By Professor Richard Newcomb, chief scientist at Plant & Food Research
The drivers for developing new plant crops are various and include climate change, pest and disease resistance, logistics, and changing consumer demands. Breeding and selection enable us to develop distinctive offerings. What might the next berry offering look like, for example?
We can develop new crops either by importing plants or by exploring the potential of material already in the country. Possible future crops could include quinoa, hemp, chickpeas, buckwheat, dragon fruit, almonds, and Asian vegetables. The growth of new crops has the potential to generate new domestic and international markets, as well as catalysing new food industries based on utilising these new crops to develop high-value ingredients and processed foods.
Adapting to climate change will require new crops suited to different regions and conditions. A lot of research has been underway to understand how to transform land use and develop new crops and industries to support the resilience of New Zealand’s primary sector. Subtropical and tropical crops could become feasible in warmer areas, for example. Improving the resilience of our existing crops, through breeding and selection, will also help meet future challenges. To ensure resilience, new crops and production systems will need to use water and nutrients efficiently to maximise crop yields.
Expanding the range of plant crops we grow will help diversify our export sectors and spread risk. New ways of cooperating could help optimise the use of expensive infrastructure to support the development of new industries. For instance, digital technology could enable information sharing to underpin the development of new crops and their supply chains.
In comparison with traditional crops, new plant crops may require innovative ways of positioning and marketing produce. Innovation could also drive new methods for using plants – like processing to reduce the fresh weight and improve the export carbon footprint. Consumer drivers will continue to be important too, including the continued demand for sustainable, healthy, tasty convenient food products. The trend toward total utilisation of our foods is set to continue, enabling us to make use of parts of the plant we might have previously discarded.
Professor Richard Newcomb is chief scientist at Plant & Food Research overseeing all aspects of science quality, strategic science, capability development, and collaboration across the institute. He is also an honorary professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Auckland.