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Nikki Mandow

Why people should be eating New Zealand grass

Farmers can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions using some of their pasture for protein extraction rather than animal grazing. Photo:

Grass and leafy greens are great sources of top-grade protein and way more environmentally friendly than meat or dairy. Scientists say NZ should be taking the lead.

It’s a great heading for a scientific report: “Pasture for humans”. And there’s an even better photo – a small boy eating grass.

The study, funded by the Our Land and Water national science challenge, is part of a push from researchers in the alternative protein sector for New Zealand to get moving – with some urgency – to develop an industry that extracts the amino acids from grass and leafy greens and makes food ingredients. 

READ MORE: Great tasting new foods that can save the environmentThe future of protein is bugs, biotech, vege burgers – and beef

The market: a multi-billion dollar (and growing) global vegan and vegetarian customer base, where non-animal products are being used to make everything from pavlovas and pizzas to no-meat sausages.

It’s not just about consumer choice; plant protein is seen as a more environmentally friendly alternative – or more likely ‘addition’ – to dairy and meat farming in New Zealand, according to another new report, from FoodHQ, a partnership between AgResearch, Plant and Food Research, Fonterra, Massey University, and others.

The report, Unleashing Aotearoa New Zealand's next protein revolution, looked at 10 kinds of non-animal proteins, from lab-based products (cell-cultured meat and milk, and precision fermentation) to plant-based proteins (greens, hemp, oats, legumes) to fungi, insects, seaweed, air fermentation and microalgae. 

Then it gave each one a score out of five according to its strengths and weaknesses, and the opportunities and challenges for large-scale production in New Zealand.

“We are already 3-5 years behind in some product classes [in the emerging protein sector] and do not have the resources to compete in many of these categories." – Te Puna Whakaaronui

Cost, overseas competition, and NZ’s strict anti-genetic engineering stance made some of the alternative proteins less economically viable in this country – for the time being at least, according to the report’s author, Victoria Hatton, former director of sustainability and climate change at consultants PwC, now chief executive of FoodHQ. 

But a few of the proteins scored four out of five, and Hatton chose four she believes deserve serious further investigation, development and funding, including money from government – grass and leafy greens, fungi, hemp, and seaweed. 

Sustainable Foods Ltd launched a hemp chick*n product in 2022. Source: FoodHQ

“The intention of this report is to help New Zealand accelerate its decision making regarding how (or if) it chooses to take part in this rapidly moving novel agrifood sector,” the report says. “If we do not diversify our proteins sector, New Zealand risks losing the opportunity to develop new export markets.”

Independent, government-funded food and fibre think-tank Te Puna Whakaaronui has a similar message.

“We are already 3-5 years behind in some product classes [in the emerging protein sector] and do not have the resources to compete in many of these categories. Understanding where New Zealand can compete and create long-term value is critical.” 

The grass and leafy green protein sector is the best developed in this country of the four non-animal protein sources highlighted in the FoodHQ report – and arguably the one with the most potential, at least in the short to medium term. Decades of research into pasture crops (because of our grass-fed cows and sheep) means we are well-placed to take the lead, Hatton says.

Leafy greens produce a wider range of proteins than some other plants, though getting them out in a form humans can eat is a scientific challenge. It’s also been hard to make the process economically viable for farmers compared with traditional dairy and meat.

“New Zealand has no plan, no national food strategy. We have a vision for our export food sector – greater value, less volume. But we have no idea how to get there and how it relates to other factors, for example water availability and climate change." – Victoria Hatton, FoodHQ

That has to change, scientists say, with a global realisation of the harm inherent in the present agricultural model. 

“Our food systems today are unsustainable,” says the European Commission’s ‘Food 2030’ policy document. “They are both affected by and drivers of climate change, resources scarcity, pollution and waste, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, population growth, malnutrition and diet-related non-communicable disease.”

The first step for New Zealand, Hatton says, is developing the sort of comprehensive future food strategy Europe already has with Food 2030.

“New Zealand has no plan, no national food strategy. We have a vision for our export food sector – greater value, less volume. But we have no idea how to get there and how it relates to other factors, for example water availability and climate change. 

“We have come to a crossroads in the agri-food space and we have to rethink. Our economy depends on us growing and producing food in the future. But we are not anywhere near understanding how we need to change to produce that food of the future in terms of land use, farmer behaviour change, understanding water availability patterns (what we can grow where), conscious consumers and market demand, and food security.”

