A bite of food science
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.
Bruce Campbell: Plant and Food Research’s chief operating officer.