Food for thought - What will we be eating next century?

  • John Luxton
Food, Fibre, Biosecurity and Border Control

Ladies and gentlemen, it is indeed a pleasure to be invited to fill in for my colleague, the Hon Simon Upton, to open your Annual Convention.

As a member of NZIAS for over 30 years I have long recognised the importance of the professions involved in agriculture, horticulture and food sciences in general.

We are supposed to be mulling over what we'll be having for lunch next century. Your guess is as good as mine, but I'm fairly certain that human ingenuity will ensure that it tastes good.

New Zealand still largely depends on our agricultural base with food and fibre products providing over 75% of our country's exports. Food, like most other products in today's society, is increasingly affected by the globalisation of markets and the inability of governments to any longer exercise direct control over the flow of capital, people with skills, and technology across national borders.

With the increasing impact of new technology, you can look at these things pessimistically as many do when faced with change. Processing factories close, farms get bigger, younger generations don't want to be involved in producing food, rural communities experience an urban drift.

Or, you can look at it in an optimistic way - of New Zealand providing the highest quality foodstuffs to world markets and responding in the same way we do with products in any other market. With innovation, speed and ever improving quality.

Some are overly pessimistic about the trade barriers exporters of our foodstuffs face.

I have just come from the last day of the APEC Trade Ministers meeting which has focused on trying to gradually open up and liberalise the barriers to trade.

Unfortunately for much of the food industry, this process started 50 years after trade barriers began reducing under the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade at the end of the second World War.

At that stage food was excluded from the processes of GATT because of the legacy of a war which left many people wanting to ensure that their countries were always self sufficient in food production.

But Uruguay in 1990 and the new WTO round beginning this year have agriculture very firmly on the agenda, and for good reason.

So where to for our food industry in the future?

Taste, cost and wholesomeness seem to me to be the primary concerns for the average New Zealander when it comes to food. In politics, however, talk of food leads inevitably to the hoary chestnut of genetically modified food.

Just when we see new technologies appearing over the horizon that can over time improve food quality and nutrition and further lower costs of production, we find ourselves enveloped in a debate on issues of food safety, property rights and big business.

You would think from some of the statements from certain politicians and media commentators that we've just stumbled on to the issue. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. New Zealand enjoys some of the world's most up to date legislation in this area.

Part of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act relating to new organisms is concerned with genetic modification. Parliament examined the risks for the thick end of two years in a Select Committee, while the whole HaSNO legislative programme involved widespread consultation that took over seven years in total.

I believe that New Zealand is extraordinarily well served by having in place a law that provides for the careful and transparent consideration of genetic modifications before the resulting organisms can be either tried out or released into the environment.

Those who claimed, as recently as a few months ago, that this sort of scrutiny was excessively costly might like to consider how robust their arguments against a wholesale moratorium would have been in the absence of this legislation. To be blunt; if we didn't have ERMA, the Environmental Risk Management Authority, there's a good chance New Zealand's scientists would have been facing an extending moratorium. A moratorium as proposed by the Alliance would have imperilled the future of New Zealand's key rural economy.

We badly need a debate on genetic modification, but it should be properly informed; and both sides must have a fair chance to be heard.

To date the debate has been fairly one sided. The claims of the alarmists have been given unquestioned credibility. They have been allowed to unsettle many with over-the-top claims that have little or no scientific basis. Hearing these claims, many New Zealanders have become uncomfortable.

We must move through this debate on the basis of good science and look to the opportunities that are afforded by safer foods free from chemical residues or allergenic properties instead of looking only at the negatives as some in the Alliance party would have us believe.

The thought that we are "tinkering with nature" seems innately wrong. And put in that simplistic way, we would all rather not be involved.

But what does "tinkering with nature" mean? The foods we eat today are the product of years of selection for yield, flavour, disease resistance, growth efficiency, and so on. Crops are sprayed for weeds, diseases and pests, animals are drenched, dipped and injected for worms, diseases and the rest.

The delicious varieties of apples that we enjoy today, for example, were unheard of a few years ago. They are the product of the laboratory and selective breeding. In short, "tinkering with nature".

The application of technology to animal husbandry and horticulture has given huge increases in production and much improved, often healthier food. It has saved much labour and made food products available to people at affordable prices. In a similar way, the application of technology to medicine has seen countless lives saved that would have been lost.

