Could New Zealand’s food future include oat milk and cow’s milk sourced from the same land?
It’s an intriguing question that’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.
We’re all familiar with the push towards more sustainable land use and the threat of climate change. What’s very recently been highlighted is the fact that we never know what other challenges might be around the corner. Post-Covid-19 lockdown, New Zealanders are now thinking and talking about food security. They’re also actively seeking locally grown and made foods.
Farmers are used to dealing with the external forces of the natural environment. But the pace of changing demand and other external forces is speeding up. And while this is challenging, it also throws up opportunities.
Exploring some of these has been the focus of one project under the Next Generation Systems programme of the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge.
The Specialty Grains and Pulses Report saw researchers take a dive into the opportunities presented by new and different plant crops in the grain and pulses families.
Many Kiwis might not realise that crops like soy, chickpeas and quinoa can be grown here. But not only can they be grown, these and other speciality crops have some real potential as both raw ingredients and higher-value food ingredients and products. And they represent opportunities for farmers to create more value and diversity from their land.
The research team identified six crops with high potential for New Zealand farmers: soy, hemp, chickpeas, oats, buckwheat and quinoa
What can we grow – and who wants it?
The researchers, led by Susan Goodfellow at Leftfield Innovation, started by taking a step back from traditional thinking about what we should be growing.
“In the past we’ve often just gone straight into thinking about what we can grow,” Goodfellow says. “But we don’t always ask: do people want it?”
The researchers gathered information on a wide range of grain and pulse crops and then applied six ‘filters’ to assess them. They started with consumer insights; getting a sense of where the demand actually is. This ranged from food manufacturers who value local ingredients as part of their own brand stories, to a growing group of conscious consumers, who are prepared to pay more for foods that are sustainably grown in New Zealand.
The researchers then looked at the grains and pulses we import now, and asked: Is there an opportunity to replace these with NZ-grown alternatives?
Third, they looked at the risks to both biosecurity and food safety posed by importing these grains and pulses.
The fourth filter was to understand the existing processing capability and potential for adding value. And filters five and six looked at the existing knowledge of how to grow the crops and their environmental impact.
The researchers report that using these filters has highlighted that in most cases, the challenge is not ‘Can we grow these crops?’.
Rather, the challenge is in understanding deeply how to fit all the pieces of the value chain together. The report notes:
“The challenge to enabling either expansion or introduction of some of these grains and pulses lies in understanding consumer demand, and the availability of processing capability to transform the raw materials into desired food products to match that demand.”
Six (potential) star crops
From the long list of 22 possible grains and pulses, the research team narrowed their focus down to six crops they think have the most potential for New Zealand farmers. They are soy, hemp, chickpeas, oats, buckwheat and quinoa.
The researchers have identified a number of key next steps to enabling the next stages of development, spanning 6 months to 3 years.
There is a range of actions depending on the crop, with the common actions including:
- Undertake market insights work to identify further opportunities
- Where substantial work has been done (ie hemp, oats) identify opportunities not already being evaluated by key players, engage, and collaborate to address gaps
- Work with plant breeders to select plant material to supply for key end uses
- Link with key processors and food brands for inclusion in products
- New product development
- Establish New Zealand grower groups in best locations, and long-term supply agreements
- Implement sustainability measures and digital traceability
The six crops are all foods for which there is strong demand from both consumers and manufacturers, as well as existing capability or strong potential for developing them into food products. And they all have minimal environmental impacts, and in some cases environmental benefits.
Susan Goodfellow says the way these crops fit into future farms could be as part of sustainable, mixed farming systems that also include some animals.
“In a way it’s harking back to the old days, where farms had a mix of plants and animals,” she says. “It’s not about plants versus animals. It’s bringing plants into animal-based systems.”
Buckwheat noodles – grown in New Zealand
Since the report was released, Leftfield Innovation has been working on the next steps with several crops. A recent trial growing buckwheat on a number of farms in Canterbury for an exacting Japanese customer making buckwheat noodles proved a success. Trials with GE-free soybeans to identify the best lines for NZ conditions are ongoing, as are trials and attribute testing of chickpeas.
The goal will be to expand these among the Leftfield grower group, on the way to an ultimate vision of 100,000 hectares of sustainable land use opportunities all over the country.
Whatever grains and legumes we do embark on growing – and the report highlights a deeper dive into consumer demand, in particular, is needed to understand the opportunities more – we need to be thinking both local and international. Goodfellow points out we will always have scale issues in New Zealand if we’re only looking at the local market.
What’s needed now, as concluded in the report, is more in-depth research to inform what should be done next and help realise the potentially huge opportunities on the ground for these healthful and versatile food crops.