Taking a seat at the Global Table

I have to say I experienced something pretty special just the other week.

It was Global Table at the Melbourne Show Grounds earlier in September. Billed as an event that brings together the world’s brightest minds to solve our biggest food challenges, it had much to live up to.

But the event delivered – boasting over 3,000 attendees from 29 countries and over 200 speakers and 150 exhibitors. In one fell swoop it has become Australia’s  largest Food and Ag-Innovation meeting.

The event incorporated the Global Food Summit, Seeds&Chips, hosted for the first time in Australia. I’d attended Seeds&Chips in Milan earlier this year (see previous blog) and found the event inspiring. Catching up with Marco Gualtieri, Founder and Chairman of Seeds&Chips, in Melbourne, was like catching up with an old friend. ‘The formulae of Seeds&Chips has been faithfully re-presented here. We’ve got a heady mix of inspiring plenary speakers, and each session is introduced by a teenovator, a term I came up with, that describes someone who despite their young age is changing the world through their actions. The talks and panel discussions are a mixture of young pioneers and experienced and respected experts and the trade shows focus on start-ups. It’s a great combination of experience and youth – which encapsulates the soul of Seeds&Chips – here at Global Table.’

He wasn’t wrong.

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John Kerry (image: Global Table)

The opening plenary delivered by Secretary John Kerry, 68th Secretary of State for the USA, was truly inspirational. To watch and listen to a statesman of our generation get physically agitated by the sustainability challenges facing us, but also excited about the opportunities for change electrifies the audience. ‘Anyone who says there is a choice between jobs and prosperity or saving the environment is a liar. Delivering the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals will produce multi-trillion dollar industry opportunity. Technology and innovation are key to success – human created problems, have human solutions.’

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‘There are 17 United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs for short, including specific targets like zero hunger and no poverty, to achieve by 2030’ explains Kylie Porter, Executive Director of the Global Compact Network Australia. ‘Although launched over two years ago, they have taken a while to catch on in Australia. But we are now seeing a very rapid rate of adoption by a range of Australian businesses. In fact, in the last year there has been a doubling of companies aligning their businesses with the goals. Which is my favourite goal?…Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions’.

The UN SDGs provide a wrapper for almost all of the activities and focus of Global Table. So, let’s have a look at some of the key themes and trends coming out of the event.

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Howard-Yana Shapiro John Kerry (image: Global Table)

New foods and crops

The second day is opened by Howard-Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer for Mars. He presents an ambitious project focussed on orphan food crops of Africa. ‘These orphan crops have been staples of communities across the African continent for millennia, but are now being replaced by mass produced crops or nutritionally poorer processed products. Returning to orphan crops can offer a range of nutritional benefits that can address some of the malnutrition problems facing the region. Breeding these crops for improved vitamin A, iron, iodine, folate and zinc content can help combat non-communicable diseases such as night blindness, anaemia, cretinism, neural tube development impairment and stunted growth’. Shapiro outlines an ambitious program to drive the next wave of crop development on the back of genomic knowledge for Africa’s top 101 orphan crops driven by uncommon collaboration, with a diverse range of partners from the Beijing Genome Institute to Google, and by harnessing the people power of citizen science.

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Panel discussion – Kickstarting the Australian native food industry with Christine Pitt, Pat Torres, Derek Walker, Suzanne Thompson, Kevin Williams, Topaz McAuliffe and Andrew Lowe (image Sarah Treasure)

Australian native foods are also high on the menu at the event. A panel discussion, comprised of indigenous business leaders, entrepreneurs, supply chain experts and scientists, outlines the significant supply side and market opportunities for Australian native foods, both on this continent and globally. By the end of this session, complete with dancing, there is a room full of supporters wanting to be involved in kickstarting the Australian native food industry, and an appetite to establish an ‘orphan food crops of Australia program’.

AgTech

As Matt Pryor, Partner AgThentic, points out, the future for the Agtech sector in Australia is very promising, but we need to understand our place in the global ecosystem. ‘Australia is a large place, with a diverse array of crops and farming systems, but with a relatively small local market. However, it can be the trial location and sand pit for a range of AgTech, particularly technology being trialled to move into new market areas. We also have a positive investment framework, robust IP systems and outstanding research institutes developing the technology that will be the next phase of AgTech innovations. Get this right and Australia can be amongst the global leaders in the rapidly developing and lucrative AgTech market.

Food Waste

‘It seems almost criminal that in a developed country like Australia, we should have so many families experiencing food insecurity’ shares Jim Mullan, CEO of SecondBite, a food rescue charity. ‘But we also waste more than a third of the food we produce, this is where organisations like ours come in, by rescuing safe food, that would otherwise make its way into landfill, and donating it to families in need. Improvements in the rescued food supply chain and matching of providers with those in need is an area of constant dynamism that needs improvements. Initiatives like the Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre are also helping transform food waste into new high value products. But for me it’s more about addressing the poverty, hunger and social justice aspects of the UN SDGs, with a happy consequence that we are also reducing the amount of food waste’.

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Thomas King (image: Global Table)

Protein alternatives

The debate around protein alternatives has been raging fiercely over the last year. Initial purges to encourage everyone to become vegan on  environmental and health grounds have given way to a more nuanced debate. However pretty much all agree that we could do with eating less meat in Australia, which can be substituted by plant-based or other protein sources.

Thomas King, CEO of Food Frontier, recently published a report, Meat the Alternative, that predicts that Australia’s plant-based meat sector is set to contribute $3 billion to the nation’s economy and generate more than 6,000 full-time Australian jobs by 2030.

New plant-based protein products are breaking into the market all the time. Shama Sukul Lee, CEO of Sunfed, and plenary on the third day, has a new product just released in Australia – Chicken-free Chicken. ‘Texture is an incredibly important part of our food experience ‘ explains Lee. ‘Our product, made from yellow peas, is composed of long protein molecules which gives you the texture of animal protein. Once you’ve got that right then the product can be flavoured with a range of sources, but texture is key’. We tasted some Chicken-free Chicken for lunch – the verdict – pretty ‘chickeny’.

However the nutritional benefits of eating meat, particularly in developing countries, and the micro-nutritional benefits of consuming meat for a brand range of the population in developed countries is also  promoted by Dr Sandro Demaio, TV presenter and CEO of EAT, the science-based, global platform for food systems transformation.

In addition, ‘Australian producers are responding quickly to the environmental and ethical concerns around meat consumption’, explains Professor Paul Wood AO. ‘We are starting to see carbon neutral livestock farming operations emerge in Australia and our meat is some of the most sustainably and ethically produced on the planet.  Meaning Australian meat is a desirable, premium product set to rise in popularity globally’.

Microbiome

Posing an interesting question ‘Is the microbiome the solution to all of our problems?’, Drs Cuong Tran and Michael Conlon from CSIRO lead a panel discussion. ‘Our microbiome are the bacteria and viruses, fungus and amoebas that live in and on us’ they explain. ‘Our gut microbiome can effect our moods and immune response, and our diet is important to regulating our microbiome diversity and composition. However, exactly how we do this and the exact mechanism of operation is still a research frontier. So – is the microbiome the solution to all of our problems – potentially yes’.

This discussion wraps up an exhilarating week.

The 3 day meeting successfully profiled the UN SDGs, but more than that has motivated an influential support base to address them. But the key to success, as outlined by Secretary John Kerry in the opening address, is to harness the UN goals to support economic development and promote technological innovation.

