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Saturday 21 May 2022

Wednesday Letter: FFA’s Alex Worker on reframing NZ’s food future

27th April 2022 By Contributor | contact@foodticker.co.nz | @foodtickernz

The next chapter of New Zealand’s food-tech enabled future can be built on the shoulders of dairy and the primary industries embracing the ‘and’ ideas over the ‘or’ ideas, argues entrepreneur and Future Food Aotearoa chair Alex Worker.

Alex Worker

My grandfather was a grass scientist from Massey University under Dr McMeekan. My folks are Kiwi public servants. Many of my cousins are dairy farmers around Southland, and one a cricketer.

My immediate family were Kiwis, who grew up mainly offshore, around Asia, and in the Americas. We were proud of and trained to talk about Aotearoa abroad and were always a little uncomfortable when back living in New Zealand.

I grew up around dinner tables hearing of New Zealand’s successful dairy, beef and wool legacy, the historic New Zealand Inc investment into innovation and R&D, pivoting to Asia from Europe, the New Zealand Dairy Board mentality to pioneering markets, the formation of Fonterra, free trade agreements and the WTO, studying Craig Norgate and New Zealand Farming Systems, Uruguay before Olam’s pounce, and of course Helen Clark, Winston Peters and Sir Pita Sharples.

After studying, I remember feeling proud to join Fonterra as a global trade graduate in 2009, coming out of the GFC. Dairy did New Zealand good then, like it’s doing New Zealand good now during Covid. If I had shared my Fanshawe Street colleagues’ views, it could have been a gig for life.

A few years ago, I decided to leave Fonterra after working for them mainly in China on several businesses that had largely failed. My decision to leave resulted from several frustrations about the missed China vertical strategy and partnerships, some variable governance and execs, and the PC Kiwi culture of avoiding conversations about owning failure.

One meeting, in particular, struck me, when listening to globalists from Starbucks talk about Fonterra. They told me they loved the New Zealand supply chain that Fonterra represented but didn’t want more dairy! They wanted to know if there was anything else Fonterra could offer Starbucks beside the UHT milk, culinary cream, and Kāpiti ice cream we already supplied? I kept taking this request back to Head Office, and it failed to be made a priority. Dairy it was, and dairy it remains.

The exact day I decided to leave was when I met Nick Halla from Impossible Foods with his team in Hong Kong. Impossible Food’s technology story and mission were, in my eyes, what Starbucks and progressive channels around the Asia Pacific were searching for.

They want good, trustworthy foods packaged and branded, aligned to values that do not cost the earth (or their quarterly earnings forecasts). Fonterra and New Zealand dairy once stood for this, but increasingly, the values around costing the earth were being misunderstood and shifting. Perfect Day, Unilever and even Kerry get this story, perception or otherwise, better today.

I took my excitement for a food tech-enabled future back to family and friends in New Zealand and soon realised this excitement wasn’t shared. If anything, this guarded ‘dairy for life’ narrative remains for a lot of New Zealand today, even within our government circles and regulators. ‘It’s the livelihoods we are talking about. It was either natural, regenerative foods or nothing. The international elite and aspirational will want our stuff; we’re fine. Food tech, as in fake meat, why would anybody want that? Isn’t all that processed stuff tanking?’ These were just some of the comments I heard.

Foodtech acceleration in Israel, Netherlands, Denmark, China, San Francisco, Singapore and even Australian ecosystems are now being supercharged thanks to VC and government regulatory pushes, especially around CRISPR, IP capture and genetic engineering shifts.

Beyond Meat’s IPO validated the global playing field, with China and the US getting behind their cell-based technologies expanding it. Pricing parity for tasty plant-based foods is not far away. Meanwhile, New Zealand has been relatively nascent; instead of focusing on provenance, it was made with care and food safety storytelling. The level of R&D investment as a nation squeaks somewhere over a basis point or nearly two, and our entrepreneurs are generally cut down quickly unless they find success. Then a few more get cut down once they are successful.

So, the change that needs to take place in New Zealand, like most things in Aotearoa, feels like it’s running a few years later compared to the global hubs of excellence. But the good news is that something is starting to happen. Te Hono at Waitangi in 2021 was a trigger for me – where conversations were about identity and belonging, embracing the ‘and’ ideas, inviting duality or multipolar perspectives with an intergenerational approach all permitted. The industry is beginning to talk, and hopefully, our government is listening.

As both an uncomfortable entrepreneur and uncomfortable New Zealander, my role in this systems change is to help reframe our food narrative by focusing on growing the pipeline of New Zealand’s modern and future food businesses. Aotearoa’s food future is an incredibly positive story that we must defend, nurture and supercharge.

We have a very exciting collective opportunity coming out of Covid. Big companies helping medium and small players, each sharing ideas and failure, listening to needs and prototyping to demand, attracting big money to scalable plans that don’t cost the earth, supplying better nutrition to China and the US agnostically, better controlling our positions in our value chains, and ultimately enabling New Zealand to be viewed as the world’s eco-valley for both regenerative and modern (future) foods.

For me, whether it’s by helping launch Impossible Foods into New Zealand, working as a growth partner in NewFish (microalgae) and LILO (fruit waste) and supporting not-for-profit activities with Future Food Aotearoa and supporting industry transformation and government policy, I’m learning that this new chapter must be built on the shoulders of dairy, and the primary industries. It requires respect for their legacy and also a commitment to change.

And it’s all ‘and’ not ‘or’. Less can be more.

However, we will benefit from more R&D commercialisation and more entrepreneurs. And some more strategic NZ funding mechanisms backing our national interests. And more growth collectives pooling resources like FFA.

Perhaps my most important realisation is that some of our best food and fibre entrepreneurs are also some of our best farmers. Once my Southern cousins taste products that use the Impossible Foods type of technology (hopefully with NZ IP one day) and vest into a reframed vision for Aotearoa modern foods, they will be smart enough to get on with incorporating new ideas into their businesses and communities. On behalf of New Zealand and for themselves and their families. I’m sure of that.

Alex Worker

Chair, Future Food Aotearoa

This opinion was first shared by Te Hono as an Iti-Nui insight.

 

 


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