A bite of food sci­ence

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS - By EMMA WHIT­TAKER

THERE is more sci­ence be­hind your food than you might think.

Plant and Food Re­search is the crown in­sti­tute that sup­ports New Zealand’s food pro­duc­tion sec­tor.

It’s cel­e­brat­ing its 75th an­niver­sary in March and the pub­lic are in­vited to an open day at its Mt Al­bert base.

‘‘When a lot of people walk around the su­per­mar­ket they prob­a­bly don’t re­alise that sci­ence has been help­ing to cre­ate the food that they’ve got,’’chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Dr Bruce Camp­bell says.

‘‘The idea of the open day is to help people un­der­stand what sci­ence is do­ing for them. We recog­nise that people may think that it’s a bit se­cre­tive here, and they don’t re­ally know what we do – we don’t want it to be like that.’’

Plant and Food Re­search sci­en­tists’ work is broad.

They’re re­spon­si­ble for find­ing ways to de­velop foods that bet­ter suit people’s tastes, breed­ing new va­ri­eties of fruits and veg­eta­bles, look­ing into more ef­fec­tive meth­ods for stor­ing food for ex­port, find­ing sus­tain­able ways to har­vest seafood, pest con­trol and food safety.

Jazz ap­ples and the new­est va­ri­eties of golden ki­wifruit are some of the cre­ations to come out of the in­sti­tu­tion.

Pseu­domonas syringae pv ac­tini­diae (PSA) is a bac­te­ria that was found on New Zealand ki­wifruit in 2010. It de­stroys crops and New Zealand’s gold ki­wifruit are par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to it.

‘‘When PSA came in the in­dus­try got very ner­vous be­cause they didn’t have con­trol mech­a­nisms and they didn’t know what the fu­ture was go­ing to bring. That’s where we ramped up our sci­ence a lot to look at if there was a tol­er­ance present in other gold ki­wifruit that could re­place the sus­cep­ti­ble ones.’’

The sci­en­tists are also try­ing to pro­duce a new wine with lower al­co­hol con­tent.

‘‘It’s a tricky one be­cause the al­co­hol con­tent seems to be closely re­lated to the taste ex­pe­ri­ence, so we’re look­ing to break that re­la­tion­ship a bit by start­ing right back in the vine­yard to grow the grapes dif­fer­ently from the be­gin­ning.’’

It’s not ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, Mr Camp­bell says.

‘‘We take our mes­sages from the mar­ket and what the mar­ket is sig­nalling is they want things that are nat­u­rally bred.

‘‘We are keep­ing our op­tions open for the fu­ture by do­ing some work in labs to un­der­stand the molec­u­lar ba­sis of how things work and con­trol sys­tems’’.

Food safety is a ma­jor fo­cus of the in­sti­tu­tion.

‘‘I don’t think a lot of people like the idea that sci­ence is too in­volved with their food, but they want the as­sur­ance that the food they have is safe and has good scru­tiny and that’s where the sci­ence re­ally works in the back­ground to be able to pro­vide good qual­ity as­sur­ance sys­tems.’’

Around 200 sci­ence staff work out of the Mt Al­bert fa­cil­ity. It’s the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s cor­po­rate head­quar­ters and where most of its lab­o­ra­tory work is done.

There are field sta­tions around the coun­try for grow­ing crops and other re­search.

The govern­ment ac­quired 6.6 hectares of land from the Al­ber­ton Es­tate in the 1930s to build the orig­i­nal fa­cil­ity.

Photo: EMMA WHIT­TAKER

Bruce Camp­bell: Plant and Food Re­search’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer.

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