TechWeek17

What will we eat in the future? And how will we grow it?

Jonathan Cotton goes to Techweek’17’s Future of Food event in Christchurch to find out how New Zealand can innovate our way to a bigger slice of the $1 trillion global food market. 

It’s the brutal hour of 7:30 in the morning and I’m at the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce on Kilmore Street for The Future of Food, a Techweek’17 event presented by Kea & SingularityU Christchurch Chapter.

So just what is the future food? That’s something our panel Jade Temepara, Andrew Priest and Lauder Erasmus, will have eight to ten minutes each to answer. Good luck

Kaila Colbin, Lauder Erasmus, Jade Temepara and Andrew Priest

The first to address the bleary-eyed crowd is Lauder Erasmus, partner at KPMG. Erasmus says that the way we think about food is part of a continuum, an “evolving, food-based journey” that’s taken us from “survival-based thinking” to “silo-based thinking”.

While there are several big global players when it comes to food production, no single disrupter has the market cornered. Of the 183 unicorn businesses (startups valued at over $1 billion) worldwide, only two are food-based (one being British multinational brewery and pub chain, BrewDog Beer). “The global food industry is huge,” says Erasmus, “and that’s New Zealand’s opportunity.”

He’s right, of course – it’s a trillion dollar market. New Zealand’s dilemma, however, is that it’s only exporting a paltry $37 billion in food exports. So how do we capture a bigger slice of the global food pie?

Two ways, says Erasmus. Firstly we can find ways to better commercialise innovation and we can better support enterprise to prevent it from failing. It seems like he’s approaching a great point about nurturing innovative thinking and supporting the effective scaling of proven products, but with only eight minutes to talk the speakers have to keep it brief and he’s sadly out of time.

Kākano Café and Cookery School. Photo: kakanocafe.co.nz

Next up is Jade Temepara, founder of Kākano Café and Cookery School. For Temepara, it’s all about origins. “I come from a rich history of hunter gatherers,” she says. “The goal for me and for normal everyday people to understand the resources and processes that go into the food we eat.”

Temepara says we should do more to be cognizant of the connection between food and the community, the farmer and the consumer, the food we eat and the realities of its production. “These are not the kind of questions you can get the answers to out of a book,” she says. “These things have to be learned hands-on”.

To that end, Temepara says that community engagement in food production – across the spectrum – has to occur. “My challenge to you is to ask yourself: What part of the process are you most interested in? How can you get the community engaged in that? How can we get this exchange of knowledge happening? How are we going to disrupt learning? Education? Environmental impact?

“These are the questions we have to ask and we have to take the community with us, because, ultimately, the community has to have a say”.

Temepara says the future offers both challenges and opportunities to the consumer, parent and community leader alike. “How do we take where we know we’re going – you know, towards pretend meat growing in a petri dish – and be a leading voice in that?

“We’re in an amazing position in Christchurch because we have to rebuild these systems from the ground up. We have an opportunity to be the best producers in the world, but we have to look after the community as well. We have to keep talking.”

The final speaker of the morning is Andrew Priest, Chief Executive of Ngāi Tahu Farming. “Even if you’re not a farmer, you know New Zealand’s position – sustainability,” he says. “And you also know that New Zealand’s water isn’t clean enough.”

Priest then pulls off the seemingly impossible: A description of irrigation technology in Canterbury that doesn’t send his early morning audience to sleep. Long story short, the different methods of water farmland are not created equal; ‘Border Dyke’ methods (ie flooding the area) are the worst, and something called ‘Center Pivot VRI Soil Mapping Integrated Management’ is, quite obviously, better.

New Zealand farmers using the latter rather than the former would achieve a 250-billion-litre water saving. But it’s not really about water. It’s about the nutrient loss the soil suffers when subjected to that volume of water. That’s what’s unsustainable. “If we don’t do this,” Priest says, “our positioning around sustainability becomes paper thin.”

The good news is it makes economic sense to make a switch too. “These technologies have a very fast payback,” he says. “If you just take the operational savings into account it’s a seven-to-nine year payback. If you take water savings into account too, it’s got a one-year payback. We’ve just got to get our game plan better on the ground.”

With the speakers finished we move into a quickfire Q&A session, with highlights below:

What are your thoughts on lab-grown meat?

Temepara: It challenges my ethical and moral … everything. It’s exciting where we’re heading, but it’s challenging to me as a Kiwi”.

Why are farmers so slow to adopt more efficient irrigation methods?

Priest: “Water is underpriced in New Zealand. There’s no ‘carrot and stick’ going on. It’s just too easy to turn on your pivot.”

Is a crop really sustainable if we have to add so much water to make it grow? Adding that water is removing high tonnages of nitrates from the soil and dumping it into rivers, poisoning them. Isn’t the future of food simply a crop that grows more easily in this environment?

And that’s the question which hangs in the air.


Techweek’17: a week of events bringing together New Zealand’s brightest technology and innovation talent to tackle global issues with local ingenuity. May 6-14, Nationwide. techweek.co.nz

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