If the Melbourne meeting is anything to go by then Australia is already responding to the challenge laid down by the UN SDGs and ready to take a seat at this Global Table.

Andrew Lowe and Sarah Treasure 10th September 2019

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Some of the team that bought brought Seeds&Chips from Milan to Global Table in Melbourne

Article is extended version of piece originally published in the Weekend Financial Review – ‘Takeaways from Global Table‘ 14th September 2019

Feature image John Kerry; photo credit Global Table

 

Podcast – In conversation with Howard-Yana Shapiro

…talking with the Chief Agricultural Officer of Mars Incorporated about orphan crops – the next wave of food plants to come out of Africa augmented for nutrition to help tackle hunger and malnutrition.

This episode produced in partnership with The University of Adelaide during the 2019 Global Table Melbourne Australia, Seeds&Chips.

Listen to this episode on

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Coming soon on Apple Podcasts, Castbox, Overcast, Sticher.

In Conversation with Andy Lowe with Logos

Kickstarting the Australian native food industry – PART 2

In my last blog post I outlined the context of developing a native food industry for Australia

Here are the top 4 issues facing the native food industry in Australia – and of course potential solutions:

 

  1. Being introduced: Getting to know and appreciate native foods and flavours

A discerning customer base, hungry for native flavours is still not developed in Australia. Cultivating a taste and demand for native foods, that is more than just a curiosity or low key BBQ rub, is essential to reach national and global markets.

In tackling native foods we need to recognise that we already eat a wide range of native fish and seafood ( tuna, barramundi, lobsters and native oysters) and to a lesser extent game (kangaroo, emu and crocodile) and fowl (native duck, geese and pigeon). When we refer to native foods we are generally referring to plant based products.

But here in Australia we haven’t always been immune to the value of native foods.

Obviously indigenous communities have lived and thrived off a broad range of native foods. It is estimated by Philip Clarke, affiliate at the South Australian Museum, that of the 35,000 plant species in Australia, some 1,500 have been used widely as food, and many more for their medicinal qualities.  And some estimates of the number of native food species are as high as 4,500.

A new project to produce a Native Food Database for Australia is about to be delivered and is a partnership between The Orana Foundation, University of Adelaide, State Herbarium of South Australia, South Australian Museum, and supported by the South Australian Government (Primary Industry and Regions SA).  In addition, to collating known records of food usage, the project brings together information on the nutrient profile, culinary preparation and best horticultural practices for these products. The project aims to help make available information on our delicious native foods – and to help cultivate and grow a discerning local and global customer base.

13637472._UY630_SR1200,630_During early European colonial and settler times there was also a much closer relationship with native foods. Hunting for food was a popular pastime during this era, and as described by Barbara Santich in her book Bold Palates (Wakefield press), some of the most prized foods were fowl, including the wonga pigeon, black duck and magpie goose, which might still make their way onto formal banquet menus today. But there was also a healthy incorporation of native food plants into cuisine, including muntries, quandong, native berries and currents to name a few. But slowly over time, and with an increasingly urbanised population, the relationship between modern Australian cuisine and native foods has waned.

A recent re-appreciation of native foods has been lead by chefs and restaurateurs.

This avenue is perhaps the best way of driving a new wave of native food support, as native flavours and textures can be combined by gastronomic experts to create delicious dishes that can be enjoyed, and stimulate interest and desire within a discerning public.

Restaurants such as Edna’s Table in Sydney and Red Okra in Adelaide were the quintessential high end bush tucker destinations. But a more recent serious reintroduction and reincorporation of native foods into Australian cuisine has arguably been lead by Rene Redzepi the chef and inspiration behind Noma. This two-Michelin star Danish restaurant has been voted best restaurant in the world multiple times and touts new Nordic cuisine which combines native regional ingredients and preparation methods into inventive and clean flavours. Redzepi opened a pop-up in Barangaroo, Sydney, incorporating Australian natives into high end dishes.

But Redzepi isn’t the only player in this new wave of native food appreciation. Multiple restaurants around Australia are now dabbling or mainstreaming native foods for their flavours and increasingly ‘hero of the dish’ focus.

Award winning chef, Jock Zonfrillo, who runs Orana restaurant (named by Gourmet Traveller as the top Australian restaurant), has taken up the native food mantle with gusto and his restaurant specialises in creating a delicious degustation from Australian native and local ingredients. Over the last decade, Jock has travelled around Australia learning about native foods and their preparation from indigenous communities. He brings this knowledge vividly to life through his cooking.

So for customers who have tasted and appreciate native foods, how do they start to use them at home and help grow the consumer base for these products.

  1. Getting familiar: Knowing what to do with them – use and preparation of native foods

Australia as a continent can be a pretty harsh place to live, with long droughts in many places. Plants growing in such environments need to take on a range of adaptations, including the ability to cope with drought conditions, poor soils and strategies to avoid being eaten by the local wildlife. These features can mean that many native plants are poisonous, or at best unpalatable, to humans.

To overcome these toxins or unpleasant flavours, many indigenous communities have developed sophisticated preparation methods, including washing for long periods or cooking in ash water, where the carbon binds up the toxins. In addition, a sophisticated knowledge of when and where to harvest the best native foods has been essential community knowledge passed down through generations.

Knowing what to do with and how to prepare native foods is an essential step to growing a discerning local and global consumer base.

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Paul Baker – developing a native food eating calender

Paul Baker, Head Chef at the Botanic Gardens Restaurant, Adelaide, knows a thing or two about using native ingredients in this cooking. Since 2015, this awarded chef of the year has been incorporating foraged produce from the Adelaide Botanic Gardens into his dishes, including many native foods such as warrigal greens and finger limes. Popular dishes in his restaurant include karkalla (a salty native succulent), meso butter, barilla bower spinach (endemic to Victoria) with barramundi, or samphire (similar to a salty asparagus) with quails eggs.

Paul has developed a food calendar, to highlight when ingredients can be harvested and used in his cooking. He has also developed a range of preparation techniques and recipes which combine these ingredients and flavours into delicious dishes.  But for native foods to become mainstream these ideas and inspiration need to be available so that native foods can be experimented with in our kitchens.  Paul has plans to publish this useful knowledge, and others such as Maggie Beer have published on cooking with native ingredients.

But for me one of the key barriers to using native foods is actually their names. Many plants have names which are difficult to fathom, and may either come from their traditional or botanic origins. In some cases it is difficult to understand even what they are, never mind what you can do with them. For example have you any idea what you are supposed to do with Geraldton Wax, pig face, youlk or quandong. The answers are grind it and use it as a sauce, cook as a thick spinach, boil and serve as a root vegetable, or eat as a fresh fruit or preserve as a jam. For some species the term ‘bush’ or ‘desert’ has been added to the name which give clues to usage – e.g. bush tomato or desert plum. For others a description of their appearance or region of origin combined with a familiar fruit of vegetable name are helpful, like Kakadu plum or finger limes. But at the end of the day broader usage and engagement with native foods and their increasing inclusion in Australian gastronomy is likely to see a broader understanding of the product, their tastes and potential.

Once we start to like and understand how to use native foods, where do we get them from?

  1. Going stead: Knowing where to get native foods and developing a sustainable supply base of natives

Even if there is consumer interest, developing a consistent, secure and safe supply base for native foods to meet current and future demand requires significant growth. Seasonality and low volumes are key issues to solve, along with transport and access to markets.

For me native foods need to be able to pass the ‘Uber Eats’ test – i.e. tonight I feel like … (market awareness) from … (supply chain provision).

