The challenge for NZ food production is keeping up with the science while Fonterra restores its financial health

Technology  is  opening  a  whole  new direction for  food production, reports  The  Guardian.

Robotics   and drones are reducing   the need for humans to be on the  land,  while  vertical  farming,  in which  vegetables  can be grown in sunless  warehouses using  LED  lighting, gene editing and metagenics are delivering new definitions of  food.

According to a  recent  report  by the think tank  RethinkX, within  15  years  the rise of  cell-based meat – made  of animal cells  grown in a bioreactor – will bankrupt  the US’s  huge  beef industry,  at the same time  removing the  need to grow soya  and maize  for   feed.

New Zealand  farmers   who  think  there  is  an  unlimited  demand for the food  they  produce   could be in  for a  rude  shock.

Here’s  another  example  of   what  global  media  are reporting:

Scientists  at Ghent University in  Belgium  are experimenting  with larva fat to replace butter,  saying that using grease from insects is more  sustainable  than  dairy  produce.

So  what’s  the   answer  for   the  dairy farmers  and  meat producers  in  NZ,    who  for   so long  have  earned   the biggest   block  of  foreign  exchange  to sustain  the   NZ  economy?

The   problem   is  compounded   by the  reluctance of  the  Labour-led  government to   revise   the  out-dated  laws which  limit  the  scope for  gene editing  in research  which could  give  NZ farmers an  advantage  in  animal  breeding and  plant development.

Overseas  there  are  important  developments  in  soil   microbiology  which could be  vital    in  making  soil healthier   and reduce  reliance  on  fertilisers.   The  Economist recently reported   there is  already a market for so-called  biofertilisers, which  are enriched in  micro-organisms reckoned to be good for the  soil.

Then  there   are advances in  technology    which   offer  farmers the opportunity  to  lift  productivity.

A    NZ  start-up,  Halter,   is about  to  launch  a  new product –  a solar-powered  tracking device  which allows farmers to   shift and monitor their  herds remotely.  It  will  self-herd   cows and  send  data about their  behaviour and  health to farmers by phone.

The device  uses  sound  and vibration  to  create a virtual  boundary  to keep  cows in one place  or to herd   them to another. The collars  can be programmed  to bring the  cows to the  milking shed at certain times and identify cows on heat.

According to  Halter’s founder, Craig Piggott, the collars have the  potential  to  revolutionise the dairy sector.

Other  scientific  advances  need to be  encouraged  and   applied  in   every farming  sector.

The  rewards   can  be  great,  as  A2  Milk   has shown  after   years  of  hard  work  in   developing and marketing  a  product  that  it claims  has  clear health benefits.

A2    is  now  sitting   on  a  cash   pile   of  $600m,  with total revenue  in the December half   soaring  31.6%  to  $806m.  Its gross margin  increased to  57.2%, reflecting  a  continued shift  to infant  formula.

The  success  of  the   company is  a tribute  not  just to  its recent  marketing  achievements   but  also to  its Dunedin  founders, Dr Corran McLachlan, who  researched  the health effects of A1 beta-casein; and Howard Paterson, who was one of NZ’s richest men, and a major dairy farmer.

Think  where Fonterra  might be  if it had  picked  up  on the  science of  Dr McLachlan.

But Fonterra (while intent on restoring its financial health) hasn’t lost sight of new technologies and the contribution they can make to profitability.

According to Newsroom Pro, Fonterra has bought a stake in a Boston biotech start-up that wants to develop cow-free protein for use in products like cheese and drinks.

But while the co-op says there’s room in its future for both dairy and “dairy-like” products, it insists cow-free protein isn’t necessarily more environmentally-friendly.

Fonterra was one of several high-profile investors — others were Bill Gates and Richard Branson — in the new biotech startup called Motif Ingredients.

The Boston-based firm will use cellular agriculture to create “lab-grown” milk protein — dairy protein grown from real milk cells, without the use of factory farming.

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