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  • Rights: Showdown Productions
    Published 21 May 2024 Referencing Hub media

    New Zealand company Leaft Foods has developed technology to extract rubisco, a high-value protein found in leafy greens.

    The company is scaling up the technology while developing food products from the extracted protein powder. The product aims to revolutionise sustainable food production while providing farmers with alternatives to help reduce their environmental footprint.


    • What are the key drivers for developing a plant-based protein product?
    • In this video, we hear from AgResearch scientist Dr Robyn Dynes who has been testing and modelling some of the Leaft work. Why do you think it’s important for Leaft to work with independent science organisations?
    • What is a co-product?
    • What are some of the reasons you think Leaft is exploring the use of the co-product as an animal food?

    Leaft CEO Ross Milne talks about some of the different functionality of the protein powder – for example, the ability to whip or gel.

    • Why is this important?
    • What different food products can you think of that might need these different functional attributes?


    Roger Bourne

    Demand for plant-based protein is growing globally, and a start-up company in Canterbury aims to capture some of that market.

    Leaft Foods was established to create an alternative for farmers looking to shrink their environmental impact. The company is extracting a protein from leafy greens to create a high-value plant protein for human consumption as well as a valuable stockfood co-product from a farm system with a smaller environmental footprint than either animal or grain-based protein production.

    Ross Milne

    We’re isolating this protein called rubisco. It’s actually the world’s most plentiful protein. There’s been a lot of research into it. We talk about it as this utopia protein, and it’s present in all green leaves.

    So we’re working with a range of crops, a range of crops that farmers in New Zealand are really familiar with growing. At the moment, we’re working with nine different species but in particular alfalfa, also known as lucerne in our part of the world.

    We see this significant shift of consumers across to plant-based diets for a whole variety of reasons, and it’s an exciting opportunity for us to think about how, how we farm and what we farm and what amazing products we can make from, in our case, from green leaves to satisfy those consumers’ needs.

    What we’re focused on is making a whole range of really exciting products directly for consumers.

    And the protein that we’re isolating – this protein called rubisco – we can use it in a wide range of applications, just like where we use existing products like a whey protein, for example. And we’re using it in the dairy fridge all the way through to baked goods, through to snacks, and we can do the same sort of thing with our protein.

    It outperforms many other proteins on the market, and we’re also really excited about the food functionality, so the ability for our product to whip, to foam, to gel, which, from a technical point of view, gets us excited because it means we can put it into a range of different food applications.

    We’ve just stepped up to our first pilot-scale manufacturing. We’re based here on the Lincoln University campus and we work with FoodSouth and their facilities, which have enabled us to build out that early-stage pilot plant.

    This enabled us to be the first in the world to produce still relatively small, but in our world, really, really exciting volumes of product and hit critical proof points that we need to hit before we step up again into full commercial production.

    Leaft Foods was born out of finding solutions for farmers, and we work with a really wide group of farmers, predominantly based here in Canterbury at this stage, but as the business grows, we want to see it growing to the rest of New Zealand and eventually globally beyond that.

    We want to work with farmers that are able to help us build the business, bring the knowledge base that they have developed over many, many years, and how in this country do we grow green leafy crops all year round and do that really, really well.

    Dr Robyn Dynes

    Are you happy with the kind of strike that you’re seeing in a paddock like this?

    AgResearch has been working with Leaft in three areas. The first is in the silage or co-product. My colleagues have been testing it in the laboratory and understanding how the silage, which has been modified, how that tests against what we might expect and then starting to look at, well, what are the functional implications of what’s in that silage. The silage has been modified when the protein’s been extracted, so how does it perform when we test it in the laboratory, and what might that mean for its functionality when we feed it back to livestock and maybe into the future for other outcomes for its use.

    The second part has been the part that I’ve personally been involved in and that’s been some really great discussion and debate around the Leaft enterprise and how that fits within existing farm systems. And not only in dairy systems, but how does the Leaft enterprise approach fit across other sectors. So what might it mean to an existing farm system, how does it mesh in and what could it deliver to our farmers?

    And the third reciprocal part has been the Leaft team have been invaluable for AgResearch because we have our own internal investment in exploring pasture biorefinery.

    The system that Leaft has developed is, is such an interesting one for me as a farm systems scientist because Leaft is taking a product, in this case, the lucerne, and that’s something that our farmers know how to grow really well, but it’s the products that they’re taking out of it.

    So firstly, that plant protein going into the human food chain as a food ingredient. The second is the co-products, which is the silage, and it’s how that fits within our existing farming systems. It brings circularity and it brings opportunities not only for diversity for the farmers but to potentially increase their efficiency and lower their environmental footprint.

    It smells fantastic. I guess the, the thing about this for a ruminant is that you’ve got a relatively uniform and quite small fibre.

    The Leaft system has quite a lot of potential from an environmental perspective. So the first part is growing lucerne and not grazing that paddock with animals. The second is from an overall efficiency – how might that change the footprint? Well, it’ll depend how farmers mesh it into their system. It could, from the choices they make, lower their emissions to greenhouse gases. It can reduce the amount of potential sediment loss by not grazing the area that is now in the Leaft system, and it can reduce the nitrate leaching if they choose to have – to use the lower nitrogen feed on farm.

    AgResearch is really pleased to be a partner with the Leaft team and to be part of that process of supporting the team in the on-farm production of the lucerne. And our role has been in understanding the silage, and we’ll continue to work with Leaft to see where the biggest benefits are. How will they deliver in systems on farm? And one of the things we can bring to the team is not only our expertise in the, the ruminant nutrition and our understanding of the farmers, the decision making and how it could all come together in the system.

    Ross Milne

    What we’re doing here at Leaft Foods is this big ambitious goal. We know that, when we succeed, we’re going to be able to transform the farming system, transform the way that we produce food, produce more food at a much lower environmental impact.

    But it’s a really big challenge and we’re very privileged to have had the support of a number of organisations here in New Zealand. We’ve got a grant running under the SFFF programme through MPI as well as early support from Callaghan Innovation and also company – organisations such as NZTE, and this really helps us having a better chance of succeeding and, and ultimately New Zealand succeeding in this space.


    Video clip courtesy of Showdown Productions.

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