Several suppliers have taken up the challenge and have been building over time.

Something Wild provides a range native game and fowl, along with a range of fruit and vegetables and has seen their turnover double every year for the last 3 years. As Daniel Motlop, Managing Director told me, they source 90% of their products from indigenous communities, most of it through government permitted wild harvest. The products of Something Wild featured recently on Master Chef, in a pop-up Something Wild Supermarket exhibiting the companies top products.

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Something Wild store stocking a range of native foods

Buoyed by success, Something Wild has branched out into other product lines. Last year they released what has become a hugely successful collaboration with Adelaide Hills Distillery to produce Green Ant Gin. Something Wild are the only company in Australia that have a licence to wild-harvest green ants and this product retails for around $100 and is highly prized by gin connoisseurs. The product has also featured in the most recent series of the Bachelorette, aiming to broaden its appeal.

Another collaboration, this time with the Fleurieu Milk Company, has seen the creation of a Kakadu plum yogurt. This product has been helped by a recent cooperative agreement between around 80% of the indigenous Kakadu plum producers and harvesters in Australia. Brokered by the Indigenous Land Corporation, the agreement allows a price to be fixed and producers to combine together to service orders for the product, which allows highs and lows in supply and demand to be smoothed out.

With increasing interest in native foods, some food producers not usually associated with native foods are also taking the plunge and embracing natives. Burger Theory, a small but popular burger producer, now uses kangaroo in all its meat burgers (comprising approximately 90% of the meat content, with the other 10% made up of beef). Customers can hardly notice the difference and the low fat and high iron content of kangaroo helps achieve a relatively healthy profile for these burgers.

Outback Pride offers a similar model but the product range for vegetables is broader.

Developing a native food industry also provides an opportunity to support indigenous communities and an opportunity to return the benefit of the millennia of knowledge surrounding native foods back to these cultures.

Many of the players currently in the market are aboriginal owned or operated, and some, like Something Wild, aim to return a significant proportion of their sale price back to indigenous communities involved in wild harvest.

However, and here lies a fundamental issue for the industry, much of the native food produce is wild harvested at the moment, but as interest builds, some form of enrichment planting or plantation will be necessary to keep pace with future demand. That planting will need to be started now, if there isn’t to be a major supply failure in the near future and potential overharvest of natural populations.

This path to major commercialisation presents a potential problem for the native industry and its relationship with indigenous communities currently undertaking wild harvest. If the enrichment planting or plantations are established on traditional lands or within the native range of the species and the supply chain involves indigenous communities then the harvest can be considered to be undertaken in a culturally appropriate way. However if wide cale planting of the crops occurs outside of indigenous involvement then that link with aboriginal cultural values and beliefs is broken.

In the same way that halal or kosher food is prepared in a particular way honouring the cultural beliefs of the community that values this food, so indigenous harvest practises honour the food that is produced. Mass production outside of indigenous involvement will break this link but may be required to bring the product to a global audience at a competitive price.

Another consideration is that almost all successful global crops have been through a range of intensive breeding and selection cycles. To improve the crop potential of native plants, which have received only limited selection and breeding focus will require this focus and the research to be undertaken. Traits such as production (e.g. growth, fruit size), ease of harvest (e.g. harvest characteristics, not so spiny, larger fruit size) and taste and texture characteristics (reduced bitterness and fibre content) are essential characteristics to get right for crop plants.

As pointed out by Amanda Garner, cochair of the Australian Native Food and Botanical Limited, this development will require public and private investment and development. But there is an opportunity to develop a benefit sharing framework which returns revenue back to indigenous communities and native food research and development, from the profits made through new and improved varieties via plant breeders rights licensing agreements. Which would see value returned back to aboriginal communities for the wide-scale commercialisation of select Australian native plants.

  1. Announcing to the world: Growing a local, national international market

The promotion of native foods to national and international markets will be essential to growing the native food industry. Clearly customer awareness is needed along with stable supply chains, but Australian native foods will need to be able to compete in a global market against more established crops and sophisticated marketing campaigns. But with an increasingly adventurous and burgeoning global middle class, keen for the next quinoa, there are opportunities.

Indeed some Australian companies have started to penetrate global markets with native foods.

wow-macro-meats-gg-packagingMacro Meats, the largest internationally seller of kangaroo and game meats overseas has well established markets in the US and Europe and Red Centre, specialising in a range of native food flavourings has had recent success in China.

Christine Pitt, CEO of the Food Futures Company and a Director of Rocket Seeder, thinks that the appeal of native foods internationally are likely to two fold.

The first will be by honouring the traditions, story and indigenous origin of native foods. Whilst not necessarily only from wild-harvest, Australian native food produce which have cultural integrity, like halal or kosher produce, have a unique globally selling point. These markets are likely to be in Europe and liberal US states.

The second market is likely to be a more mass market where large scale production will be required to produce products at volume and are produced for their health value. For example the high vitamin C and antioxidant qualities of Kakadu plum will sell well into such markets and largescale plantations of this product will be needed to meet the anticipated demand. This demand is likely to come strongest from Asian countries, particularly China.

However as identified for native food breeding, market development will require significant support from government and private funds, and access to start up funds particularly for small scale companies trying to make it in this space will be important.

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Panel at Global Table – Kickstarting the Australian native food industry – (l-r) Christine Pitt, Pat Torres, Derek Walker, Suzanne Thompson, Kevin Williams, Topaz McCauliffe and Andy Lowe

 

Featured image from https://warndu.com/resource 

This blog post is the second part of a longer version of a feature article in the Australian Financial Review 

Info from recent HIA report into the market potential of natives (https://horticulture.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Hort_105325_Native-Foods-12pp_06-low-res-1.pdf) and ANFAB top native species list (https://anfab.org.au/main.asp?_=SPECIES)

Kickstarting the Australian native food industry – PART 1

Another year, another drought.

Australian farming continues to swing between famine and feast. Food production is still an important cornerstone of our economy and identity as a nation, which means that hardship for farmers brings political and financial action.

But is it time to fundamentally rethink what we are farming here in Australia, and to grow produce more in line with our climatic conditions?

Many people may not fully appreciate that almost all of the plants we grow as crops here in Australia are originally from other continents. Our food crops have been introduced as staples by successive waves of colonisation and introduction from all over the world.

In establishing the Australian primary production sector, we have fundamentally failed to harness the millennia of knowledge that exists around our native plants and animals, and largely ignored the crop potential of our Australian biota.

Australia’s climate, particularly in broadacre cropping and pastoral districts can be harsh, drought prone and nutrient poor. To get crops to grow in such regions requires selection and breeding for varieties that can tolerate, or better still thrive in these conditions. Crops originally from temperate regions, like wheat and canola, have been extensively selected so that they can cope with warmer, dryer condition. Crops from tropical or Mediterranean regions, which are more climatically similar to Australia, fare better with their innate adaptive capacity, but still suffer from environmental extremes and local disease infestations. Whilst new crops varieties are continuously being developed to incorporate adaptations, the problem is that many of these species simply don’t have the adaptive capacity to cope with the harshest Australian conditions in spite of how much breeding is done.

So why don’t we start from scratch with a new range of crops developed from Australian native plants?

We know that there has been some cultivation and selection of many Australian food plants over the last 50,000 or so years of inhabitation. This fact has perhaps been most widely and vividly communicated by Bruce Pascoe in books such as Dark Emu.

