At a glance
It was once said our economy was built off the sheep’s back, but look closer and you’ll see the foundation of NZ’s competitive advantage in agriculture is really found under foot.
Our pasture – particularly, our temperate climate that allows it to largely grow year round – has fuelled NZ’s strong heritage in producing animal protein for world markets, such as dairy, meat and wool.
But with global consumer habits changing, and environmental pressures rising, startup venture Leaft Foods is using innovation to capitalise on our green pastures in new ways.
The time is now
Canterbury-based Leaft Foods extracts protein out of green leaf material to produce nutritious food products with a lower environmental impact than many traditional protein sources.
The science behind Leaft Foods’ concept isn’t new; it dates back to WWII when researchers, looking for alternative protein sources when food supplies were stretched, discovered a highly nutritious protein, called rubisco, could be extracted from green leaf material for human consumption.
Rubisco is the planet’s most plentiful protein, but despite the science being revisited a number of times, explains Leaft Foods CEO Ross Milne, it failed to gain commercial traction.
There are a couple of major global trends driving Leaft Foods’ market opportunity: one is the shift globally towards plant-based diets, as consumer awareness grows around the benefits to our climate, but also to human health and animal welfare. The other is the drive to address the environmental impacts of traditional agricultural systems, such as dairy farming.
Leaft Foods is co-founded by senior dairy industry veterans John and Maury Leyland Penno – respectively, a co-founder and former leader of the Synlait Group, and a former senior Fonterra executive.
Their backgrounds gave them a keen awareness of the drive towards both plant-based diets and more sustainable farming practices, and in 2019 they recruited Milne, who had spent a decade working in the food industry in Europe.
“The challenge we’re setting out to overcome with Leaft Foods is to extract and purify the protein from the leaf material in a way that is sustainable and commercially viable,” Milne says.
So far, the business has been able to take green leaf material and produce a white high-protein concentrate powder at lab scale – even producing a classic Kiwi pavlova with the results. It’s now working on producing the powder at pilot-plant scale, before it can move on to a commercial-sized facility.
Leaft Foods received a Callaghan Innovation Project Grant in 2019 to support this R&D work, and has also tapped into a wide range of the agency’s services. This includes working with protein scientists in the Research and Development Solutions division on how best to extract the protein while maintaining its quality and functionality
Callaghan Innovation’s support, says Milne, has been critical.
“There’s a lot of research being carried out around plant proteins, particularly in Europe, and if NZ wants to be a part of this journey – especially if we want to lead it – we need to move fast.
“We’ve worked with a number of Callaghan Innovation’s scientists and been very impressed with the experts’ capabilities. The ability to work with them, and to access Callaghan Innovation funding in the early days, has enabled us to progress quickly and to the stage we’re at now, where we’re a serious contender in the plant protein space.”
A circular model
Leaft Foods was among the innovators highlighted in NZ Cleantech for the world – a 2020 Callaghan Innovation report focused on the opportunities for R&D-led companies developing solutions with positive environmental impacts.
Callaghan Innovation is committed to helping develop a globally competitive CleanTech ecosystem in NZ, producing businesses that develop innovative offerings, provide meaningful jobs and solve climate change, water quality and resource-use problems for NZ, and importantly, the world.
Alongside developing innovative plant-based food products, says Milne, Leaft Foods is developing a business model that helps existing farming systems become more sustainable.
Pasture grown on dairy farms on the Canterbury Plains, for example, contains more protein than needed by the cows that feed on it.
Leaft Foods’ process extracts that excess protein from the pasture for human consumption. It then creates a silage product containing an optimal amount of protein that can be fed to ruminants. This reduces environmental impact by, for example, reducing the amount of nitrogen released through the animals’ urine stream and ultimately nitrate levels in groundwater.
Paul Hamilton, a Callaghan Innovation Food and Beverage Business Innovation Advisor who works alongside Leaft Foods, says the economic modelling of its circular business model has been an important part of the business’ R&D journey.
“The whole model has to hit a price point where it's feasible to scale. They're a very switched-on team, and if they can make it work there’s a huge global opportunity.”
Milne agrees there’s substantial CleanTech opportunity ahead for the company – and the country.
“The vision I see for NZ is we develop this ‘green glow’ of knowledge around extracting valuable compounds out of plant material. I see Leaft Foods as a frontrunner in that, and as we’re pushing innovation in this space, I hope other organisations will join us on the journey.”
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Updated: 30 September 2021