Food for thought

A download of some tasty bits from (and inspired by) our Future of Food MeetUp

In sci-fi movies, food looks like it’s been designed by someone who really hates eating. It’s often a soulless capsule or a vile-looking smoothie (disturbingly chunky, muddy or fluorescent) capable of triggering an instant gag reflex. So it was reassuring to hear innovators at our ‘Future of Food’ MeetUp event still talking about real food, capable of satisfying our senses as well as our nutritional needs. Even Matt Shead, representing Radix (specialising in tasty, high-performance, dehydrated meals) spoke of the social function of food - the enjoyment of preparing and sharing it - continuing to shape our food future.

The question is, can the earth sustain it? The UN reports that loss of biodiversity seriously threatens our ability to feed and nourish our global population, which is predicted to grow by a further 2.5 billion by 2050.

Waste not, want not

Panel member Deborah Manning is founder and CEO of food rescue organisation Kiwiharvest. An estimated 25% of the world’s food calories and up to 50% of total food weight are lost or wasted before they can be consumed. Poor resource use is not the only concern here. Unless composted properly, food waste generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Networks like Deborah’s (which collect good surplus food and give it to those in need), platforms like Foodprint (an app which allows people to rescue food from vendors at a discounted price) and sharing economy ventures like foraging maps and Pataka Kai are part of the solution. But Deborah believes we need to get smarter about our food to avoid surpluses at source, particularly of goods that cannot be redistributed due to food safety issues.

Battling ‘big food’

A hot topic at the MeetUp was the entrenched machinery of the food industry. Big companies with big money and big lobbying power that shape everything from what seeds are used, to the dominant shape of farming (intensive mono-culture), to how food is processed, packaged, distributed and marketed. Using our consumer power is one response, although not so easy for people on the breadline who are more focused on survival than on finding their nearest farmers’ market, sustainable/organic/local/cruelty-free supplier or wholefoods refillery. Tax also came up here - either reducing it from the ‘good’ or increasing it on the ‘bad’. Opinion was divided on this and the issue remains that many, presented with only a selection of fresh, nutritious ingredients, would not now know how to turn them into a meal. Here’s hoping Enviroschools, garden-to-plate education and Nadia Lim can help there. And solving poverty, please don’t let that slip unnoticed under the table.

My feeling is that some change will be driven from other quarters - that demands to reduce plastic use, carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions, to increase transparency and accountability, will influence what we see on the shelves and put in our stomachs.

Working to our strengths

New Zealand is extremely lucky to be able to grow a wide variety of food. It’s exciting to see people looking at our various micro-climates and seeing potential for new food industries - like cranberries on the West Coast of the South Island or quinoa in the Central Plateau. In researching ingredients for his brain-boosting products, panellist Angus Brown determined that NZ blackcurrants have 30% more antioxidants than European and North American varieties due to our soil status and UV levels. They have significantly more anthocyanins (antioxidants found in red and purple fruits) than trendy imports like acai and maqui berries and more vitamin C than kiwifruit. He thinks that research could reveal other ingredients with powerful nutri-ceutical benefits, that our native plants (looking beyond the ubiquitous manuka) have huge untapped potential and was very enthusiastic about the prospects for our hemp industry.

Like many in the food biz, Angus and Matt see our future in niche, high value-added food products. Angus was adamant that a plant-based diet is the most sustainable way forward. Both concepts are a big switch up from the status quo. And while we tend to think we have a lot of land, our tendency to allow urban sprawl to encroach even on our most valuable, versatile soils may present a challenge to an even more diverse NZ food industry. Provided we manage to keep our water up to spec, hydroponic vertical/urban gardening will probably be part of the picture, more so than now. But as Angus’s blackcurrant research revealed, it’s not just winemakers who should be interested in preserving our country’s ‘terroir’.

I’ll end where our Future of Food MeetUp started, with the mind-blowing Sushi Singularity restaurant scheduled to open its doors in Tokyo in 2020. On making your reservation, you supply a series of samples which are analysed to determine your nutritional needs (best not to think about this bit while eating). Missing nutrients are infused into your desired sushi treats, which are meticulously 3D printed into existence, with attention to taste, texture and visual appeal as well as nutritional content.

Give me this over a chalky protein pill or a pan-galactic gargle blaster any day of the week.

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Food and Agri-Tech is one of the topics covered in the immersion phase of our Master of Technological Futures. Enrol now for November to turn your passion for food innovation/sustainability into a reality.

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