However the cropping potential and cultivation knowledge of these native plants was largely ignored by early settlers, and farmers instead chose familiar foods or ones for which large scale seed supply was available and/or cultivation methods well-known.

In establishing the Australian primary production sector, we have fundamentally failed to harness the millennia of knowledge that exists around our native plants and animals, and largely ignored the crop potential of our Australian biota.

Perhaps the only global success story is Australia’s macadamia nut, but the selection and breeding of this product was largely undertaken in Hawaii.

Of the 35,000 or so native plants here in Australia, some 1,500 to 4,500 have been used by indigenous communities as food. There are a range of underutilised tubers, grains, nuts and fruits, that could be developed as crops. In addition due to the harsh growing conditions in many regions, Australian plants naturally contain a range of bioactive compounds. These compounds allow the plants to thrive in the extreme Australian environments, but can also confer tremendous health benefits when consumed as foods or medicines. Examples are the Kakadu plum, which naturally contains over 100 times the vitamin C content of oranges, and some native Australian Leptospermum species which have more than 10 times the antibacterial activity levels of New Zealand plants that are normally used to produce manuka honey.

There have been several attempts over the decades to develop the Australian native food industry. Perhaps the only global success story is the macadamia nut, but the selection and breeding of this product was largely undertaken in Hawaii. Today we are in a situation where out of the world’s top 150 crop plants, none come from Australia.

At a grass roots level, there exists a healthy cottage industry around native foods across much of Australia, and a number of agencies, including Australian Native Foods and Botanicals (ANFAB), research groups and communities have started to develop some of the 1,500 or so estimated edible plants.

Fourteen species have been prioritised and received most development attention, including; Anise myrtle, bush tomato, Davidson plum, desert lime, finger limes, Kakadu plum, lemon aspen, lemon myrtle, muntries, mountain pepper, quandong, riberry and wattle seed. But apart from including some of these amazing flavours in ice creams (e.g. in the Daintree), it is still difficult to buy these products, and many would remain untouched on supermarket shelves if they were to make their way there due to unfamiliarity.

With so much potential and opportunity, what are the barriers to overcome to develop the native food industry in Australia?

Watch out for my blog post next week where I examine the top 4 issues of developing a native food industry, as well as potential solutions.

Feature image of Finger Limes is from the ANFAB website.

This blog post is part of a two part longer version of a feature article in the Australian Financial Review 

Info from recent HIA report into the market potential of natives (https://horticulture.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Hort_105325_Native-Foods-12pp_06-low-res-1.pdf) and ANFAB top native species list (https://anfab.org.au/main.asp?_=SPECIES)

Future Food Fashions Trending in Milan

I recall sitting in a café back in May this year sipping a macchiato and eating a flaky pastry. Early morning in Milan was a sight, and out of the window I remember seeing the Duomo cathedral rising majestically out of the central square.

The city was abuzz with renaissance architecture, innovation and of course style. But I wasn’t there just to enjoy the atmosphere, art and coffee, I was there to attend global food summit Seeds&Chips, notably one of the most comprehensive of it’s kind, with a  typical Seeds and Chips summit boasting 12,600 visitors, 350 media outlets, 350 companies and organisations, 300 speakers and 600 B2B meetings.

The summit will be in Australia for the first time in a few weeks (3-6 September 2019), as part of Global Table, and I find myself looking back to the Milan summit wondering how Australia’s contribution to these important discussions and sharing of ideas will unfold.

In anticipation of what’s to come at the gathering here in Australia, here’s my look back at the top 10 food innovations making waves at this year’s Seeds&Chips Milan May 2019. 

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1. Protein alternatives

The topic is a hot one this year, and with vegetarianism and veganism on the rise globally, driven by concerns over the environmental impact of meat consumption, a wide variatey of meat-replacement proteins are on show. The most prevelant are plant-based products, largely made from a range of pulses, grains and seeds. But compared to the vege burgers of old, which tasted like cardboard, the emphasis is now on taste and texture. There are a range of mince and even milk alternatives, and the vege jerky was truly delicious and convincing. A previous award winner at Seeds&Chips, Beyond Meat, has gone on to establish a highly successful plant-based protein source business, and recently raised quarter of a billion dollars to grow its line of plant-based meats, with shares rocketing in their public debut.

A variety of other protein sources were also on display including substitutes from fungus, bacteria, microalgae (spirulina) and also of course insects.

But there was also quite a bit of hype around these protein sources, and one company, Kiverdi, claims to produce protein from ‘thin air’, or Air Protein. Technically this is true as the protein is harvested from microbes which fix nitrogen out of the air and convert it into protein using the carbohydrate food source they are given.

2. Food waste

Driven by a desire to reduce the amount of food wasted (currently about a third of all food produced), a number of innovations on show aim to practically reduce or reuse food waste. Marc Zornes, founder of Winnow, explained “we recognised that a lot of wood waste comes from the restaurant sector, so we developed a computer imaging system that automatically recognises and documents food waste as it is thrown into bins. This allow restaurants to optimise their purchasing and to reduce waste”.

Another innovation, and an award winner at this years event, was RiceHouse, which takes the waste and residue from rice (the second most consumed grain on the planet), and compacts it into solid blocks that can be used for building in developing countries.

3. Compostable containers

A number of compostable containers were on show, aiming to reduce the amount of plastic being throwing away as single use wrappings or packaging. It turns out you can make biodegradable packaging from a large number of alternative sources, including bioplastics, corn and milk protein (casein). Even the water bottles we use during the week are fully compostable.

baobab fruit
Whilst hemp is an established superfood in some regions, a number of other less well-known foods are on show, including the the fruit of the baobab, the iconic leafless trees from East Africa. Image from https://baobab.com

4. New foods

Interestingly there was a real push this year to raise the profile of some barely known superfoods, obviously buoyed by the recent success of quinoa and chia to picque global interest. Whilst hemp is an established superfood in some regions, a number of other less well-known foods are on show, including the mountain green cooking banana (or matooke) and baobab, the fruit of the iconic leafless trees from East Africa. As Sean Patrick and Nicol Nijsen from Gabanna, based in the Netherlands, explained enthusiastically ‘matooke is low carb, low GI, gluten free and high in protein, dietary fibre, antioxidants and potassium and magnesium. It is a very versatile food and can be made into a range of products including breakfast cereals and pasta, and buying matooke helps support farmers in East Africa’.

In fact many of these new super foods are sold on their good protein, vitamin and antioxidant profiles. But as Mike Lee from Alpha Food Labs said, ‘one of the best things we can all do is aim to consume one new food crop each week. This will diversify our diet, bringing new nutritional sources, but it will also help develop a number of these new superfoods into global products that in the end will help growers and producers in developing countries and help conserve the genetic resources of these under-utilised crops.

5. Personalised nutrition

A number of apps were on show that aim to produce a tailor-made diet, menu and purchasing links according to input data on age, gender, lifestyle and health targets – nothing too new there.

But one company, myDNA, is offering genetic testing to profile metabolism and dietary related genes (good and bad) and then develop a diet and fitness regime (delivered through an app) that claims to help combat dietary related disease and poor health highlighted by the genetic testing results.

6. Food safety, food traceability and supply chains

An interesting new concept in food safety process has been developed by Julie and Paul Kos, a couple of true Aussie battlers from Geelong. ‘Orginally developed for the taste, we developed a cool smoking process for eggs which actually has the side effect of killing the bacteria in the eggs allowing them to have a shelf life of up to 12 weeks. This preservation method is now gathering global interest, and the eggs taste fantastic’.

