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Biorefinery venture and food innovation strategy added to economic action plan

Two new actions have been added to the region's recently-refreshed Tairawhiti Economic Action Plan (TEAP) to create high-value jobs here.

At its August meeting, the TEAP Steering Group endorsed the preparation of a food innovation strategy for Tairawhiti — led by Trust Tairawhiti — and gave a regional endorsement to bio-venture company Futurity, TEAP project manager Harley Dibble says.

“Futurity aspires for Tairawhiti to become the first region in New Zealand with a biorefinery. Their process uses wood waste to create biomaterials and a biochemical that would do away with the need for fossil fuel-based products.

“The two new TEAP actions, while very different, both have a strong alignment with the TEAP's regional prosperity aspirations — including the generation of high-value jobs for our communities, increasing productivity, and supporting the region's transition to having a more circular and low-emissions, carbon-neutral economy.”

The Futurity project supported TEAP Priority Area 1 — to realise the value of the region's forestry assets by increasing local wood processing and wood engineering and technology, said Mr Dibble.

“Another point of interest in wood processing is a recent report commissioned by Trust Tairawhiti to understand the environmental impact of wood processing. The report has helped to support the environmental credentials of increased wood processing in the region as opposed to shipping logs overseas. The report found that local wood processing produced 50 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than shipping logs for processing in China.

“With WET Gisborne Ltd already producing engineered wood products that can be used as a replacement to steel in buildings up to six storeys, the addition of Futurity's biorefinery would further build on the region's reputation as an environmentally sustainable wood-processing centre of excellence.

“The food innovation strategy links to TEAP Priority Area 2 — Driving sustainable value-added horticultural production — and aims to set out pathways for future-proofing our region's primary food-producing sector as a whole. The strategy will support the development and production of high-value products in Tairawhiti, creating quality jobs.”

When the TEAP refresh process was completed in December 2019, it was released as a “live document” that would change as new opportunities arose, and economic conditions and challenges changed.

“The challenges for our regional economy presented by Covid-19 forced a significant rethink — and the refreshed TEAP provided a platform for TEAP actions to be accelerated through inclusion in the region's Recovery Plan — Rau Tipu Rau Ora (RTRO),” Mr Dibble said.

Progress updates for the actions in both the TEAP and RTRO will be shared in September.

Futurity has exciting potential

Trust Tairawhiti commercial general manager Richard Searle says they are excited to be working with biorefinery pioneer Futurity.

Futurity plans to integrate licensed technologies to optimise the natural attributes of wood to produce price-competitive and high-performing materials to reduce oil dependency.

“Futurity's target markets alone present a 19 million tonne, $14 billion opportunity for value-addition to New Zealand's waste wood,” says Futurity co-founder and chief executive Jacob Kohn.

The forestry industry's reliance on China and the disruption in New Zealand during Covid-19, with one-third of the country's harvesting being stood down, has emphasised the need for attractive alternatives.

Futurity and its backers believe that New Zealand's forestry industry holds an exciting potential for “forests of the future”.

As an industry, forestry has provided significant regional and economic growth in recent years and has sustainability advantages; however, Tairawhiti and New Zealand as a whole could benefit from greater capitalising on forestry opportunities, says Mr Kohn.

“We are here to collaborate internationally with companies and investors to develop supply chains of better materials into better products and to construct our first commercial biorefinery,” he says.

“Together, let's outperform oil with trees.”

Futurity secured NZ$1.75 million from its initial capital raise and has ongoing investor support. This allowed Futurity to form a quality governance and executive team, identify and validate the technology with Tairawhiti pine wood, secure licence and site options, analyse the markets and secure an agreement to off-take a significant amount of what it will produce, says Mr Kohn.

“Futurity is now looking to raise NZ$3million to prove its markets and secure enough demand to justify the investment in construction of its first plant.”

In their initial meeting with Trust Tairawhiti, Mr Kohn and Futurity co-founder and chief technical officer Gaetano Dedual told Mr Searle they understood the complexity of what they were trying to achieve.

“Collaboration with partners is essential to success due to the scope and difficulty of creating a biorefinery,” Dr Dedual said. “By working together we can leverage off each other's knowledge and bring meaningful change to industries as they become more sustainable.

“Futurity's biorefinery plan has the potential to take wood and increase the value of the log up to 50 times what you would get exporting the raw logs to China,” said Mr Kohn.

“This is because of the higher value which can be sought for timber, and therefore creates returns for forest owners. Futurity believes that our forests of the future can be even more responsibly managed and harvested.”

Mr Searle said, “by adding value to logs through this process, Futurity could generate highly-skilled and high-paying employment for our communities. The Futurity model will also produce sufficient margins to collect and process large volumes of forestry residues, contributing to improved environmental outcomes.”

Food and beverage innovation strategy

Following endorsement from the TEAP Steering Group, the community will be invited to help progress the development of a food and beverage innovation strategy for the region.

This initiative recognises the strong legacy of growing great produce in our region, and that we need to bring focus to further adding value to what is produced here, to maximise the benefit, says Trust Tairawhiti's Richard Searle.

A strategic framework for food and beverage production is intended to ensure that economic benefit to the region is optimised, and that the benefit is shared within and across communities, while prioritising sustainable and regenerative approaches to business development.

Dr Nicky Solomon will work with Trust Tairawhiti to develop the strategy. She says it is crucial the region invests now to secure an abundant and sustainable future, in alignment with the trust's wellbeing framework, He Rangitapu, He Tohu Ora.

“Food production and processing is intricately linked with many of the world's most pressing challenges, and this presents opportunities for smart, focused and innovative producers and processors,” Dr Solomon said. “One of the key outcomes of a strategic approach will be to support the development and production of high-value products in our region. By exporting commodities, we essentially export jobs.”

The strategy would create a framework within which businesses could make decisions accounting for the economic importance of, and opportunities associated with, embracing circular economy principles and making the transition to a low-emission, carbon-neutral economy.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us of our country's natural advantage in being a highly regarded food-producing nation, and our region is better placed than many to capitalise on this,” said Mr Searle. “However, compared to other regions we are under-represented in terms of value-add activity in the food and beverage space. The development of a regional strategy requires engagement with as many stakeholders in the food and beverage industry as possible.”

■ Trust Tairawhiti will be facilitating a series of meetings and online forums, beginning in September. To stay informed and participate in the development of the strategy, please register your interest at: www.trusttairawhiti.nz/events/

WORKING TOGETHER: Left, Futurity chief executive and founder Jacob Kohn, Trust Tairāwhiti commercial general manager Richard Searle and Futurity co-founder and chief technical officer Gaetano Dedual. Picture by Cody Keepa
FOCUSED ON FOOD INNOVATion: Nicky Solomon and Trust Tairawhiti business growth adviser Wendy Gatley. Picture supplied