From lab dish to plate

Last updated 14:00 19/12/2012
FUTURE FOOD? A punter at the Wildfoods Festival in Hokitika tries a live huhu grub.

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The world's population is predicted to rise to 9 billion people by 2050, and food security is a key challenge facing the globe. As primary resources deplete, New Zealand researchers are thinking outside the meat square to bring protein to the masses. But will they overcome the ‘yuck factor' to find a market for creepy crawlies and laboratory grown hamburgers? asks Talia Shadwell.


For many Kiwis and the export markets our farmers feed, vegetarianism is not on the menu.

New Zealanders are finding ways to tap into the future food market, challenging consumers and producers alike to think outside the meat square.

One solution might already be hiding under a rock in our own backyards. Many a Kiwi venturing abroad will at some point stomach some strange titbits. Trying spiders in Southeast Asia or sampling escargot (snails) in France is all part of the gastronomic travel package, if only to say you did it.

However, Dr Corrina Tucker, of Massey University, wants to know whether ordinary Kiwis will put creepy crawlies on the dinner table at home.

Tucker asked focus groups around New Zealand to think about alternative sources of protein to meat.

She found that although research participants were aware of their "carbon footprint", even concerned about "food miles" or how far their lunch has travelled from production to plate, few would let that stand between them and a rasher of crisp bacon.

Fish and chips, barbecues, and Sunday roasts - Tucker believes meat is embedded in New Zealanders' cultural identity, a cultural trend that has far-reaching environmental and economic implications.

"We are an agricultural-focused country which can afford to eat meat," she explains. "Things are changing so quickly. We need to understand the drivers and dynamics of food production in an era of globalisation," she says.

"Why do people eat the food they do? What makes food accessible and affordable? What do we mean by ‘healthy' food?

"Why do we continue to produce and export foods that wealthy countries can afford, while many have no food and go hungry? These are complicated issues."

Tucker asked her research participants whether they would consider extending the range of living proteins they consumed to include creatures they would not traditionally call "food", such as huhu grubs, crickets, and mealworms, and challenged them to think about whether they stomach "nose to tail" dining - that is, consuming animal body parts, such as offal, organs and hooves, which more traditionally end up in the rubbish.

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"It's about thinking about different ways to produce food, thinking outside the square in terms of future food production," she says.

This sociologist walks the walk. Her recent foods include wood pigeon while on holiday in Niue, and sea cucumber.

However, she has never been to New Zealand's mecca of culinary oddities, Hokitika's annual Wildfoods Festival, famed for its stallholders' offerings of fried huhu grubs and horse semen shots.

Longtime Manawatu caterer and chef Hester Guy is no stranger to thinking outside the square in the kitchen.

She says the concept of nose-to-tail eating has a solid following overseas, and once served sauteed rooster's coxcomb on toast, which she describes as "delicious".

"We have preconceived ideas as to which things will taste nice based on our cultural environments," she says.

"What an Eskimo eats will be different from what an Aucklander eats. We become culturally accustomed to certain types of food."

Guy says diners' tastes change with their environment, and modern consumers today confronted by a culinary market saturated with processed food are accustomed to a saltier, sweeter taste than previous generations.

Foraging populations which survived on herbs and roots were on to a good thing, she says.

"We think we are so clever in how our culture eats but, in fact, those who have been very clever have been indigenous people, who have cultivated sustainable food sources which maintained their natural environment."


You may have heard of "peak oil". How about "peak meat"?

The image of a juicy steak sizzling on a barbecue is synonymous with a Kiwi summer, but our love affair with meat may not be sustainable.

The United Nations has warned that food production will have to increase by 70 per cent to feed the extra mouths and world demand for agricultural products will soak up already depleted freshwater resources essential for farming.

The World Health Organisation has predicted annual meat production demand will reach 376 million tonnes a year by 2030 as the burgeoning world population clamours to be fed.

For agriculture-based export economies like New Zealand's, that demand means a lot of money.

In the year to June 2012, exports of agricultural products increased by $682 million to $26.6 billion.

The increase was led by dairy products and wine and China has taken the lead as our target export market, with output up almost 50 per cent on the previous financial year to feed the Asian tiger with $481m worth of meat products alone. The livestock industry is feeding the world.

But a 2006 United Nations report on the effects of global farming practices found it also accounts for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, which many scientists say contributes to global warming, not to mention the colossal volumes of water required for agricultural production processes.


Dutch scientists have again hit the headlines in recent months, offering the first glimpses of laboratory-grown meat.

However, the expense of producing petri-dish prosciutto, alongside the challenge of coaxing diners to accept laboratory-grown meat means a market for the product could be a long way off, according to media reports.

