Future of Food Consultation Review

Horticulture NZ’s conference for 2019 was held over two days at Mystery Creek in Hamilton from 31 July, under the theme of ‘Our Food Future’. Mark attended on behalf of PlantTech and contributed to the discussion about the emerging use of technology in horticulture and how the widespread application of drones, robotics and advancing imaging would become easier and more affordable over time.

The pace of change has been described as being similar to the principle of Moore’s Law, which states that the speed and capability of computers can be expected to double every 18 months. It would appear that these developing technologies are on a very similar trajectory.

Changing growing environments

With the increasing demand for food, there’s a great deal of interest in how the industry can respond to that challenge without creating further pressure on the environment.

Sustainable and alternative proteins and a move away from meat-based proteins is a rapidly growing commercial space; UBS predicts the market will be worth USD $85 billion by 2029. It’s not just ‘Impossible Burgers’ either, we’re seeing ‘flexitarian’ products on NZ shelves where half the meat is replaced with pulses, Unilever has just bought ‘The Vegetarian Butcher’ and the US has seen 25% of milk consumption shift from dairy to plant-based products in the last 10 years.  While there’s no let-up in the way alternative proteins are being developed and pushed, history shows that human dietary habits change relatively slowly. An important challenge for producers will be finding the supply/demand sweet spot.

Meeting the demand for food may also result in farming in new places. Vertical farming in urban environments is seen as one solution to the challenge of feeding people in cities where it’s consumed.  Leafy green crops are at the leading edge of this transformation and it is notable that supermarket chain, Ocado, has made a NZD $32 million investment in vertical farming these crops next to its US distribution centres.  Prof. Alison Stewart, of the Foundation for Arable Research (www.far.org.nz), believes the industry is only 10 years from “complete disruption”.

Concerns about strains on the environment could also see our monoculture landscapes, where we currently grow one type of crop, become more diverse. This move towards ‘mosaic’ landscapes is seen as a future food trend and one that could lead to both sustainability and production advantages.

From PlantTech’s perspective, greater crop diversification in mosaic landscapes are all opportunities for further exploration. In the ‘Farming 2.0’ context, AI algorithms will help growers better understand the whole environment and make changes based on evidence supported by data and analytics.

Data and analysis will help growers make better decisions about what to grow where and how to balance the effect of different crops. Importantly, the environment could be managed more sustainably which helps position New Zealand as a global leader for environmental and sustainable husbandry, and lift the value of its premium export products.