Dan Crozier, a tall friendly queenslander and MD of SKG is looking at another natural food safety product. ‘Did you ever see that BBC documentary where doctors in Eastern Europe isolated viruses from river water to combat golden stafflocous infections in hospitals?  Well, a similar application of phage therapy has been developed at Wageningen University to combat food bourn infections such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli.’  So we are now using advanced biological warfare to keep food contamination free.’

But for me the focus on what was happening along the supply chain was most interesting. One French based start-up, Siga, has come up with a global standard to rate the amount of processing that had been used to produce your food. Where of course we should aim to consume less processed foods.

Another tech start up Copeeks, also from France, and also an award winner this year, has developed a computer imaging system that can automatically record the density of animals in a farm then use this information to calculate an animal welfare score. But as Julie Champion explained ‘the technology goes further, and we are able to identify happy animals, for example from tail waving, or stressed and aggressive animals, those that are inanimate or fighting. All this information is combined into our welfare algorithm which can then be accessed by the customer through our app. The information can also be used directly by the farmers to monitor their feed lots and improve the systems for these animals.’

7. Ecommerce and recipe apps

Other apps are designed to note what was in your fridge, design an evening meal around it, and, if required, highlight what you’ll need to buy on the way home, or even order it for you, to make a full meal. These apps can also help reduce food waste by using up items in the fridge before they go off.

8. Nutrient bars and drinks

Our desire for an easier life is also catered for with a number of companies offering a complete meal in a bar or drink. A successful frech start up, Feed, has become an overnight success and has attracted major financing to build new factory facilities to produce its Feed bars and drinks. Although the end product was in some cases a bit dry, one nutrient bar can provide 400 calories and has a healthy balance of carbs, protein and monosaturated fats with vitamins and minerals – a complete meal in a bar – it is claimed.

 

9. Home plant growth chambers

Looking like something that you might see on a science fiction film set, a number of companies were selling plant chambers for growing herbs at home. Most with built in hydroponic and nutrient recycling systems and LED lights optimised for growth and taste.

10. Kitchen automation

Finally a number of appliances were on show to make life easier in the home, including pizza ovens, bread makers, craft beer brewing kits, and a terrace beehive, but perhaps my favourite was the robotic barman produced by Mixartista – serving the perfect gin and tonic every time.

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Food fraud is big business

Fraud in the food and beverage sector is big business – for both bad and good reasons.

The obvious bad reasons are that globally, the cost of food fraud is estimated at over A$50B each year, and ranks among other illicit trades, including illegal timber, drug and people smuggling, in terms of scale and profitability.

Australia’s global reputation as a supplier of high quality and safe food and wine makes it a target for counterfeit products.

In general terms food fraud is the passing off of an inferior product for a more valuable one. Such activities can provide big profits for those involved in counterfeiting. But one of the key problems is that customers don’t get what they are expecting and this can massively devalue a brand that is the target of counterfeiting. Even a single food fraud incident can be devastating, and can cost companies 2-15% of annual revenue.

Australia’s global reputation as a supplier of high quality and safe food and wine makes it a target for counterfeit products. Some estimates place substitution rates of Australian wine in Asia at 50% or higher, particularly for more expensive brands. Recently 14,000 bottles of fake Penfolds wine were seized by Chinese customs officials.

Other counterfeit products can cause human health concerns, for example the colouring of inferior quality oranges with potentially poisonous dyes to make them more orange. And some counterfeiting can be fatal – we all remember the adulteration of infant formula milk in China. In this case melamine, a plastic precursor, was used as a cheap white replacement and resulted in the hospitalization of 54,000 babies, and death of six.

What’s more the impact of fraud on Australian products is set to increase, due to increasing international trade, globalisation of value chains, Australia’s reputation for  producing high-value, premium food and wine products, and growing economic importance of IP rights.

The good news is that due to demand to combat food fraud, there are now a plethora of technologies available to help identify food origins. But a number of these technologies are in the early stages of application and adoption, and some may not continue into broader scale uptake, except maybe in niche markets.

If I were to make a comparison, I would say we are at the early stage of video player technology – we are evaluating the equivalent of VHS, BetaMax and Philips for food fraud verification technologies. And as we all know, it’s not necessarily the best product which comes to dominate a market – BetaMax and Philips were widely considered to be superior technologies, but VHS won out though marketing.

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The same technologies developed and using DNA to track trade in illegal logging are now being applied to a wide range of food an fibre products. Photo credits: Double Helix Tracking Technologies

So what do we need to look out for with food fraud busting technologies?

Digital blockchain and remote surveillance technologies – the technology behind bitcoin allows products, and particularly packaging, to be tracked along supply chains. The problem is that manipulations and substitutions of the product within packaging is difficult to detect. However, if a product enters a country or region which is well known for counterfeiting, this can be traced and used to check supply chain integrity. Block chain is being applied in some fibre markets, and Fonterra and Nestle now have an operational block chain system for their dairy and oil products. Another interesting remote tracing technology is satellite surveillance, which has been used successfully to monitor overfishing and illegal harvest activities of boats operating in and around Australian waters. Ships displaying questionable behaviour – spending time in conservation reserves or meeting up with large amounts of other boats (likely to be exchanging products) – can now be tracked in realtime and targeted by coast guards or fishing authorities.

External tracers and edible inks – a traceable marker can be applied to a product whether it be seafood, steaks or vegetables, which can then be tracked along supply chains. A range of technologies are at play in this space, including microdots which can be read under a microscope or handheld scanning devise, edible inks which can change if temperature profiles are not maintained, and inert chemical or immunological sprays which can be easily detected even if highly diluted in solid or liquid food products. Once the safety of these products is verified, they can be easily applied and detected. But fraudulent application of tracers remains a relatively simple and real issue.

Biomarkers – the inherent and unique DNA, chemical, carbohydrates or proteins of a food product can be used to determine the species of animal or plant in a product (e.g. tuna not dolphin), the origin (Australia not China) and also food safety status (e.g. good to eat for another 10 days). These technologies (e.g. stable isotopes and DNA) are being applied to verify a range of food and fibre products in Europe and America. But one of the problems is that validation still needs to be done in a lab, and so there is a time delay for analysis, typically several days. Miniaturising and developing field tests for these technologies are perhaps some of the most promising applications of anti-fraud technologies, particularly if they can be put in the hands of customers.

So we are in interesting territory with anti-fraud technologies, and we will have to see which one becomes the VHS of food fraud. My prediction is that a combination of these techniques will end up being applied, particularly for higher value products, as several of the methods offer complementary benefits.

 

This blog post is adapted from an article originally written by Prof Andy Lowe for The Australian Financial Review and appeared 10 August 2018.

Top 10 predictions for trending food changes

With all the changes and pressures afoot in the food industry, and with international targets clearly defined through several of the United Nations Sustainability Goals, what can we expect our food to look like in the future? 

Some advances will be to the products we eat, some will be to the packaging they come in and some will be not so obvious, but will be major changes to the way food is produced.

Here are my top 10 predictions for trending food changes to watch out in for the near future.

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Australia’s Kakadu plums are very high in vitamins and antioxidants. Image from sbs.com.au, credit Julia Rau Photograph

1. Functional food diversity

We have seen new food crops such as chia and quinoa come into our diets in the last 5 years. This food diversity trend is likely to increase in the future. We are also likely to see new ‘healthier’ varieties of existing foods bred for specific health functions. For example new lutein-rich wheat strains that can help prevent blindness.

