Maori company teams up with Crown to breed unique berries for global markets

A joint venture company has been established to breed and develop new unique berry varieties to be marketed exclusively by a Māori-owned firm, Miro Limited Partnership (Miro).

Government-owned Plant & Food Research and Miro signed a 50:50 joint venture agreement today at an event hosted by Ngati Haua at the iwi’s Rukumoana Marae in Morrinsville.

The agreement provides the new company with access to Plant & Food Research berry genetics for the development of proprietary new varieties. The joint venture partners will create a breeding programme for new high-value berry varieties.

Miro will grow, market and sell the berries in New Zealand and globally with support from BerryCo NZ Limited.

The joint venture is a milestone in horticultural entrepreneur Steve Saunders’ vision for Miro, to create a step-change in both the New Zealand berry industry and the regional Māori economy for current and future generations.

Miro chair Rukumoana Schaafhausen said Miro is owned by over 20 Māori trusts, iwi and entities from the top of the north to the top of the South Island, from the East Coast to Taranaki.

“We came together because we wanted jobs for our people, higher returns on our land, and to own IP and a global business that would secure a future for our mokopuna. We’re so excited about the opportunities ahead of us and we would love for more Māori landowners to join in.

“In simple terms, Miro is aiming to build a business every bit as successful as Zespri. It represents a high-value, market-led, vertically integrated berry export business. There’s no reason why berries can’t be the next billion dollar New Zealand horticulture industry, and we’re proud to partner with Plant & Food Research to create that future.”

Plant & Food Research chief executive David Hughes says the joint venture is aligned with the science company’s mandate to use research innovation to add value to fruit, vegetable, crop and food products and their industries.

“In Miro we have a partner with global ambitions matched by scale and capability in New Zealand,” said David Hughes.

He expects the deal to open up fresh innovation challenges for the Crown research institute’s scientists and described it as a welcome addition to its diverse range of commercial activity.

Source: Plant & Food Research.


Prime Minister of Vietnam visits Plant & Food Research

His Excellency Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the Prime Minister of Vietnam, visited Plant & Food Research’s Mt Albert Research Centre today as part of a Head of State visit to New Zealand.

During the visit, the Prime Minister was witness to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Provincial Peoples Committee of Dak Nong province in Vietnam, the New Zealand Government (through G2G Partnerships), Vietnamese company SAM Agritech and Plant & Food Research to investigate ways to support the development of the avocado industry in Dak Nong.

Source: Plant & Food Research

New funding for NZ-Korea intelligent farming research project

Plant & Food Research reports it has been successful in the latest round of MBIE’s Catalyst Strategic Fund for joint research partnerships between NZ and the Republic of Korea.

The new three-year project will focus on real-time monitoring of plant health, nutritional status and fruit development, a key challenge for intelligent farming and smart harvesting.

The project will include scientists from Plant & Food Research, the University of Waikato, Seoul National University and Korea’s Rural Development Administration.

Automated remotely monitored sensors will be applied to assess plant health, water status, fertiliser needs, and fruit growth and maturity. This information should allow timely, less wasteful addition of water/fertiliser, and more accurate prediction of harvest maturity.

Climate model gets the measure of myrtle rust’s behaviour under NZ conditions

Plant & Food Research scientist Dr Rob Beresford spent the month of June poring through research articles, crunching data and creating mathematical formula to better gauge what myrtle rust may mean for New Zealand.

The end result was the Myrtle Rust Risk Model, specifically designed to understand and predict how myrtle rust will behave under New Zealand conditions.

The Ministry for Primary Industries is using it to help inform its responses, such as targeted surveillance for the disease.

“The model has three key attributes,” says Dr Beresford.

“It warns when the weather is suitable for any spores in the air to infect susceptible plants; it predicts the time from when infection occurs to when rust symptoms may appear; and it assess the suitability of conditions for spores to be produced from infected plants that are showing symptoms.”

With no history of myrtle rust in New Zealand until its arrival in May, developing the model was not easy because of a large number of unknowns.

Dr Beresford’s first step was to dig deep into scientific literature and record observations from countries where the disease is already established, such as Brazil, the US (Hawaii) and Australia.

“Although the overseas research is tremendously useful, you can’t assume that myrtle rust will behave in New Zealand in ways observed in other countries with similar climates,” says Dr Beresford.

