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Genetically guided nutrition is on its way

By Anna Campbell

In the name of research, I have logged on to the ''Just Right by Purina'' website and determined the costs of a personalised diet for my dogs, Freddie and Louis.

I get to enter details about their breed, activity levels, coat and skin condition and the state of their stools. In reply, I receive an order form for their new designer diets, complete with full nutritional information.

Freddie gets the chicken and barley entree, complete with omega-3, linoleic acid and vitamin A.

I decided Louis, the more active and naughty of the two, should go grain free, as he pulled a loaf of multi-grain bread down from the bench yesterday and devoured it in seconds.

He gets the lamb-blend complete with chicory root and cassava root flour. For 31 days of supply, it will cost about $NZ50 for each dog (if I live in the United States).

It's interesting, but probably not surprising, that commercial tailored diets have hit the pet world first. Logistically, it's easier to blast a bunch of ingredients into a dog food mixer which is still appetising for the canine consumer in a way that might not be as simple for fussy humans.

According to KPMG's latest agribusiness agenda (available online and a must-read for anyone with interests in food and agriculture), tailored genetically guided nutrition is on its way.

To this end, I recently attended an Ministry for Primary Industries conference where Martin Kussmann, of the University of Auckland, spoke.

He hails from the Nestle Institute of Health Sciences in Switzerland and talked of the future of personalised medicine on the back of advances in genomic research.

The big change in thinking is that such research is moving to study models of health, rather than models of disease; as an example, studying centenarians as models of healthy ageing.

Commercially, Nestle has moved into the wellness space in a big way with a research and development budget probably greater than our entire national R&D spend. Their challenge is to personalise food for every individual, but still make money - too many categories will be a challenge for logistics and profitability!

Log on to New Zealand's Nestle website and you can determine your wellness score; mine was a measly 54/100 - BMI too high and not enough exercise, sleep or vegetables... sigh; my dogs are doing better than I am.

There is not yet a link to buy the diet for my lifestyle, although you can imagine there will be in the future; check out the Soylent website to see the new world of formulated foods.

My Food Bag, which I am told by friends is fabulous, is a start, but it's rigid - you buy what they design you for the week (without any personalisation) and you have it delivered to you on a certain day.

Instead, imagine a future where you wear a series of sensors inside and outside your body which beam up data to a cloud-based integrator that sends messages to your dietary provider to deliver you the food which you ''deserve that day''.

I am picking, if I have been sitting at my desk all day, drinking too many coffees and my kids have been running around the playground, their dinners are going to look a whole lot more appetising than mine. Hey, even Louis' chicory root enhanced lamb will look more attractive!

As bizarre as all this sounds, there are implications for us as food producers. How do we, as a nation that is reliant on agriculture, fit into a food system which looks like this?

For a start, we need to be thinking about what we produce, the form we export it in and who we partner with. We need to be better at understanding our points of difference and differentiating accordingly and we need to evaluate our R&D infrastructure.

In Prof Kussman's address, he said we have long thought of science and R&D as being pure or applied, with the applied being vaguely boring but useful and the pure somewhat cooler.

In the new world of food and health, we cannot think like this. We should be aiming for all science and R&D to be both ''excellent and relevant''.

To me, this lens of excellence and relevance should also be used to view our entire agricultural production and processing systems. Imagine what we might find!