Leaft Foods - Transforming food production, in partnership with the planet.
Leaft Foods is on a mission to transform food production in New Zealand. Co-Founders John Penno and Maury Leyland Penno developed the concept of Leaft - a food system that prioritises people, place and planet - in 2018, but the wheels were first put in motion at a Te Hono event four years earlier.
As Maury explains, the catalyst for their move to plant protein was Te Hono’s Stanford Bootcamp in 2014, where they started to consider how they might address the environmental challenges facing the primary sector – including water quality, climate change and the lack of options for New Zealand farmers to diversify within current systems.
“…being at Stanford with Te Hono you’re connected to the market, you’re seeing how the world’s changing and realising that, from an economic export value opportunity, we also needed to change,” says Maury.
Launching a start-up wasn’t part of the initial plan, and instead the pair explored opportunities to align themselves with businesses they thought had the potential to reshape the food and fibre industry.
“Through the Te Hono process, we were challenged to think a lot about transformational change,” John says. “But the reality was what we were both doing, and what many of us who were involved in Te Hono were doing at that time, was making incremental change to industries that are quite old…
“Where Leaft came from was a decision at some point that actually, to get the level of transformation that we want to see [and] that we aspire to, we’re just going to have to do it ourselves.”
Healthier food, healthier place, healthier planet.
Leaft Foods aims to establish new food systems that harness the best in human nutrition and innovation, while reducing the overall impact on the environment - creating more, from less.
The process centres around the extraction of rubisco, the enzyme responsible for photosynthesis, direct from the leaves of plants. Found in all leafy greens, rubisco is a versatile and robust protein with a similar amino acid profile to that of beef, but some of the key qualities of milk protein in its mouthfeel and digestibility, which make it ideal for human consumption.
Having come from dairy backgrounds and both still involved in the dairy industry, John and Maury know that feeding the planet is not possible without farmers. Therefore, a significant part of their vision is to create innovative farming systems that do not represent a significant shift in current practice, but instead allow farmers to diversify and play an active role in alternative food systems. Leaft offers exactly that, a highly productive system that uses considerably less land than traditional farming and has a lighter carbon footprint. They say the potential impact of this new food system on climate change, biodiversity and water quality in New Zealand, could be profound.
Ensuring New Zealand can participate in new food and farm systems…
Transforming food production systems isn’t going to happen overnight but as John explains, significant change to farming and food production is imminent and Leaft is determined to ensure New Zealand has a seat at the table and that years’ worth of innovation in this country isn’t overlooked.
“We do stand the risk at the moment of being leap-frogged by some of these coming technologies and so we’re very focused at Leaft on making sure we do this in a way that New Zealand can participate…”
The key, Maury says, is ensuring farmers have “real, viable options to shift” through lighter footprint land use, and that these options still represent high value for farmers and their investors.
Inspired action through collaboration.
What started as research in John and Maury’s kitchen has since grown to a team of 20 staff at Leaft Foods, including Chief Executive Ross Milne, and a much wider network of collaborators and supporters throughout New Zealand - research institutes, universities and local farmers.
Early support for Leaft came from Callaghan Innovation and New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries through the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFFF) Fund.
As they entered the pilot phase, John and Maury embarked on a capital raise via Zoom in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now have support from US-based Khosla Ventures, Ngāi Tahu Holdings via their New Economy Mandate, NBA basketballer Steven Adams, and ACC through their Climate Impact Fund.
A partnership with Ngāi Tahu is also important to the co-founders, who they say share a commitment to the Canterbury region, a deep connection to the land and alignment with their future-focused environmental values.
Maury says Leaft Foods has now entered an “intense” phase in their journey to the consumer market. Their pilot plant, at FoodSouth on the Lincoln University campus, is operating and they’ll spend the next year ensuring their product, technology, brand and supply chains are fit to scale.
Ultimately, John and Maury want to go to market with a consumer product that returns as much value to New Zealand as possible, and they are confident Leaft can scale quickly.
The next year is critical and while there are inevitable challenges at every level of a start-up, John says their experiences and connections through Te Hono have influenced a mindset that doesn’t dwell on the obstacles, instead encouraging them to ask “how might we look at this, think about this, get there?” It’s a mindset they’re passing on to their team as well, to ensure the path to future innovation and transformation is open.