“New Zealand has its own seasonal weather patterns. Moreover, the genetic differences between plant species in the myrtle family could influence susceptibility, just as there can be differences in the strains of the rust pathogen itself. So, it’s very complex.

“All these things have to be calculated and factored in to the model, with mathematical parameters set to represent things such as plant susceptibility, temperature range and humidity.

“Essential to doing this well is having a good understanding of the biology of the disease and host plant species.”

The risk model is distinctive in simulating the biology of the disease at a fine scale of time and space. Additionally, thanks to NIWA’s sophisticated weather analysis and prediction maps in combination with its climate-data mapping skills, the NIWA data can be factored into the model hourly, allowing for day-to-day measurability and reporting.

This model can work in conjunction with other climate models developed for myrtle rust that take a more general, broad-brush climate matching approach or rely on long-term weather data.

“The next step to further refine the model is to do more in-depth research into host plant susceptibility,” says Dr Beresford. “This means we can tweak the model from reporting relative risk to something even more definitive.”

Funding for the development of the model came from the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Plant & Food Research is currently collaborating with NIWA on mapping the risk of myrtle rust infection in different regions.

IFP apples compare favourably with organic crops in biodiversity study

Dr Louise Malone has led a Plant & Food Research study comparing the biodiversity of modern, best-practice commercial apple orchards with organic orchards.

The survey of plants and 210,000 insects caught in traps in 15 Hawke’s Bay orchards found orchards managed using the Integrated Fruit Production system, or IFP, had similar or even slightly better biodiversity index scores than the organic orchards.

Libby Burgess, one of the study authors, says international markets are increasingly interested in the ecological impact of food production.

“They want to know how we grow crops, as well as what we produce,” she says.

Working in partnership with the grower organisation, New Zealand Apples & Pears Inc., scientists and growers developed the IFP system specifically to find ways to control pests that would have the lowest impact on the environment. Once proven in trials it was rapidly adopted in commercial apple orchards in the late 1990s.

A range of practices, such as monitoring pest numbers with pheromone traps, minimised the use of chemicals. That made it possible to make the best use of what is now the main weapon against pest species: carefully-vetted introduced natural enemies, or biological control agents.

Because IFP is now a mature system the Plant & Food Research team decided it was time to have another look at the impact it was having on plants and insects, and to compare IFP orchards’ biodiversity directly with organic orchards.

They found insect species sometimes differed between the IFP and organic orchards but every orchard had ample species to carry out ecological functions such as nutrient cycling and pest control.

Dr Malone says the outstanding feature in the results was that the traps collected around 10 times more Froggatt’s apple leafhoppers in organic orchards than in the IFP orchards. The sap-sucking leafhopper Edwardsiana froggatti is a serious pest, causing leaf damage and affecting bud and fruit development. Apart from this result, the survey showed undetectable differences in pests across orchard types.

“More importantly perhaps, there were no differences in the abundance and diversity of the key natural enemies that help to keep apple pests in check,” Dr Malone says. “This result shows IFP is protecting those beneficial species as intended.”

Ms Burgess says another key result satisfied another market priority.

“We were surprised and pleased to see that native or endemic species made up around 40% of the total in all orchard types,” she says. “That’s what overseas markets want to see – that biodiversity and especially local flora and fauna are protected – and that is what we’ve got.”

Dr Malone says the survey provides proof that IFP works.

“IFP works – and probably even better than we had hoped. The fauna in IFP orchards is just as rich as it is in organic orchards and that’s great news for the way we operate our orchards and for our brand overseas.”

New Zealand Apples & Pears technical manager Tim Herman is delighted to see the proof that biodiversity in IFP orchards is on a par with organic orchards.

“This data shows that what we are doing in IFP matches that in our organic production systems and helps us underline the environmental credentials of IFP in our export markets,” he says. “Export markets continue to challenge us to do better and minimise our environmental footprint. This demonstrates that we are meeting their expectations.”

The study is published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment.

Scientist honoured for outstanding contribution to NZ’s pipfruit industry

Plant & Food Research scientist Dr Jim Walker has been awarded the New Zealand Apple and Pear industry’s Outstanding Contribution Award.

New Zealand Apple and Pear board member Peter Beaven presented Dr Walker with the award at the industry’s annual conference in Napier and noted his long service and significant impact.

