Future food systems

research-food-tomato.jpg There can be little doubt that with a rapidly growing global population, the basic issue of food provision and the prevalence  of high levels of malnutrition is one of the grand challenges of the age. Food quality is also one of the keys to the wider problem of health maintenance in an increasingly ageing population. As a major food exporting nation, New Zealand is uniquely placed to advance the design of new health-enhancing foods, helping prevent disease and to improve the quality of life. The impact of innovation in the food sector on our export-driven economy stands to be dramatic. Massey is a world leader in agrifood research and is working at the smart interface between food science and nutrition to address food security issues as well as to enhance health and well-being. Our expertise in food innovation spans the disciplines of agriculture, horticulture and biosecurity; packaging, refrigeration, nutritional balance and food safety; food technology and engineering; design, branding and marketing. Ensuring the environmental sustainability of food supply underpins all Massey research activity.

Massey researchers are involved in research which covers the spectrum from ‘gate to plate’ and provides an intellectual continuum around the issues of sustainable food production, food quality and food security. This coupled with acknowledged capability in developing the wider agri-food economy makes Massey one of the global leaders in food systems research.

Food production

Effective resource utilisation will be critical to the sustainable production of food as both land usage and water availability are increasingly challenged by climate change and population density. Precision agricultural practices will serve as one of the main routes through which production can be enhanced and yield improved. Massey hosts a centre of excellence for innovative farming practices aimed at minimising unnecessary agricultural inputs to secure both economic and environmental benefit. With a particular focus on pastoral farming Massey researchers have manipulated both nutrient and water usage dynamics to increase yield as well as developing new technologies deploying remote sensing tools to both monitor pasture performance and promote crop growth.

Massey University will provide the science to help grow the medicinal Manuka honey industry in New Zealand to be worth nearly $1 billion. The research will develop the husbandry techniques to support the emerging practice of Manuka plantation. It will help improve the reliability of supply and boost yields so that landowners and beekeepers can meet the growing demand for medicinal Manuka honey. With support from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Massey is working with the Manuka Research Partnership (NZ) Ltd and Comvita to cultivate high active Manuka plantations on back country land. A seven-year programme of innovation is planned to enable growth of the medicinal Manuka honey industry by 16 times. Its current estimated worth is $75 million.

Food storage

Improving the pre and post-harvest condition and shelf life of raw food is clearly a critical dimension to be managed in the food production ecosystem. Massey researchers have found that the ethlylene compound routinely used in cool stores actually reduces the storage life of the golden Kiwifruit variety – a major issue given that Kiwifuit exports are worth a billion dollars a year to our economy. The NZ red meat sector generates nearly $8 billion in annual export earnings. But is the industry humane? Our researchers proved that cattle experience pain when slaughtered without prior stunning. Their findings precipitated a reconsideration of the need for stunning, along with legislative changes in many countries.

Shelf-life is also crucial in marketing food. At just four weeks, packaged pork, for example, has a shelf life half that of beef and lamb. Massey researchers have developed a method that will ensure that packaged pork has a shelf life of at least 8 weeks thus enhancing the availability of these products to international markets. Our researchers have also created a patented breakthrough process for making Mozzarella cheese which takes about three hours as opposed to the current industry methods where processing usually takes 10 hours, followed by 2 or 3 months of ageing. This innovative new methodology ensures that milk proteins can be quickly and efficiently processed to generate stable food products.

Food nutrition

The quality of food and the intrinsic nutritional value also demand attention. Massey researchers have shown how to improve the nutritional value of the common bean, a staple food for millions in the developing world. They found that adjusting digestion levels of the bean storage protein phaseolin can benefit human nutrition. Massey scientists have also shown that the green variety of Kiwifruit can break down animal proteins for better absorption within the digestive process; strengthening the case that Kiwifruit is good for health. A separate study found that the so-called 'fat taste' of many foods actually varies between people, and the ability to perceive fat can be linked to dietary fat intake and body mass index. This remarkable finding paves the way for future commercial adoption into food product design.

It is well known that the Mediterranean diet is associated with a long healthy life and olives and olive oil are important components of this diet. Olive leaves contain the same beneficial plant compounds found in these foods and have been used for hundreds of years in folk medicine to treat a variety of illnesses. Heart disease is a leading cause of death in New Zealand and high blood pressure is an important risk factor. Research has shown that 37% of New Zealanders have high blood pressure. Massey University is conducting an intervention trial to determine whether olive leaf extract supplementation can reduce blood pressure and other heart disease risk markers.

Another key food component, Omega-3 compounds, can also help to reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease especially as people age because they improve carbohydrate and fat metabolism. Massey researchers have established that diets high in omega-3 fatty acids burn metabolic fuels (glucose and fat) better, and can regulate energy storage across different tissues. This is despite genetic factors that predispose some people to gain weight more easily, making them potentially more susceptible to conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Massey hosts the Riddet Institute which is one of the NZ Centres of Research Excellence focusing on food structures and digestive physiology. The Centre is one of the Massey links to a global food security network which connects Massey to Europe, Latin America, US and China. In addition to frontier science the Institute is also active as a policy advocate. An independent report, commissioned by the Riddet Institute, on the future of New Zealand's agri-food sector is calling for a joint approach from industry and government to drive the activities needed to treble the value of exports by the sector by 2025.

Future food systems research stories

Rangahau 2020