In June, Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures based at the University of Auckland and led by Sir Peter Gluckman published their report THE FUTURE OF FOOD & THE PRIMARY SECTOR: THE JOURNEY TO SUSTAINABILITY. This is an excellent report that discusses many aspects of the New Zealand Food and Farming sector, and there is much of importance within the report for the High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge.

Underpinning the report is the belief that COVID-19 has presented Aotearoa New Zealand with ‘an unparalleled opportunity to accelerate the transformation of our core export industry towards a more sustainable and profitable future, such that it will underpin the health of our nation’. This may be true, but there are challenges that the report does not shy away from. Indeed, for me, the overriding message of the report was to guard against a sense of complacency and recognise the urgency to both devise and invest in a long term strategy for food and farming in New Zealand in the context of moving towards a sustainable agro-ecosystem within a carbon neutral economy.

While acknowledging the high welfare standards and relatively low carbon footprint of New Zealand pastoral farming compared to intensive grain-fed systems, the report comments upon the considerable challenges to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions from this sector. Likewise, it stresses that the inevitable and welcome further development of the aquaculture sector must be undertaken in a manner that protects marine ecosystems. The global increase in demand for plant-based food products is noted, and the importance that New Zealand invests in this sector, and the associated requirement for more leguminous crops as a raw material for these new products is discussed.  The increased adoption of technology is a theme that runs throughout the report, whether it is remote sensing of environmental factors, the adoption of fermentation technologies to reduce wheat and rice imports, or the potential use of gene editing technology to develop more robust and sustainable crops.

Amongst a series of recommendations is the need for a new Aotearoa-New Zealand brand for our food exports that encapsulates sustainability, protection of the environment and welfare of people and animals, all of which, as the report comments upon, are central to Māori worldviews. And of course, HVN would seek to add nutritional quality to this brand. This recommendation is well aligned with the key findings of the Report of the Trade for All Advisory Board published in November 2019 that recommended the need for strategic and active leadership to build a New Zealand brand so that all exports from New Zealand are recognised to have embedded cultural, environmental, and health value, backed by high quality research and robust systems of traceability and verification. Moreover, the Trade for All report  emphasised the need and opportunity to take ‘Te Ao Māori to the world’, recognising that Te Ao Māori – the language, values and cultural practice of tangata whenua – stands alone as the unique part of New Zealand’s offering and international reputation.

What are the main messages of these two reports for the HVN National Science Challenge? Firstly, we must work with the other National Science Challenges and the agriculture and environment sectors to ensure that any initiatives we undertake in adding value to the nutritional content of foods are consistent with sustainability and environmental protection; Secondly, we need a research portfolio that balances relatively short-term impacts for New Zealand food and beverage companies with longer term strategic investments mindful of the inevitable effects of climate change and consumer trends; Thirdly, HVN is part of a complex system that encompasses not only the science and technology of food production and processing, but also the values of everyone working within these industries and consumers, including of course ourselves. Finally, it is of course imperative that HVN recognises its responsibilities under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and continues to be proactive in supporting the development of Māori scientists, businesses and leadership.

COVID-19 has made many people across the world consider their own personal values, maybe as a result of personal grief at a time of bereavement, or during quiet reflection during the enforced (and for some welcome) retreat from and for the world that was, and for some still is, LOCKDOWN.  The COVID-19 pandemic will also lead to nations re-thinking (or indeed developing) their food and farming strategy, with a probable move towards greater self-reliance and less dependence upon food imports. The Koi Tū and the Trade for All advisory Board reports were both timely, but it will probably take many years before we understand the impact the tragic events of 2020 will have on the New Zealand food and farming sector, and indeed on our own personal lives.

I would like to acknowledge the most interesting discussions of the issues raised in this article with Dr Meika Foster, HVN Science Leadership Team member and Vision Mātauranga Programme Leader for her most valuable contribution to this thought piece.