We have only scratched the surface of the potential of new crops and particularly here in Australia with native foods – some of these are naturally very high in vitamins and antioxidants (e.g. Kakadu plum). We have 35,000 plants in Australia, and estimates are that up to 4500 have been used by indigenous communities for food over a period of 50,000 years. Yet the macadamia nut is the only Australian native to have been domesticated – and it doesn’t even make it onto the list of the top 150 global crop plants!

Driving forces – improved dietary and health understanding, more adventurous consumers
Technological advances – ability to rapidly breed new varieties including precision editing of plant genomes to improve crops

Professor Mark Post holds the world's first lab-grown beef burger during a launch event in west London
Mark Post holds the world’s first lab-grown beef burger in 2013 (DAVID PARRY / REUTERS) – image from The Atlantic

2. New protein sources

Protein is the new black. We are likely to see an increasing diversity of animal protein snacks (not just jerky).

But we are also likely to see other protein sources coming online:

  • protein rich plant products (e.g. pulses);
  • microbial protein from mushrooms, bacterial and spirulina;
  • insect protein;
  • protein grown from animal cell lab cultures, or in vitro meat (several new companies, Memphis meats, have been established in California);
  • but lets not discount animal protein meat. Still an excellent source of protein, minerals and iron. There are a range of options from beef through to chicken and supporting native Australian meat harvest, such as kangaroo, is also an option. The potential to eat less, better quality meat is open to us all. In addition the reputation of Australian meat means that premium international markets should be keen to take up any production excess from national markets.

Driving forces – growing global middle class demanding a higher protein diet.
Technological advances – improved taste and texture profile of non-animal protein products; laboratory tissue engineering techniques

3. Printed food

We have only just scratched the surface of food printing. The Cube in McLaren Vale sports the first restaurant-grade food printer in SA – and  featured recently on an episode of MasterChef Australia. We are likely to see this technology used more and more for a range of large-scale food preparation activities, including ready meals, airline meals, baby food and food for the elderly – something for us to look forward to in old age!

Driving forces – consumer demand for innovation and convenience.
Technological advances – 3D printing technology using a range of edible materials

4. Food identity

Food is big business – and so is the fraud associated with high end products, estimated as costing the food industry $50B per year, and increasing. Recently 60,000 bottles of counterfeit wine – labelled as Benfolds, not Penfolds – was seized in China. There is an appetite for producers and consumers to make sure we are getting what we pay for.

New technologies are available – digital blockchain, to track products along supply chains. DNA, chemical and biomarkers, which can be analysed to determine the species of animal or plant in a product (e.g. tuna not dolphin), the origin (Australia not China) and also food safety status (e.g. good to eat for another 10 days) of products we consume. Putting these tools in the hands of consumers will be appealing.

Driving force – consumers are increasingly wanting to reduce their carbon footprint and eat ethically. Eating locally and sustainable is a growing trend.
Technological advances – ability to track biomarkers (structural, chemical, DNA) using a range of new technologies and incorporate in digitally tracked supply chain (block chain)

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Getting our microbiome right can lead to big health improvements. Image from worldsciencefestival.com

5. Mind your microbiome

Microbiome is the term for the microbes living around, on and in us (mainly in our gut), and we are each host to trillions of these visitors. It’s pretty important to get our microbiome right as it can have big health benefits including weight loss, mental health improvement and allergy reduction.

We will see more supplements, not just yoghurts, that aim to fine-tune our resident microbiome. The other option is for faecal transplants – but that is probably more of a niche offering.

Driving forces – recent advances in understanding that our gut microbes are intrinsically liked to our health
Technological advances – capacity to more proactively manipulate our gut microbiome

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Toast’ has been very successful and boasts reusing nearly 1 million slices of surplus bread to brew more than 300,000 litres of beer

6. Reduced food waste

We are wasting a lot of food. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that a third of all food produced globally is wasted, that’s 1.3B tonnes per year. I have difficulty imagining what 1.3 billion tons of food waste looks like. So I did a quick calculation against something big – The Great Pyramid at Giza. 

The great Pyramid of Giza Weighs about 5 million tonnes. If that were food waste it would weigh about 1.4 million tonnes – because food is less dense than stone. So the amount of food waste produced globally is equivalent to just less than 1000 Great Pyramids of Giza.

That’s a lot of food waste.

On average Australia families waste about $4000 of food a year. Whilst in-date food waste goes to food charities like Food Bank and Ozharvest there are other options for our food waste. Food waste can be transformed into a range of useful products, not just landfill, including nutraceuticals, cosmetics and biofuel. If we get it right we can develop new circular industries driven by food waste.

Driving force – public demand to reduce unethical and costly food waste
Technological advances – emerging fields of food science and biotechnology

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companies like Tipa are rising to the challenge and taking advantage of customer preferences for compostable and degradable packaging

7. Biodegradable packaging

Packaging is essential for food safety and transport through the supply chain. However, we are likely to see a range of plastic-replacement packaging made from materials such as starch or carbon which can protect food and are easily biodegraded or recycled.

Driving force – plastics are the new hate symbol of the 21st century. A move away from plastic packaging is inevitable and urgently needed
Technological advances – biochemical and chemical engineering

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The growing demand for vertical farming is thanks to its improved water and energy efficiency. Image from interestingengineering.com from Sky Greens

8. Agtech

Agriculture is changing – we are starting to see huge changes in the way farmers grow and harvest food. The intensification of food production will accelerate, including vertical farming with improved water and energy efficiency. Farming systems will increasingly use robots and drones to tend crops, remove weeds, treat plant diseases and harvest more efficiently.

Driving force – increasingly unpredictable weather due to climate change is driving the need for better ways to predict harvesting and maintain yield and profitability
Technological advances – include big data analytics, robotics, drones, visual analysis, remote sensing and smart machinery with artificial intelligence

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Precision agriculture like that using aerial drones can help transform the Australian wheat sector by delivering cost-effective mechanisms for farmers to plan and deliver precise water and nutrients to their crops on a need-by-need basis.image from the Australian Research Council website

9. Sustainable production landscapes

We can use our expertise and knowledge to develop model systems for national and international food production, as well as production landscapes that reduce energy and water use, harnessing ecosystem services and optimising transport, logistics and market access. Increasing concentration of food production whilst moving towards Regenerative Agriculture.

We have opportunity to reinvent Australia’s production landscapes. But what type of food production and processing landscapes do we want? We have opportunity to leap frog and build on our innovation potential.

Driving force – consumer and market demand for sustainable products
Technological advances – improved landscape management techniques and knowledge that harness and support ecosystem services and productivity at the same time

10. Market development and access

Helping businesses protect markets through ensuring efficient supply chains, and providing tools to prove the provenance of our foods, can give markets confidence in the Australian brand. A great product with a great reputation.

It is important to support the development of national and global market access and communities – and help new producers and products crack international markets. Wine has been able to achieve this globally and we have seen a premiumisation of Australian wine in the global market place –  it is time to apply the tactics more broadly to food.

Driving force – consumer demand for provenance and supporting a great product with a global reputation for quality
Technological advances – improved market and consumer understanding ability to position Australian produce as premium product, building on reputation established by wine and seafood

So its exciting times – with lots of opportunities.

We need to understand the technology opportunities, leverage existing expertise but also understand where we can lead with our own expertise. This requires building partnerships between industry, government, academia and community.

