Friday, 14 February 2020

Turning alternative proteins into opportunity


Dr John Penno has set up an alternative protein company, Leaft Foods, which works with the farming system to provide alternative income opportunities. He shares the concept with Ravensdown and his thoughts on the future of food production.

One of the greatest challenges facing the world today is being able to ensure the growing population has access to enough nutritious food that’s produced in a sustainable way. Right now, we’re seeing that the global food system is under increasing pressure to meet this challenge.

New Zealand’s innovative farmers and business people have used Aotearoa New Zealand’s natural advantages of climate and environment to create world-leading business models, especially in the production, manufacture and export of dairy, beef, lamb and wool commodities. Today, this strength is also our weakness. 

We’re seeing an over-concentration of resources and capability in a few areas, which has the potential to cause major negative environmental impacts, especially in relation to our gas emissions on the climate and nitrogen loss on fresh water.

Environmental, ethical and health concerns are driving consumers to change their purchasing habits. Until very recently, meat was meat – from an animal. Now, with advanced technology that was previously reserved for use in pharmaceutical production, we’re beginning to see proteins such as casein being produced from advanced fermentation processes – instead of from a cow. The demand for plant-based products is driving a significant shift towards a more sustainable food production model.

The future of New Zealand’s food production has the potential to be quite different from what it is today, with a wider range of high-value products from multiple sources. There is a significant opportunity for New Zealand to harness advances in technology and innovation to transform the protein sector in a fundamental way. 

My wife Maury and I founded Leaft Foods to do exactly that, be transformative. Rather than competing with traditional animal industries, we are looking to complement and enhance them. We started experimenting in our own kitchen with the concept of a plant-based protein and decided that this idea was worth pursuing. Leaf protein has great nutritional value and excellent functional properties and is abundantly grown in crops familiar to Canterbury farmers. Investing in this new venture has been exciting, to be involved with new food-processing equipment and innovative technology, which has made it feasible for protein to be released from the cells and extracted in a readily digestible form. The by-product is available to be fed to livestock with some of the protein removed – lessening the nitrogen that might otherwise be lost to the environment. 

Our on-farm solution ensures that we are working with those who care for the land and practice sustainable farming. Right now, we are growing a highly innovative team to figure out the process for extracting these proteins and what new food products they can integrate into. We’re looking for the best and brightest people to help us get there.