Thursday, April 25, 2024

Kiwi, US growers aim for ‘veg diplomacy’

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California produce giant visits NZ to seek greater insight into agritech here.
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The visiting heads of Californian produce-growing giant Western Growers Association see New Zealand sharing more with their state than just cataclysmic weather events that disrupt food supplies and profits.

Dennis Donohue, head of the group’s innovation and technology centre, and his colleague Dr Jeana Cadby, the group environment and climate director, are visiting NZ to gain greater insight into its agritech sector. 

They also hope ties to NZ will strengthen growers’ efforts to meet tightening demands on crop treatment types.

Western Growers is among the largest produce grower groups in the world, supplying 40-50% of the United States’ produce needs across a wide range of leafy greens, fruit, berries and nuts. 

The relationship between the group and NZ growers extends back over seven years, when then AgriTech NZ head Peter Wren-Hilton signed a memorandum of understanding to share and accelerate the growth of agritech across both countries. 

Wren-Hilton has since worked to form Platform 10, a multinational collaborative effort that aims to accelerate promising biopesticide companies and enable more rapid market adoption of the products.

That adoption is coming faster than many growers in NZ may appreciate. Come 2030, almost half the pesticides now in use will be banned by the European Union. 

This is compelling grower groups to consider softer biopesticides, but the rate of development and adoption demands more pace.

“New Zealand is seen as being slightly ahead of the game, thanks in part to our adoption of the Lighter Touch programme,” Wren-Hilton said.  

But he pointed out that the five crop cycles left until 2030 are going to disappear quickly.

The $27 million, seven-year Lighter Touch programme jointly funded by the government and the industry addresses the challenge of meeting demand for safe food produced under sustainable pest management programmes, while also being gentler on the environment.

It is now becoming increasingly important for growers to develop global field trials to enable continuity of testing for trials and approval processes, something a liaison with the Californian growers serves.

“We have also identified specific crops to focus on in our first iteration, consisting of strawberries, leafy greens, tomatoes, almonds and table grapes,” Donohue said.

The group wants to put the field trials firmly in growers’ hands, given their propensity for problem solving and adopting new technology to solve those problems, he said.

California has recently signed off on a pest management road map that incorporates softer crop treatments to deal with a growing list of problem pests. 

One in particular shared by almost all growers is thrip control. A severe thrip outbreak two years ago in Salinas, California, resulted in the price of romaine and iceberg lettuces soaring to record highs of US$100 ($165) a carton and causing losses of over US$100 million for the industry.

“It is a good signal to also send to the marketplace that some of the best crop growers around have identified the problems and are getting the tools to address them,” Donahue said.

He also acknowledged there is a degree of “vegetable diplomacy” in forming a partnership with NZ growers. 

Working together on trialling products provides greater clout when seeking environmental authority approval, something that can be as arduous in California as it is in NZ.

“If you want food security globally and we are able to provide third party validation on trials and science, it means EPAs [Environmental Protection Agencies] around the world would look to this work as a basis for approval of products.”

For NZ growers whose entire industry can sometimes be less than that of a single California growers’ production, the union provides some serious horsepower to leverage on the world stage.

“There are a lot of moving parts when picking up new technology in biologicals, the interplay of education, equipment, application, and adoption. 

“It is easy for retailers to say we need X product by 2030 without that treatment, but the alternative is not always immediately available,” Donohue said.

He has been impressed with the level of commercial-research interaction shown by the likes of Plant & Food Research, where particular crops like Ruby Red kiwifruit have been developed and commercialised through clear pathways.

Gene editing is, perhaps surprisingly, not as high on the group’s agenda, with much of the US focus on it being through broadacre crops such as wheat and soy. 

“There is an interest there, but our focus is more on biological controls at present.”

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