In order to be successful those in the food industry of the future must understand the benefits of technologies, and follow market dynamics and changing consumer preferences. We need an industry workforce trained for the future where life-long learning is the norm.

But if we do get it right, we will help build a key sector of our economy for generations to come. Getting it right also means we will be developing Australia’s food production systems in line with the Global Sustainable Development Goals, and a more sustainable future for us all.

With the collision of technologies and consumer driving forces these futures are not far away and in many cases have already begun.

Read my previous blog post, ‘Having our cake (and eating it too)’ about some of the mega challenges facing society that are driving food production and processing through one of the biggest industry changes since the industrial revolution.

Having our cake (and eating it too)

Let us be in no doubt, food production and processing is in the midst of the biggest change since the industrial revolution.

And not too soon, society is facing some mega challenges and changes, many of which relate to food and the way we produce it. These include:

  • The world is getting hungrier— with global population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, food demand will increase by 60-70%
  • The world is getting wealthier world — emergence of a new middle class increasing premium food and beverage consumption
  • Customers are becoming choosier— information empowered consumers demand particular ethics, provenance, sustainability or health attributes
  • Technologies are becoming transformative— advances in production and transport, machine learning, computer vision, robotics
  • Our political, financial and environmental systems are more unstable— changes resulting from globalisation, a changing climate and the political forces of anti-globalisation.
  • We are becoming unhealthier – for the first time in history the life expectancy of children is lower than their parent generation and decreasing, mainly due to poor diet. In Australia 60% of adults overweight or obese, and 1.7m people have diabetes (7%); which is projected to be 3m by 2025. Total health care costs set to increase as a proportion of government budgets
  • Finally food production is the leading cause of the some of the earths major environmental problems. For example in Australia, 60% of land use, 70% of water use and 16% of greenhouse gases are due to agricultural production. This land use is also contributing to soil erosion, dryland and irrigated salinity and a decline in the provision of ecosystem services, such as pollination.

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Recognising these issues the United Nations has developed the Global Sustainable Development Goals as a rallying call for sustainable development (you can find a progress report published in May 2019 here).

Many of these goals are directly relevant to food production and distribution, including:

  • zero hunger – food production and distribution,
  • good health and well-being – diet and nutrition,
  • industry innovation and infrastructure – ag and food tech and transformation,
  • sustainable cities and communities – sustainable food production,
  • responsible consumption and production – reducing food waste and transforming into new products,
  • climate action – mitigation and adaptation in food sector, and carbon sequestration,
  • life below water – management of fisheries and pollution/run off,
  • life on land – integrated landscapes that support food production and biodiversity

But as we know the delivery of these goals will need translation into sustainable business practises.

What are the options and potential for change in the agrifood and beverage sectors? Keep a look out for my next blog post in which I outline the top 10 predictions for trending food changes.

Go on – eat an alien

Kirsha Kaechele, an American artist and curator, has bought us an interesting concept in ‘Eat the problem‘.

So what is it?

Well it’s that we should do something with our problems instead of just complaining about them. In this case, the problem is invasive (otherwise known as alien) species, and the solution is – eating them.

The concept has spawned a book – apparently fully of delicious recipes involving alien species – boar, camel, cane toad anyone?

The idea has also been turned into an exhibition hosted at MONA in Tasmania (running until September 2019), involving the worlds largest glockenspiel, tuned to 432 Hz – the frequency of the Earth. You’ve got to love artists and their instillations.

The glockenspiel is the site of performances by artist Elena Stonaker and a series of spiritual health treatments. It is also the venue for a series of Sunday lunches and feasts, comprising ‘impossibly sumptuous courses of invasive species’, prepared by MONA’s Head Chef Vince Trim, so that customers can ‘eat the problem’ directly.

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A review of the the installation by Svenja J. Kratz labelled the premise as ‘a good starting point for critical discussion’ but ultimately is ‘little more than an exquisitely designed elitist spectacle’.

So what is that critical discussion – that we should be eating more invasive species in an attempt to control them and reduce the environmental destruction they bring?

Movements that encourage people to forage and eat invasive species have emerged […] and is a concept now growing in Australia.

This destruction shouldn’t be underestimated, and runs into billions of dollars worth in reduced agricultural production and untold impact to native habitats and species, including driving the extinction of several of our native flora and fauna.

If we reflect on the introduction of alien species to Australia, many have been brought here accidentally, but many more, and particularly some of our worst ones, have been introduced deliberately, many for food, or at least for hunting.

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Within 10 years of the introduction of rabbits to Australia, two million rabbits were being shot or trapped annually without having any noticeable effect on their population. Image from rabbitfreeaustralia.com

 

Famously, 24 wild rabbits were released by Thomas Austin for hunting purposes in October 1859, on his propery, Barwon Park in Victoria. Originally from England and an avid hunter, upon arriving in Australia Austin had rabbits, hares, partridges and some sparrows sent over so he could continue his hunting hobby in Australia by creating local populations. Within 10 years of their introduction, two million rabbits were being shot or trapped annually without having any noticeable effect on their population. It was the fastest spread ever recorded of any mammal anywhere in the world.

Of the 56 invasive vertebrate species in Australia many like the rabbit were introduced for food or hunting purposes, including the goat, pig, water buffalo, deer and red fox (although not so tasty). Many birds and fish were also introduced for sport and food including the common starling, the spotted dove, rock pigeon (common pigeon), carp, brown trout, rainbow trout, redfin perch, mosquitofish (Gambusia spp), weather loach, and spotted tilapia. Your options for plant-based alien fare is a little more limited and many are poisonous (bridle creeper, broom, fireweed, silver nightshade – see the Weeds of National Significance list for more) so beware.

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feral goats in Australia, photo credit Phil Johns, image from www.dpi.nsw.gov.au

Movements that encourage people to forage and eat invasive species have emerged in the UK and USA and these types of activities have been popular for some time, and is a concept now growing in Australia.

So why not give it a go – wild harvest or forage for invasive species – many of which were introduced exactly for that reason? Although if you’re going to embark on this route you’ll need to know your apples from your oranges and be able to identify palatable from unpalatable/poisonous fair, and you’re probably going to have to invest in some fishing, trapping or hunting equipment and permits, and a little expertise.

But once suitably equipped, you are likely to find that there is almost more availability of edible invasive species than edible native species here in Australia. In addition, you will be able to prepare some quite delicious meals with these unwelcome visitors – and besides Kaechele’s book there are a range of cook books on the topic – try some of Barbara Santich’s volumes, including Bold Pallets.

But don’t get too much of a taste for these exotic creatures; if demand develops for alien species they could end up being farmed, which could only make the problem worse.

 

Feature image: a mob of feral camels moving across arid land in the Australian Outback.  Photo by Robert Sleep, from https://www.pewtrusts.org

Alternative protein sources

I was recently at the Global Food Summit – Seeds and Chips – in Milan, and surprised to see that out of the 350 or so startups exhibiting there, about a quarter were profiling some sort of alternative protein source. The protein options are coming through thick and fast so lets take a look in a bit more detail at the top 5:

  1. Plant protein
  2. Microbial protein
  3. Insect protein
  4. Meat protein and production choices
  5. Lab-grown meat

 

Plant protein

Gone are the days of vegeburgers that taste like cardboard. There are now a range of new and improved plant-based, and most often pulse-based, products, which also taste more like meat – for example Beyond Meat – launched at Seeds and Chips recently, and the Impossible Burger made from plant-based protein in the silicon valley.

