Leaft Foods create a plant-based protein for people and a co-product for stock.
John Penno and Maury Leyland Penno set up Leaft Foods to create alternatives for farmers looking for ways to shrink their environmental impact. From a dairy farming background, they could see the growing global demand from consumers for food with low environmental impacts. Plant based protein alternatives have been a growing market globally and yet within New Zealand there are no credible alternatives to animal protein.
A serendipitous seminar switched John and Maury on to Rubisco, the protein in green leaves responsible for photosynthesis. Herbivores are adapted to get this protein from plants, but humans don’t have the digestive system to fully access the protein and would need to consume impossible amounts of plant matter to extract it in any useful quantity.
Leaft Foods was set up to commercialise the extraction of Rubisco from leafy greens, to create a high value protein product with a lighter environmental footprint than either animal or grain-based proteins.
The Pennos, along with the Leaft team, have created a ‘paddock to product’ system with the potential to transform a good portion of the New Zealand agricultural sector, while enabling farmers to utilise their expertise and knowledge to do what they’re very good at – growing crops. With funding from Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures (SFFF) fund, Callaghan Innovation, and the founding partners, Leaft Foods has been able to successfully extract Rubisco from green leafy crops (primarily lucerne) to produce a protein powder product.
The powder is neutral tasting and soluble, highly digestible, contains no known allergens, and is a complete protein with an amino acid profile similar to beef but with a lower carbon footprint. Additionally, a result of the unique extraction technology they have developed is a protein-optimised animal feed, similar in appearance to chopped silage, that Leaft refer to as a ‘co-product’.
The plant protein powder is a versatile food ingredient that is able to be blended into a range of formulations. An early proof of concept was (appropriately for a New Zealand company), an eggless pavlova. CEO Ross Milne says, “whether you bake it, put it in a drink or a dessert, it performs as well as, or in some cases, better than dairy.”
The excitement over the performance of the plant protein powder has changed the approach at Leaft. From an initial idea to on-sell it as a high value product to food manufacturers, they are now working to undertake food manufacture themselves, for the company and growers to benefit from this “amazing product”.
In 2022 Leaft was boosted by significant investment from a number of players including; Ngāi Tahu Holdings, NBA talent Steven Adams, ACC (via the Climate Change Impact Fund), and the USA-based Khosla Ventures (also an early investor in Rocket Lab). The investment has aided the scale-up to a small commercial grade facility based at Food South to extract the protein, and to expand research and development into food products, and to grow manufacturing capacity, ahead of a market launch.
Outside of the protein powder and food product development, they’ve begun to identify and international pathways for the powder, and further work to quantify the farm system.
Current research and development include the science to quantify the initial modelling for farmers to have confidence in the system. Science work has been outsourced to several organisations including CRIs like AgResearch, Lincoln and Canterbury Universities.
Dr Robyn Dynes is a senior research scientist in farm systems at AgResearch and is involved in consultation and evaluation of the Leaft system. She explains AgResearch is working with the Leaft team to assist with growing the lucerne crops, and to work through how the crop and its silage co-product might fit into an existing farm system, as well as the functional impacts of the feed on animal production.
Robyn sees significant potential benefits that could produce real opportunities for farmers. From an environmental viewpoint, farmers could choose to grow a lucerne crop on vulnerable land (for example, near a water body), as it is not grazed, but only harvested.
Modelling suggests that the co-product - a protein-optimised animal feed - will reduce nitrogen in waterways and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. The Leaft system provides an alternative revenue stream from what is currently used as grazing land, enabling farmers to retire some stock without a loss of income, which is the main driver behind the claimed tenfold lower greenhouse gas footprint of the system.
Creating a system to partner with farmers is an important element of the Leaft vision. To date they’ve been working with cropping farmers to grow the lucerne on arable land. The aim is to expand their pool of crop growers by bringing dairy farmers onboard. Some early work is underway at Lincoln University’s Ashley Dene Research and Development Station.
Leaft acknowledges that the crop will be a premium product, ensuring farmers can generate the income needed to sustain their farm business – especially if they’re looking to reduce stock. A further attractive feature, especially for arable farmers, will be the frequency of payment for the crop that supplies Leaft’s factory, making cash flow management on the farm that much easier.