Clever Kiwis

Over the past 20 years, New Zealand has turned an annual NZ$2 million fruit and vegetable export business into NZ$2 billion. The dramatic growth in the NZ horticultural industry has been based on exports of kiwi fruit and wine. The Kiwis have managed to stamp their name all over a fruit that is not even native to their land.

But ask Dr Richard Newcomb from the HortResearch Institute in Auckland what the secret of success has been, and you may be surprised at his answer. ‘R & D’, he says flatly.

‘From day one there was the expectation of building an export market’, says Newcomb. With that international focus, the Kiwis developed a sustainable production system for fruit, and then determined how best to bring their fresh produce to international markets—when to pick them, and how to ripen, store, package and transport them. They invented special plastic films to keep them fresh, and tested varieties and tastes.

Newcomb is an expert in the genetics of taste and smell. He heads the Molecular Olfaction Group at HortResearch (the NZ equivalent of a co-operative research centre). His present research includes projects to intensify the taste of fruits and match them to Asian and European markets, as well as to control insect and mammal pests by disrupting their olfactory communication.

But the Kiwis are after even bigger bananas. In June, NZ signed a memorandum of understanding with all the Australian states and the ACT to form an Australia–NZ Biotech Alliance. The Kiwis have committed NZ$12 million as a catalyst for trans-Tasman biotech business collaboration. ‘Apart, we’re bit players; together, we’re the fifth largest biotechnology hub in the world’, says NZ Trade Commissioner to Australia, Mark Ingram.

Projects undertaken range from tests for toxins in shellfish to development of better clover for cattle fodder. But the Kiwis are talking of joint research institutes and funding. Already NZ has invested A$5 million in the Australian synchrotron, while the two countries have worked cooperatively to develop clinical trials for drugs and vaccines.

People like Dr Andrew Kelly, chief scientific officer of Life Science Ventures, an Auckland-based NZ$100 million biotech venture capital fund, have a pretty good idea of where to start our joint assault—agricultural biotechnology. ‘There’s no point’, he argues, ‘in taking on the US and Europe in areas such as pharmaceuticals. Let’s play to our strengths’.

Not only are we good at agriculture and agricultural research, but it is a large part of our respective economies. We have the networks to apply and sell whatever biotechnology we develop. We can even move into the medical field via agricultural biotechnology. An interesting model is provided by two sister companies in Dunedin on NZ’s South Island—Ovita Ltd and Covita Ltd. Ovita focuses on developing biotechnology products based on the sheep genome, control of parasite infections, diagnostic tests, fertility control, and muscle growth and repair. Covita takes that research and develops it for off-farm application. In many cases, sheep can give us the clue as to how to deal with human problems, as sheep are already used as models for many human medical conditions.

Whatever other food they provide, those Kiwis are certainly providing food for thought.  

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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