Interestingly both these companies started with taste as a basis for their product, rather than the environmental or health benefits. These benefits will of course flow, but people are only going to choose a plant-based protein option if it tastes delicious. In the case of the Impossible Burger the authentic taste is all down to an iron-containing molecule called “heme”, which Impossible Foods describes as the “magic ingredient that makes meat look, cook and taste gloriously meaty”.

The company also claims that by not using beef, one of its burgers uses 95% less land, 74% less water and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 87%.

One of the traditional problems with plant-based protein has been the relatively low availability of essential amino acids, but by moving away from soy as the sole ingredient, and by mixing in pulses, grains and other vegetable sources, the new generation of vege burgers are able to provide a balanced source of amino acids and in some cases respectable levels of iron.

The impossible burger, which thanks to its magic ingredient ‘heme’ looks and cooks like meat

Microbial protein

Protein can be harvested from a range of microbes including fungi, bacteria and micro algae – the most common of which is spirulina. The advantage of some of these proteins is that they can be grown at relatively large industrial scale in vats using only a sugar source, and then the cells can be harvested and compacted down into orange of meat-less protein products.

Again at Seeds and Chips several of these products were on show. The fibrous texture of fungal-based protein in particular was a good substitute for meat. Some of hype around these protein sources was interesting and one company which produced microbial protein claimed to produce protein from ‘thin air’. Technically this is true as the microbes harvest nitrogen out of the air and convert it into protein along with the carbohydrate food source the are given.

 

Insect protein

Insects provide a high protein, low fat, low carbon footprint food source, so why aren’t we eating more, well its largely cultural and squeamishness – we need to push past the yuck factor. As Emil, the fat rat from the animated film Ratatouille says, ‘You know, once you muscle your way past the gag reflex, all kinds of possibilities open up’

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Daniel Motlop,  packaging green ants at his Something Wild store in Adelaide. (Landline: Kerry Staight) – image taken from abc.net.au

However we already eat a broad range of arthropods, the evolutionary group that contain insects, including lobsters, shrimps and prawns. This group are known as crustaceans and are the sea-based relatives of woodlice.

But shouldn’t we be taking the idea of eating insects – or entophagy –  a bit more seriously? A UN report promotes eating insects as the solution for ending world hunger and increasing food security.

It requires 10 times as much plant matter to produce a kilo of mammal flesh compared to a kilo of insect biomass.

Over 2 billion people globally engage in entophagy and is a key part of their diets, and including crickets, cicadas, grasshoppers, ants, various beetle grubs (such as mealworms), the larvae of the darkling beetle or rhinoceros beetle, various species of caterpillar (such as bamboo worms, silkworms and the witchetty grub), scorpions and spiders (particularly tarantulas). In fact there are over 2000 species of insects and spiders known to be edible to humans.

Scientific analysis of fossilized poo and cave paintings, indicate humans have been eating insects for millennia, and our closest evolutionary relatives, the apes and primates, consume insects as part of their varied diets.

Insects are an excellent source of protein, and are very efficient to produce. It requires 10 times as much plant matter to produce a kilo of mammal flesh compared to a kilo of insect biomass. The carbon footprint of insect rearing, particularly in terms of methane production, is also much lower when compared to production of mammal biomass.

The large scale rearing of insects – or mini-livestock – is seen as part of the food solution particularly in some Asian countries and and Singapore in particular is the location of some serious investment in insect farming. 

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Mini-livestock rearing from Blade Runner 2049

 

Meat protein and production choices

Yet with all these alternative we shouldn’t be ruling meat out. There are a range of meat options we can consider, including beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish. Other non-standard options include kangaroo, which is very high in iron and low in fat. But saving up your weekly meat allowance (World Health Organisation recommendations is 65 g per day) to consume a delicious steak from pasture reared cows is also an option, and one which supports Australia’s premium beef production.

By choosing our meat sources and varying the way we produce meat, we can also drastically reduce the environmental and climate impact of consuming meat, which has received some attention recently. Here are a few ways this can be done (including advice from Meat and Livestock Australia)

  • Meat sources – you could choose to eat meats sourced from animals that produce lower amounts of greenhouse gases – fish, chicken or pork, compared to beef or lamb – and is the route to a climatarian diet
  • Animal breeding – animals are being bred for lower levels of methanogenesis (methane production, they greenhouse gas produced by livestock). Trials suggest that animal breeding could achieve a 10–20% reduction in methane emissions.
  • Diet supplements and feeds – some feed supplements help reduce methane emissions from livestock. For example 10–25% reductions are possible by feeding ruminants dietary oils, and 13–16% from condensed tannins.
  • Improved pastures – improved forage quality, for example fresh grass rather than grain diets, can reduce methane production in livestockPasture quality can also be improved by plant breeding, including  legumes, changing from tropical to temperate grasses, or grazing on less mature pastures. 
  • Biological control – Three biological control methods are being examined for their ability to reduce methane production from livestock, using:
    • viruses that attack the microbes which produce methane
    • specialised proteins that target methane-producing microbes
    • other microbes (methanotrophs) that break down the methane produced in the rumen into other substances.

 

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Arthur Dent meets the meat – We are not quite at the stage of breeding animals that are disappointed not to be eaten – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy  

 

Matthew Evans, who I was on a panel discussion with at WOMADelaide this year (check out podcast here – less meat more heat – is the elephant in the room really a cow), has recently published a book ‘On Eating Meat’. In it he uncovers some of the animal welfare and health issues associated with the large-scale livestock industry and ends up recommending that we should just eat less meat but spend more on each item to get better quality, more ethically and sustainably sourced meat – a sensible suggestion all round.

 

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There is growing conversation around meat production and consumption, like this book by farmer/chef/journalist Matthew Evans

 

Lab grown meat

Finally – lets consider cell cultured meat, which are animal tissue cells grown in a lab. So you are getting real meat without the environmental impacts. Its currently possible but expensive. A kilo of lab grown meat would currently set you back between $15,000 and $25,000, but costs are coming down rapidly, and companies developing this technology are aiming for a product that would retail for $5-10 per kilo.

Billionaire Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and one of the world’s biggest meat companies Cargill have all invested in a US-based start-up company –  Memphis Meats.

Professor Mark Post holds the world's first lab-grown beef burger during a launch event in west London
Mark Post holds the world’s first lab-grown beef burger in 2013 (DAVID PARRY / REUTERS) – image from The Atlantic

The company has begun producing chicken, duck and beef by multiplying animal cells in brewery vats, without feeding, breeding or slaughtering actual animals. First animal cells are obtained, for example from a tenderloin, cells which are self renewing are identified and will be able to produce more starter cells in the future. The cells are then fed nutrients, the same nutrients that animals require to grow. For more information see here.

Richard Branson, who has given up eating beef, speculated that in 30 years or so we would no longer need to kill any animals and all meat would either be “clean or plant-based”. “One day we will look back and think how archaic our grandparents were in killing animals for food.”

Whilst this technology is still a way off being cost effective, and there are challenges to producing products beyond mince, it is the type of development we are going to need to perfect if we are to establish ultra-high intensity vertical farms or set up colonies on Mars.

Read my previous blog post, Protein is the new black, where I examined the protein choices we have, food culture, and the driving forces behind industry trends.

Also listen in to an interview on ABC radio I did on the topic with Deb Tribe on 22nd June 2019. 

(Feature image credit from https://impossiblefoods.com/)