Victoria Hatton says NZ needs a national food strategy. Photo: David Hartman

Work is already underway developing a roadmap for the diversification of NZ’s protein production, with workshops being run by the Ministry for Primary Industries and money from the Government’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.

The roadmap, set to run until 2035 “will identify New Zealand’s comparative and competitive advantages related to the production of different protein sources, and suggest pathways for how we can leverage these … It aims to help us direct resources towards opportunities that will create the most economic, social, and environmental value”.

It was due for release in March, but hasn’t arrived yet, Hatton says.

“There’s a draft, which I have seen, but it’s not been released publicly. We are hoping it comes out before the election, as we want to start getting traction. Our [FoodHQ] report feeds into the MPI report and we hope will accelerate some of the actions that will come out of it.”

Hatton is also hoping to see an industry body for the alternative protein sector set up, but says that needs funding – and the start-ups that make up the industry at the moment don’t have spare cash.

“We need government money that comes with no strings attached to establish a body that can help the industry germinate and develop … We’ve had promising noises from MPI.”

Governments internationally are putting substantial money into non-animal protein alternatives, according to a policy report from the Good Food Institute, a US-based not-for-profit think-tank looking at alternative proteins. 

“Alternative proteins began to earn unprecedented support from governments around the globe in 2022. More governments actively participated in researching, scaling up, and domestically producing alternative proteins than ever before.” 

The Good Food Institute estimates governments invested US$635 million into research and development and commercialisation in the alternative protein ecosystem in 2022, taking all-time public sector support beyond US$1 billion. 

Just one example: a government research study into invasive gorse species in Scotland, conducted by Professor Wendy Russell at the University of Aberdeen. 

Gorse has an unexpectedly high amount of protein, if you can get at it. Photo: Massey University

She found gorse contains 17 percent protein and broom has 21 percent protein, meaning gorse bushes could produce enough protein to feed millions of people. 

At the moment, significant money is being spent in herbicides and burning programmes trying to get rid of gorse, Russell said. Instead the plants could be pulled out and the proteins extracted.

“If protein isolates are produced in the correct way, they could be considered as human food in the future.”

The FoodHQ report quotes other research suggesting the global plant protein market could reach $57b by 2024.

Environmental impact

Meanwhile, the Pasture for Humans project modelled including some pasture protein crops on dairy farms across the country. 

As long as the protein price was high enough ($3-$6 per kilo, according to the BakerAg study) setting aside land for protein harvesting could allow farmers to reduce their number of cows without affecting the economic viability of the farm. 

The smaller the herd, the lower the greenhouse gases. 

“As such, this is a form of mitigation that will be of increasing value to farmers required to reduce their environmental footprint,” the study showed.

It’s happening already, says Dr Jocelyn Eason, general manager science at Plant & Food and head of the Crown research institute’s food innovation portfolio. 

Food manufacturers have exacting requirements for their ingredients, Jocelyn Eason says. Photo: Supplied

Canterbury-based Leaft Foods is extracting rubisco, the protein that is the catalyst for photosynthesis, from leafy greens including alfalfa. With protein making up only about 10 percent of a plant, Leaft is also making cattle feed from some of the 90 percent by-product material. 

Leaft has attracted significant investment funding over the last year, including from Silicon Valley-based Khosla Ventures.

Plant & Food is going one step further, working on extracting a wider variety of proteins from green leaves, and finding ways to use the bulk of the non-protein material without involving cows.

“We have to start now. We can’t have any more cows and we want to be more sustainable. We know about protein in New Zealand – we have been exporting for a long time. This is just diversifying protein production.” – Jocelyn Eason, Plant & Food Research

Eason says the Plant & Food scientists have come up with protein powders at the lab and pilot stages that have good nutritional values, but also meet the exacting requirements of the food ingredients industry. They have to dissolve in liquids, for example (“most proteins sit as a glob on the top when you mix them with water”), they have to foam (like egg whites in a pavlova), and they have to provide the textures and the binding and emulsifying properties of eggs and butter.

Reaching this stage has been a major achievement, Eason says. Now the industry needs money from government and the private sector to scale up the projects, and give New Zealand a competitive advantage, using our existing expertise – pasture and protein.

“We have to start now. We can’t have any more cows and we want to be more sustainable. We know about protein in New Zealand – we have been exporting for a long time. This is just diversifying protein production.”

She says the arguments in this country tend to get complicated by pro- and anti-dairy sentiment; the reality is we are going to need both.

“We have to have diversified proteins and they can sit alongside dairy.”

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