DFSS is coming up March 29th and we’re bringing some of the participants to you now with a pre-summit interview. In this edition we talk to Dr. Denise Conroy, Senior Scientist at The New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research Limited. If you want to see a listing of speakers and sessions, please click here. To register as a delegate, click here.
- Please tell us a little about the New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research.
Plant & Food Research is a government-owned Crown Research Institute, with an annual turnover of about NZ$160m (about US$110m). The organization receives about 50% of its turnover from the New Zealand Government – from designated funding and from competitive bids – and around 50% from commercial sources, such as industry bodies, food marketers, multinational companies and royalties. Our research spans the value chain of the plant and marine-based food industries, from breeding new varieties, developing new production technologies and processes, to ensuring food is delivered to the consumer in premium condition. Our research is all driven by consumer trends and the requirement for economic and environmental sustainability.
- What is one finding or research thread from your institute that you find particularly uplifting?
I have been working with members of PFR’s consumer team for several years, particularly on one of New Zealand’s science challenges – High Value Nutrition. The goal of this science challenge is to develop quality food products, with proven health benefits, for New Zealand’s export markets. It has been an enormous privilege to travel to China (a significant trade partner) on several occasions to lead the research team in engaging with consumers to identify their emotions, attitudes, concerns, and expectations etc around their health, the health of their loved ones, and the role they believe food to play in supporting health.
- You study consumer behaviour, especially differences between generations. Please share one insight about each of those age groups that can be useful to food businesses?
We see significant differences between the younger generations – Millennials and Gen Z, and the older generation of Baby Boomers. Millennials account for 31.5% of the world’s 7.7 billion population, and Gen Z 32%. These two generations have been raised in a digital world and are far more accepting of technology than Baby Boomers. They are invested in climate change, sustainability, animal welfare, and far trade – and look to technology to solve such issues. For food and food production these generations are far more likely than Baby Boomers to embrace technology with demonstrable benefits. This may include genetic editing, nanotechnologies, and synthetic biology.
- How can businesses be profitable at the same time that they encourage healthful, green behaviours?
Consumers are demanding healthy foods that are produced in a sustainable manner. By understanding the science of our food, we can develop new products and production systems that deliver high health foods produced using environmentally sustainable methods. This means ensuring all inputs – such as water – are optimized, that plants and the production systems used are adapted to the environmental conditions, and that pests and diseases are addressed in both the breeding of new varieties and in management of the environment.
- What role do you see for technology in promoting healthful, green eating?
I personally see emerging technologies having the potential to deliver sustainable and profitable agriculture to support healthful green eating; at PFR we refer to this as a ‘smart, green future’. However, as a consumer psychologist I also see the potential for technology associated with agriculture to expand at a rate greater than consumers’ capacity to understand these opportunities. This has huge, and potentially negative impacts, for ‘social licencing’ [ongoing acceptance of a company or industry’s standard business practices and operating procedures by its employees, stakeholders and the general public], and I believe far more attention needs to be paid to how consumers are understanding emerging technologies, and how best to align the benefits of the technologies with consumer values.
- What advice do you have for students considering a career in your field?
“As many arrows, loosed several ways, come to one mark… so may a thousand actions, once afoot, end in one purpose.” William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act I, sc. 2. I started my career as a clinical psychologist, moved to advertising, working for technology companies, and then spent 20 years working as an Academic at the University of Auckland before joining Plant and Food Research. Throughout my career my motivation has been to make a practical and positive difference. My advice is to find your purpose by exploring your passion, work with good people, be one yourself, and never turn down an adventure.
- When many people think of food from New Zealand, they think of dairy products. What do you think the future holds for New Zealand agriculture industries?
New Zealand has a strong horticultural export industry in addition to its more well-known dairy exports. Research from the New Zealand Productivity Commission suggests that New Zealand should adopt more plants on its productive land to move to lower greenhouse gas emissions. There is also a driver to move to a more diversified production system to meet growing consumer demands for a “flexitarian” lifestyle, producing more plant-based foods, particularly plant proteins, to meet these needs and maintain a premium position in the global marketplace. Greater diversity of plant production means lower emissions and optimized water use, and very importantly, diversity of insects, crucial for their ecological role and influence on agriculture.