New Zealand's future food for thought

Dr Jocelyn Eason, General Manager of Science and Food Innovation at Plant & Food Research, believes the future is green. And probably crunchy. But most definitely packed with nutrients.

Dr. Jocelyn Eason
Eason, who manages 140 scientists in the Food Innovation Portfolio at Plant & Food Research, believes the future of food lies in plants - and that New Zealand has both the scientific capability and growing expertise to be globally competitive in a plant-based food market. That means optimising plant genetics, developing future growing systems and capturing an eco-premium for new food products.

“The goal for us is to add value at each step of our food value chain. What does the market want?” That, she says, means looking at the consumption of the consumers of the future: Teenagers (GenZ).

“The biggest trend we’re seeing is the connection between climate change, sustainability, animal welfare and food. Those generations also want to embrace tech, but you still have to be sustainable. They are demanding healthy food produced in a sustainable manner for future generations.”

Plant & Food Research’s current crop of research reflects the trends: superior-tasting apples and pears that can thrive in the planet’s increasingly warm climate. Mushrooms packaged in waste-free, mushroom-based packaging. Apples produced in orchards suitable for robotics to manage future labour shortages and manage quality and by-product streams. Potatoes packed with flavour that don’t need added salt and butter to enjoy.

For Eason’s group, it means further research into active components - nutrients, fibre, gut microbiomes - and health benefits. 

Take kiwifruit as a golden example. New research shows that adding gold kiwifruit to your diet may lead to less suffering from symptoms of common illnesses such as colds. Plant & Food Research has also found that consumption of kiwifruit may significantly slow the uptake of sugars into the bloodstream – helping people to manage their diabetes.
 
“And we’ve started work proving they are good for digestion. Most people who eat kiwifruit… how do I put this...experience the digestive benefits,” she laughs, “we are putting the science behind that.

“We have a contract with the Ministry of Health that helps us maintain data on the composition of New Zealand foods,” she adds. “We’re looking at the impact of food on physical performance, sleep, immunity and cognition. We breed the plants, but can we harvest them and bring them to market without losing those health impacts?”

It’s a question close to Eason’s heart. Her Botany degree at the University of Otago was followed by a PhD in Plant Physiology at Otago, before an MBA at Massey University. “I got interested in plant physiology and genetic programming of plant cell death. When you harvest vegetables they maintain life as long as possible. So I was looking at the genetic and biochemical changes that occur after harvest to try to delay death and extend shelf life.

“I joined Crop & Food Research in 1993, which became Plant & Food Research - so essentially I have been here 26 years.”

While much food tech work currently revolves around replacing animal-derived protein with plant-based protein, Eason sees New Zealand has a role to play in the introduction of premium, genuine plant foods.

“New Zealand is a small country, and we are really flexible. The primary producers are highly innovative so the opportunities for F&B are quite large. We can do something on a small scale and test it out.

“We’re doing quite a bit of work on plant proteins and how we can produce them to meet our consumer expectations. That includes work on fermentation and developing flavours of final finished products. 

“There is cool stuff happening in 3D printing at Plant & Food Research’s Lincoln site around edible biomaterials.  They’re looking at plant polymers and how you can produce printable food products, while still incorporating texture and nutrition. Then, how do you scale that up?”

Eason is quick to admit she is a scientist, not a foodie, but admits a ‘best of both worlds’ aspect is where New Zealand holds an advantage.

“In New Zealand we are close enough to primary production to know where food comes from. I grew up on a small farm in Southland. We milked cows and had pigs and sheep and goats. Because that’s my background I do ask different questions about food. How did you grow this? Is it sustainable? What's the impact? The waste stream? That knowledge leans over the farm gate and goes all the way to market.”

Given all the natural benefits that make New Zealand a producer of premium fruit and vegetables - fertile land, temperate climate, space to grow -  Eason believes the country’s science is often underrated. Asked if New Zealand is considered at the leading edge of food technology, Eason demurs: “Leaders? Ha, no we're just quietly getting on with it. New Zealand’s brand is clean and green - and we have that - but we are high tech as well. However, when our people are overseas they have a queue out the door of people wanting to speak to them for their expertise.”

The industry’s success, however, speaks for itself. New Zealand exports 90% of its primary produce. Forty million people consume New Zealand food. The food industry is supported by four Crown Research Institutes and government-funded Centres of Research Excellence. Six of New Zealand’s eight universities now offer courses in food science. The food and beverage sector benefits from more than half a billion dollars a year spent on agrifood research.

A prime showcase opportunity for the sector - and Plant & Food Research’s aspirations - will come when the IUFoST 20th World Congress of Food Science and Technology comes to Auckland in 2020, bringing with it some 2,000 of the world’s leading food scientists.

The conference bid was won by the NZ Institute of Food Science and Technology, with support from Tourism New Zealand’s Conference Assistance Programme. Themed ‘Food for a changing world - safe, secure, sustainable’, Plant & Food Research will be contributing a session on sustainable nutrition.

“It's really important we get those international people into New Zealand for their perspective. They are people we want to learn from, people we want to collaborate with. They will hear our story and take our story overseas,” Eason says. “It is really valuable. There are good opportunities for New Zealand to walk the talk and show we can really be at the forefront of smarter production.”