian" diets and had a greener focus might cause our export markets to decline, Eason warned.
"The opportunity is for New Zealand to take experiences from producing premium meats, dairy and fruits and harness them for a range of premium plant-based foods – foods that are healthy, taste, feel and smell good too.
"There are many challenges to develop these premium plant-based foods, but New Zealand is small, agile and innovative enough to do it."
That said, she didn't see the country assuming a role of feeding the world.
"We can not and should not compete on price against other countries that produce much bigger volumes at lower costs," she said.
"We should, however, take advantage of our reputation for being a trusted food source to develop sustainable, premium future foods for discerning customers in export markets without wrecking our environment on the way."
Today's conference follows a major paper in international journal Science that found a shift from high meat to more plant-based diets could reduce global mortality rates by 6-10 per cent, while cutting global emissions and easing pressure on natural resources.