Published: 16 DEC 2021
Food and beverage
Plant Based Protein
Green economy

Jade Gray discusses Auckland’s potential as a hub for the export-focused production of alternative proteins.

Jade Grey, Invest Auckland

Jade Gray has spent more than two decades in China, where he launched a series of businesses, including Gung Ho! Pizza. In the process, he gained deep insight into New Zealand’s trade with Asia. Having recently returned to New Zealand – starting a family was a strong drawcard – Jade is now making and promoting alternative proteins through his brand Off-Piste Provisions.


Tell us about your journey into foodtech?

It was cattle farming that first took me to China in 1997, working in meat processing and supplying supermarkets. Later, I went out and started my restaurant group – that was 18 years ago. We then founded the Gung Ho! pizzeria chain in 2010.

Since 2016, I’d been watching the movement around alternative proteins. There was a lot of buzz coming out of the west. Meanwhile, I was eating at Buddhist restaurants in a country where imitation meats have been on the menu for centuries. We started looking at options for our pizzeria, thinking about how we could integrate plant-based meat and cheese. I was really excited about bringing that back home and taking it forward, to help New Zealand transition to alternative proteins.


What do you think about New Zealand’s move away from traditional sheep and cattle farming towards alternative proteins?

We are definitely moving too slow. I appreciate why that’s so, given our reliance on animal proteins but there is a huge opportunity – and economic threat – building offshore in our key markets. Since we rely so much on exports, let’s focus on what is going into the consumer basket internationally. It’s about creating a whole new revenue stream while the opportunity exists. Look at what happened to the wool industry, for instance, which collapsed due to the disruption caused by plastic and synthetic fibres in the 1960s. We need to make sure dairy and meat don’t suffer the same fate.


What is the future for alternative protein in Auckland and other main centres five years from now?

I’d like to see Auckland become an international food technology hub, based around the processing plant. Palmerston North will be the R&D centre, Canterbury the base of our arable pasture and Auckland the hub and logistical HQ. I envision two revenue streams: one from ingredients or consumable goods, and the other from the technology. We can be a service provider and export the IP, all of it relating to food tech.

I also see us manufacturing and processing food in cities. It’s founded on the perfectly reasonable idea that we can produce food on demand: a client places an order, and it’s fulfilled within 24–48 hours. That represents a real-time matching of supply with demand in just two days – compared with two or three years in the live animal process.


And how about the wellness and nutraceutical aspect to the economic potential of alternative protein?

Our company is looking at New Zealand’s point of difference internationally with alternative proteins, and we see an opportunity around fortified or enriched foods drawing on New Zealand’s existing supplement industry. It would be of interest particularly for people following a plant-based diet. There’s a trend taking place, with people moving away from popping pills to buying fortified food. We are playing into that movement and working with New Zealand nutraceutical companies.


How do you see COVID-19 affecting consumer dynamics with alternative proteins and are there ways we could turn this crisis into opportunity?

COVID-19 is transformational in every aspect, not least food. From a geopolitical point of view, governments are focusing intently on the security of food supply chains. This is the result of disrupted logistical channels, growing tension between the US and China, and the ability to work with different trading partners. We're seeing countries move towards growing and making a greater percentage of nutrition inside their borders.

Also, people increasingly want to know where products come from. Asia and South America are moving away from wet markets towards a cool chain approach – involving refrigeration, traceability, and avoiding cross-contamination of wild foods. This equates to more awareness around food safety, which plays to New Zealand’s strong reputation in that field. Another reason why people are choosing alternative protein over meat is because it contains fewer microbes – which translates to fewer export barriers.


What has been your personal experience of New Zealand–Asian trade dynamics, how has it evolved over the last 10–15 years, and where do you see it going?

If we look at the time I was in China, from 1997 onwards, New Zealand’s relationship with Asia has been one of the great success stories. When Britain joined the EU in 1973 and we lost much of our key market overnight, we had to fight for decades to restore our exports, and Asia is now our most important market. Having worked with NZ INC. over there, I know we can punch above our weight. Fellow entrepreneurs were amazed at the level of support I got as a small Kiwi business in China. New Zealand is efficient and focused on its goals.

As to where we are going, the looming tension between the US and China has already added stress into our relationships. To maintain a good relationship with China, we need to deftly navigate the dynamics. Right now, we are doing it relatively well. In Asia, things are generally looking good – we have very positive agencies and companies who are competent – but we can’t lose our edge. One current drawback is that we don’t have enough people who speak Asian languages

28 per cent of Auckland residents are of Asian descent and we need a more formalised approach to tap into that talent. Greater government effort will encourage our young people to learn Asian languages and support the Asia New Zealand Foundation and others that have been pushing this key message for decades.


What can give New Zealand IP and innovation an edge in Asian markets, where there is increased demand for food security and traceability and a move towards the urbanisation of food production?

We’re going to struggle to compete with the urbanisation of food. We are so focused on pasture that New Zealand – compared to say, Singapore or Shenzhen – doesn’t have the motivation to develop the technology. Our advantage could lie in developing the ingredients that go into these markets – Asian countries need raw ingredients to make urbanised food – rather than trying to compete with them. For instance, Singapore’s stated goal is ‘30 by 30’ (creating 30 per cent of its own food by 2030 – currently it imports around 95 per cent), and it is driven to achieve this, which is why we may never beat Singapore on the tech side with the urbanisation of food. There are many ways for New Zealand to compete in this space –z by leveraging the deep knowledge we have in agriculture.


Where would you like to see local and national government focus to facilitate and safeguard our agricultural leading edge?

It’s happening with the Emerging Proteins NZ network. There is movement in Auckland around foodtech. I believe it will be the scale piece. We’ll have the science, the R&D and the expertise but will we have substantial capital expenditure rapidly enough to manufacture food at scale and make use of the opportunity? If the government keeps ramping up its support through grants, partnerships, land and plant, it will enable the fledgling industry to hit the ground running.


What’s your vision for New Zealand reducing its ‘carbon foodprint’ to zero, and how can Auckland contribute to that goal?

There’s an exciting opportunity here for New Zealand. We have already largely decarbonised the energy sector, and around 85 per cent of our energy consumption is from renewable sources, which is an impressively high figure. Our production processes and international marketing position – such as carbon-neutral / positive future foods – give us an advantage when it comes to food processing. In that regard, we’re at least 10 to 15 years ahead of Asia, where low-cost manufacturing is fired by fossil fuels. As long as we produce high-value goods and compete internationally, we will retain that advantage.


Where in the market do you see the most need for investment and the greatest opportunity for investors?

The greatest opportunity lies in midstream processing, injecting capex into all our hardware needs, to expand Auckland’s food manufacturing facilities. With backing from local and central government, offering incentives to commercial property landlords, we could build world-class facilities that make New Zealand a hub for future food production. There is also plenty of opportunity further upstream in supporting R&D, in particular, funding startups to work with our top research bodies, and tapping into world-class talent beyond our shores, which will be key as we build the sector. There are plenty of great ventures that need funding currently being championed through organisations such as the Emerging Proteins network, Future Food Aotearoa and the Food Innovation Network. The talent and drive are there; we just need the capital to make these global ambitions a reality.


Find out more

Contact Investment Specialist Yan Zhang to learn more about food and beverage investment opportunities in Auckland, New Zealand.

DISCLAIMER: This article provides general information on potential investment opportunities in Auckland and is not intended to be used as a substitute for financial advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the relevant author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Auckland Unlimited. Auckland Unlimited disclaims all liability in connection with any action that may be taken in reliance of this article, and for any error, deficiency, flaw or omission contained in it.