Agritech innovators on the up

The New Zealand agritech sector is growing fast as innovators move to develop technology and applications that can be applied not only to New Zealand’s primary sector, but globally.

The four innovative, exciting tech companies highlighted here are leveraging a combination of Kiwi innovation, and in some cases New Zealand’s unique natural resources, and are a snapshot of the emerging talent in this exciting sector.

Consulting with KPMG in the food and agriculture sector meant Trust Codes strategy leader Emma Wheeler gained some first-hand insights into emerging innovation and technology that was being integrated into global supply chains.

Among this was Trust Codes. The Trust Codes technology is a means of protecting brands and offering proof of provenance to global consumers through a unique QR code, acting as a “licence plate”. Behind the QR code sits smart tech in the form of advanced algorithms and machine learning to deter counterfeiters and layering on validated data linked to a traceable product.

She was particularly taken by the relevance to New Zealand’s supply chain, and the rapidly emerging Māori concept of kaitiakitanga, with the QR code capable of communicating a brand’s unique value directly to consumers through a simple scan.

Longer supply chains overseas can mean greater opportunity for fraud and counterfeiting.

“New Zealand brands need to be aware of the risk from a consumer health perspective, and from a brand perception perspective – once a brand’s reputation is tarnished, a consumer will remember that, it takes a lot to rebuild trust.”

Traceability through the supply chain gives peace of mind the product has not been tampered with. The Trust Codes technology also enables other certificates with claims to be attached to the product, for example an organic certification, or zero carbon claim.

“There are also the end of life opportunities. Once a consumer has finished with the product, they can scan the QR code on the packaging and place it in connected bins – there’s the opportunity to offer incentives for doing so, like $1 off their next purchase.”

The solution also has the ability to integrate with social media, helping build consumer communities and awareness.

For exporters of New Zealand’s retail-ready high value products like mānuka honey, the technology can help preserve a product vulnerable to the insertion of low-grade ingredients to replace or extend the original product’s volume.

“We have had experiences with products being inserted into the supply chain, such as molasses being used as honey, and low grade potentially harmful infant formula, so an infant is being fed potentially harmful nutrition.

“From a regulatory perspective, we are seeing the likes of the US FDA who have announced a new era for smarter food, outlining the way they plan to leverage new and emerging technologies and approaches to create a safer and more digital, traceable food system.

It is this “push” from regulators and “pull” from consumers wanting more traceability that Trust Codes can address.

Ultimately, Wheeler says there is potential for Trust Codes to perform more than what standard barcodes do, given the ability of QR codes to hold significantly more data.

“Once transitioned to QR codes there is the ability there for all participants to scan the same code and receive different information, it’s essentially one code to rule them all.

Trust Codes has been working to lead this technology and is also working with customers in Australia.

Finding more answers in seaweed solutions

Despite its inland location, the provincial Hauraki Plains town of Paeroa is set to become something of a hub for the innovative development of seaweed and its multiple uses, whether in animal health, greenhouse gas reduction or wound treatment.

AgriSea, a business resident in Paeroa for 25 years has become something of a landmark company for developing innovative, sustainable seaweed-based fertilisers over the years.

Originally established by Jill Bradley, mother of current co-owner Tane Bradley, the business kicked off developing seaweed fertilisers after Jill was so impressed at the health and well-being of an organic dairy farm she visited one summer.

Today Tane and wife Clare are overseeing the company’s foray into the rapidly developing area of seaweed-based products, while also gaining an ever stronger following among New Zealand farmers keen to incorporate their seaweed fertilisers into nutrient regimes.

Jill and co-founder Keith Atwood started off “walking the walk”, converting a rural property near Auckland to biological farming, before moving to Paeroa to commit to brewing seaweed for fertiliser.

The company’s science-based culture was founded on Jill and Keith’s early research, doing a three-year project on seaweed’s effectiveness on kiwifruit orchards. The work highlighted the treatment’s ability to extend the fruit’s storage life and quality.

Twenty-five years on the company employs 34 staff and has doubled down on its research work around alternative uses for seaweed beyond fertiliser.

Last year, the business was awarded a Fieldays Innovation Award for a prototype formulation that helps reduce oxidative stress in cows and boost disease resistance and urinary nitrogen discharge by 18 percent.

A grant from the Callaghan Innovation research and development fellowship has been supported by a further fellowship grant to help AgriSea develop hydrogels in conjunction with forest researcher Scion.

The high-value agents are extracted from low-value seaweed cellulose, part of the company’s processing output, and they are used for multiple applications from wound care to petrochemical alternatives. The gels are capable of absorbing water volume up to 1,000 times their own weight.

The ability to constructively use all of their raw material resonates strongly with Tane’s cultural values, to respect people and the environment.

“We see ourselves as a family doing good things and we want to partner with others who are doing the same.”

Globally, interest in seaweed’s potential to replace less sustainable raw materials across almost every aspect of industrial production has risen.

The sector is estimated to be worth NZ$20.5 billion globally and production has tripled over the last two decades. New Zealand has the added advantage of enjoying a 15,000km coastline, the ninth longest in the world, and some of the cleanest seawater for growing it in.

Early research work is also finding the nanocellulose extracted from seaweeds can improve the survivability of seeds, while the cellulose is also proving suitable for thermal applications in absorbing heat from energy-dense items like mobile phones.

The couple acknowledge there is still much to be learnt about the opportunities presented from seaweed, while also remaining true to Tane’s mother’s goal of creating quality, environmentally friendly fertilisers for the country’s farmers and growers.

“We find customers are more inclined to give things a go. Fifteen years’ ago there was far more resistance to natural products, but with times changing the market’s wanting more transparency on where their products are being grown and with what chemicals, along with a push to clean up our waterways, we are in a good position to support farmers transition to a better balance,” says Tane.

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