The Government is very concerned about ensuring food safety in today's environment. Given the problems of BSE in the United Kingdom, dioxin scares in Belgium and microbiological food poisoning outbreaks in the United States, it is important that we have a robust food safety regime which this country already has.

Tomorrow's foods are going to continue to change. Innovation is going to speed up and the new developments in the food industry offer some really exciting opportunities.

So innovation is critical. Getting those new ideas into a marketable product is fundamental. Speed is fundamental in being able to compete internationally in the fast moving consumer driven food area. Quality is paramount and it's an area that Government has to audit and monitor.

Increasingly we are able to break down existing foods and rebuild foodstuffs focusing on a variety of new concepts that the consumer now focuses on in their purchase of food. Flavour, functionality, nutrition, fashion, all play a part in today's consumer demands.

A lot more is being driven by research and development in our food processing and in our farm production systems.

A recent innovation is our ability to fractionate the components of the foods we eat and identify their functions. For example beta glucan in barley.

Beta glucans can reduce the level of cholesterol and also replace fat in our diet. The addition of beta glucan to our diets either as a supplement, in the cereal we eat at breakfast, or as a food additive has the ability to reduce heart disease.

Crop and Food Research estimate that the economic return from beta glucans will exceed the economic value of the other current uses of barley.

Just last week I read of Amagi Bioculture in Christchurch and their innovative work with wasabi for the Japanese and wider food market by extracting wasabi oil and measuring and standardising its hotness. Well done I say, this is a food for tomorrow.

Some of the milk extracts in the lipid and specialist protein areas sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars per kilo in the wealthy markets of the world - and incidentally attract absolutely no tariff barriers - because they provide specialist functions that can be reintroduced into new food products that not only enhance nutrition and flavour, but also have pharmaceutical and medicinal properties.

Work has been going on in all of these areas with existing sciences increasingly refined. Now with the ability of new biotechnologies including genetic engineering, this process can be further refined and sped up.

Of course it is important to ensure consumer confidence in the safety of the end product. But I don't hear too many complaints that diabetes sufferers in New Zealand now have access to insulin produced by genetically engineered bacteria to enhance and improve their lifestyle.

Likewise the ongoing work both in animal and plant breeding is likely to see the further bringing together of medicine and food in the future.

In the nutriceutical area again highly specialised foodstuffs are increasingly being used by high performance athletes - high energy, rapid response, rapid recovery. I understand that Peter Hillary's team in their expedition to the South Pole last year found a third of their daily energy requirements in a small high energy bar provided by dairy industry technologists at Kiwi Co-operative Dairies Ltd.

If we look at our supermarket shelves we see continual change in products on a weekly basis. Take Hubbards, the impact in the cereal world shows that the market continues to change and evolve on the basis of consumer taste and demand. Hubbard cereals now sell nearly 500,000 New Zealand breakfasts a day from a standing start in the last 10 years.

Another fundamental change in what we will be eating next century is the increasing amount of eating out - fast foods, restaurants, cafe culture. For some of us the main form of meal today seems to be those plastic airline meals!

In summary, the food products that we will be eating into the next century will be fast, they will be functional, they will be fashion driven and they will be pharmaceutical and they will change. Eating out, while always popular, will continue to grow as an area of employment and leisure in our economy.

Food can be fun, social and convenient - Cheeztoyz from the Dairy Industry shows another angle to this.

So back to our producers. Where is their future?

We will still have bulk commodity producers producing cheaper and cheaper bulk. But we will have greater variety and more speciality products. Wine and wasabi, salmon and salami, olives and oysters.

Obviously those who create the opportunities, who get involved with change, who recognise the consumers' wants, will have a very good future. But some will not adapt and find life difficult and some will shift on to other industries.

One of our New Zealand companies at present has contracts in the fishing industry to provide an extract that improves brainpower.

Research shows brain development in children increases with this particular product. Folate and Folic acid in the Vitamin B range are thought to reduce the onset of Alzheimer's Disease and so you start to see the sorts of food for thought not only in the theme of this conference, but literally out there in the market place today.

I see a renaissance occurring in the agricultural and horticultural sector. Add to it changes in marketing as we refocus producer boards by removing current investment and marketing constraints, and there is an exciting fast changing future for the New Zealand food industry. Supplying world markets with the best and brightest, fastest and most flavoursome, greenest and cleanest, most fashionable and functional foods.

It is with much pleasure that I now declare your conference open and hope that it leaves you much Food For Thought.