Mr Beaven said Dr Walker was the brains behind the Integrated Fruit Production programme introduced in the 1990s.

The programme was a world first and a huge departure from the then current practice around the world.

“With IFP, growers started monitoring the numbers of harmful insects on orchards through pheromone trapping and introduced the use of targeted selective sprays when required,” Mr Beaven said.

“The IFP system was introduced across the entire industry in a remarkably short time due in no small measure to this man’s efforts. Today we take such systems for granted.”

Dr Walker was also instrumental in the next generation of orchard management – the Apple Futures programme, which further reduced residue levels on fruit and enabled the industry to tailor production systems of blocks within orchards to meet the phytosanitary and residue requirements for specific markets.

“However, I rate Jim’s most significant contribution to our industry as making science easy to understand for non-scientists. The best science is useless if growers cannot understand it or know how to apply it in a commercial setting. Jim has always had the knack of explaining things in ways we laypeople can readily grasp”.

Dr Walker said he was honoured to be the award recipient – and he is not yet ready to retire.

“I have been really proud to serve this industry which I have been involved in one way or another since 1972.

“I’ve worked in the industry for almost 45 years and I’m not ready for the ‘R’ word so I’m not retiring but will be reducing my hours. It’s been great to work within an outstanding industry, with outstanding growers and it has been an amazing opportunity.

“I have been part of a team of people and although the success of the IFP programme is often tracked back to one individual, it has been a bigger team that have helped along the way such as my colleagues at Plant & Food and at DSIR before that.”

Dr Walker said highlights have been seeing growers achieve a 90 per cent reduction in pesticide loading (per hectare); the elimination across the apple industry of the use of former ‘highly toxic’ insecticides; about 35 per cent of the industry now using non-insecticidal ‘mating disruption’ techniques (i.e. sex pheromones) and the lowest possible pesticide residues on IFP (NZ) apples in international markets, a similar risk profile to organic apples.

“A lot of the work has been fun, working in the discovery and developing of the concept of multiple species as a distribution system. I can see grown men chuckle when we talked about tethering virgin female moths and putting them out in orchard to see if they will get discovered by males in the presence of all of the pheromone out there,” he said.

Dr Walker said another highlight was gaining access for apples into Australia, although there is still work to do in getting meaningful access.

Cracking manuka’s genetic code may mitigate the effects of myrtle rust

A nationwide science project that sequenced the manuka genome and is now exploring its genetic diversity may be instrumental in protecting the indigenous plant from the fungal disease myrtle rust.

Using state-of-the-art genome sequencing technologies, Plant & Food Research scientists mapped manuka’s genetic blueprint in 2015 and shared the information with tangata whenua and the New Zealand research community.

The research focus has since moved to using bioinformatic techniques to acquire a detailed understanding of the unique attributes of manuka’s genetic stocks – the data have been gleaned from around 1000 samples of manuka leaf collected nationwide in a collaboration with Landcare Research, the University of Waikato and key Maori partners.

The information generated is providing important scientific insights concerning the distribution and genetic diversity within and between manuka populations in New Zealand.

“A key objective of the project has always been to understand how genetic material is exchanged between manuka populations by pollen and seed dispersal to help whānau and hapū, and the honey industry, to develop unique stories around provenance, and help ensure genetic variation for conservation purposes,” says Plant & Food Research Science Group Leader Dr David Chagné.

“With the arrival of myrtle rust on the New Zealand mainland, we soon realised the need for an additional and more specific conservation application for the project.

“While it’s not clear just what effect myrtle rust will have on mānuka under New Zealand conditions, we should expect differences in susceptibility and resistance across the mānuka populations.

“By using the latest technologies for DNA sequencing and new methodologies for bioinformatic data analysis we can determine which parts of the genome are associated with tolerance.

“This will help us to better predict the potential damage from myrtle rust and determine how fast the various mānuka populations will respond to the disease.

“The data will assist with guiding research priorities for maintaining and protecting diversity in mānuka,” says Dr Chagné.

Research results from the project are expected to be released between June and August this year.

The Maori organisations assisting with stakeholder engagement and commercial support in the project are Ngati Porou Miere, Tuhoe Tuawhenua Trust, Atihau-Whanganui, Taitokerau Miere and Tai Tokerau Honey. The project is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.