5 minutes with David Hughes

Chief Executive Officer, Plant & Food Research


As a leader during a time of great change, what's been your focus?

Business continuity is a big focus for an organisation our size – 1,000+ people across 14 sites around New Zealand. With the pandemic I've had to focus on keeping our people safe, including those overseas, and keeping communications going. It has been tricky, especially seeing some impactful projects come to a halt because of it.

The world is changing daily, so I ask people to change their own settings too.


Of your staff, how many are scientists?

Plant & Food Research is a hive of scientists – about 75 percent of our workforce. They discover new stuff and push frontiers which is really exciting.

Our staff also develop existing things in new, world-leading ways.

Many have worked here for 20 years or more and are passionate about how science can change the world.


Is that your background too?

No, I'm an industrial engineer by education! But I graduated in the '80s when subsidies were being removed so I went into the dairy industry and re-trained as a food technologist. I went into commercial roles during an expansive phase in our dairy history which was great. Travelling around the world in various leadership roles took up the next 20 years. My current role is a mix of all this experience.


Who funds and applies Plant & Food Research discoveries?

Our science isn't making a difference unless it's used in the real world. Which is why we work with most of the major players in horticulture and seafood. Collaboration is necessary to get the maximum value from scientific discovery. For example, Zespri is a key strategic partner that trials the tech and tests our work. In cases like these, we develop the innovation a partner needs and they provide the budget, marketing and distribution to commercialise that science.

We are a Crown Research Institute so the government needs us to think about what society might look like in say, 30 years, then research and innovate to prepare for that future.

We want our discoveries in the hands of orchardists, growers or associations so they can flourish, and our society benefits as a result.


What are you working on that is of interest to our farmers and growers?

We're investing heavily in new cultivars and the growing systems that go alongside them. The evidence shows that, done right, high-quality new cultivars can provide a significant advantage as a premium product – on average about 25 percent above benchmark figures.

We work on breeding programmes across a number of sectors.

We also work in the bio-protection field – using biology to fight biology. Looking at pest management systems and working with industry bodies. After all, we are an export-oriented sector and maintaining access to markets is vital. With the changing climate, new pests and diseases will be able to thrive in our environment, so this is a really important area for our science.

We're always looking at how we can get more out of less – more food with an improved nutrition profile grown using more sustainable production methods and technologies, such as bestpractice water and nutrient utilisation.


Where do you grow?

We have sites in the regions where our collaborators and primary industries are based. We have orchards in Kerikeri, Te Puke, Hawke's Bay, Motueka and Clyde, wine grape research in Blenheim, and our arable work takes place in the Manawatu, Hawke's Bay, Canterbury and Southland.


How do you navigate long-term planning?

Polishing our crystal ball, we identify different versions of how the world might shape up in the next 30 years. We then ask which ones are most important to New Zealand's future and which meet our criteria as a nation?

As a result, we've come up with three areas to investigate:

  • Urban horticulture
  • Sustainable production systems and supply chains
  • Aquaculture in the open ocean

We spend about a quarter of our time working on these with the remainder spent on the short or medium-term needs of industry.


How does gene editing fit in with all this?

This is a conversation that our whole industry should be having. It tends to polarise people – who want things to be black and white – but I'd encourage readers to be curious and embrace the greyness!

Our job is to be an honest broker of science information. Many people don't realise that the technology underpinning the latest gene editing is fundamentally the same as the mechanisms used in nature. Ultimately the decision to use the tech is down to the farmers, growers and marketers.

Social licence plays a part too. If you don't know much about a new topic, you can read e-magazines like ours (Segment), ask your industrybodies, participate in forums/conferences (e.g. online) to cut through the 'fake news'.


Why do you operate overseas?

Plant & Food Research's international work is quite significant – sometimes involving consortiums and on a scale that we cannot achieve domestically. Working overseas allows us to further our research to benefit New Zealand.

Our offshore projects can be part of a wider programme of bilateral aid or trade as well. Recently, our scientists provided agronomy and pest/disease management assistance to melon farmers in Cambodia, and we helped Vietnamese growers combat the major disease of the dragon fruit.


How long do you think it will be before Aotearoa gets affordable robotic prototypes?

Check out my video from 2019 Hort NZ Conference on plant and food trends to watch – I discuss the scale-versus- time curve on innovations such as robotic orchard pickers. It's just a matter of time before industry can make them fast enough and cheap enough to bypass human labour. Take aerial drones in China – they have 50,000 in operation mainly because of the scale of pests and diseases they are combatting.


Do you focus on social licence?

I'm fascinated by how people interact with food. We run consumer research panels and help our partners to apply the findings. For example, we get insight from immigrants into how export markets differ from our own and each other.

Plant & Food Research has an ethical and moral duty to put science out there that informs the social licence debate, like on issues such as biosecurity – we have to speak up.

When we're working on 30-year goals we must consider where social licence might go in that time too.


How do you engage with future caretakers of the land?

We run a summer holiday programme involving 30 university students each year that helps to expand their career horizons. After graduation, we offer some participants PhD research projects with us or even a job!

In Northland we administer a programme that helps local high school students gain experience working in horticulture. It's great to see these students getting workready and enthused about science.


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