At New Zealand's Riddet Institute, based at Massey University in Palmerston North, our scientists are working behind the scenes to bring the world's consumers the products they know and love. Big clients include Starbucks, Cadburys of London, PepsiCo, Fonterra and Zespri.

It is the institute's focus on natural future food that earned its co-founders New Zealand's premier science prize this year. Professors Paul Moughan and Harjinder Singh were joint recipients of the 2012 prime minister's top science prize, worth $500,000.

The institute steers clear of synthetics and genetically engineered products, instead using complex molecular science techniques to exaggerate the nutritional benefits of what nature already offers.

Protein represents a major research focus for the Riddet Institute team. Its scientists have created a soup product for elderly people with protein boosters that promote muscle development to enrich their quality of life.

"It's a beautiful, tasty and rich onion brown soup. People love it. They can have it with a straw or a spoon. It's easy for them to ingest and the protein utilisation by the body is extremely high," Moughan explains.

They are using clever science to give consumers the protein benefits of meat, without a steak in sight.

Riddet scientists recently created an Omega-3 protein additive, which enables products to be enriched with fish oil's nutritional qualities without the unpleasant fishy taste, Mougan says.

"These kids hate fishy icecream, but the consumer would love to have icecream that is high in fish oil for kids for their brain development.

"That's what is needed in the market base, but how do we do it?

"They come to us."


Marmite and Wattie's Tomato Sauce may always have a place in Kiwis' hearts - but the Kiwiana food landscape is changing and tastes are becoming more sophisticated, a Massey University food anthropologist says.

Observe the explosion of interest in gourmet cooking sweep the airwaves. Every season seems to bring a new cooking show or celebrity chef to our television screens.

Food, like fashion, has become prone to fads, and Dr Carolyn Morris, of Massey University, is interested in the forces that shape what New Zealanders eat.

For the middle classes, food is quickly moving into the realm of prestige more commonly associated with wine, Morris says. Marketers have cottoned onto consumers' attraction to foods distinguished by its terroir.

The French term, traditionally associated with wine, denotes the characteristics lent to a grape by the climate and geography of the region in which it is grown.

"Wine has that terroir idea, you know - ‘gimlet gravels'. That is what is happening with food.

"You'll notice much more on some packets now that companies are beginning to market food as ‘from somewhere'," she says.

"It is as if there is two kind of trajectories happening at the same time that seem a kind of contradiction.

"At one level, we have increased production and processed food. There are always these new prepared products that are processed and manufactured. On the other hand at the same time, you have this return to ‘grow your own food', farmers' markets and home gardening."

"We don't want nowhere food that just magically appears at the supermarket in a tin or a packet."

Going back to nature is a concept that is in vogue in middle-class economies around the world, Morris says. The trend is visible in a revival of farmers' markets in urban centres around New Zealand since the 2008 recession.

"There is all this stuff about eating locally and finding our food heritage and it's a kind of global thing to ‘go local'," she says. "Lots of middle-class people are into their cooking and gourmet food. It's not enough just to eat it any more. You have to know how to cook it."

She attributes the change in food markets here to a kind of cultural cringe that has crept up on New Zealanders since 1950s industrialism ushered in an age of packaged and processed meals.

A trend towards home gardening, organic cooking and locally sourced meat products has been present in elite markets for some time, but only recently has it begun to penetrate the mainstream.

You see it in grocery aisles, Morris says.

"Potatoes have names now. Not so long ago, there were potatoes and there were new potatoes. Now there are agrias and jersey bennes, for example. They are all named and specific.

"You've got Levin leeks and carrots from Opiki. We're thinking about where things have come from. It's part of that whole farmers' market thing."

But the reality is that not everyone can afford to follow fashion.

Morris lectures in food and farming and is particularly interested in holistic food production, including the place of Maori food in New Zealand.

At least four Maori cookbooks have hit the market since the mid-2000s, most with a focus on living off the land.

Peter Peeti's Kai Time is one of the most recent delights, including recipes for the likes of kina salsa verde, pipi spaghetti and horopito smoked salmon.

Morris sees sustainability as the major force underpinning future food markets. She predicts high costs and tightening resources will force a shift towards "urban agriculture" in a bid to reduce food miles. She imagines a New Zealand where city dwellers will make use of grassy verges on their property fronts for communal fruit trees and vegetable gardens.

With four decades in the industry behind her, Guy says the best way to prepare for the changing landscape of food is to learn how to cook.

She is troubled by New Zealand's fast-food generation who cannot boil an egg.

"The most valuable thing we can do for our children is to teach them how to cook," she says. "We are so overweight in New Zealand and people are buying pre-packaged food as an acceptable alternative. There needs to be a change in how we educate our children."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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