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Science breakthough leads to new gourmet mushrooms

23 May 2008 – EMBARGOED to midnight Thursday 22 May
Media release

Science breakthough leads to new gourmet mushrooms
for local and export markets

A forest-grown mushroom which is a well-known Northern Hemisphere delicacy is, for the first time this year, being grown under Gisborne pine forests in commercial quantities. It promises to add a new dimension to New Zealand cuisine but also represents a step along the way to the development of a flourishing new high-value food export industry.

The Saffron, or saffron milk cap as it is known in the Northern Hemisphere, is the first of a number of exciting new forest-grown mushrooms which will be produced from New Zealand over the coming years.

The breakthough is the result of a long term research programme undertaken by Crop & Food Research with its commercial partner, First Light Mushroom Co Ltd.

Sheldon Drummond, general manager of Gisborne-based First Light Mushroom, says the mushroom Saffron is a beautiful mushroom, and great eating.

“While it will be unfamiliar to New Zealanders, it is sought after in Europe and Northern Asia where it can only be gathered from the wild and so commands a high price. World demand for this type of mushroom continues to increase, yet the worldwide production has fallen dramatically over past decades due to deforestation, acid rain and consequent over picking.

“What the consortium has achieved in New Zealand is a significant achievement as it is scientifically difficult to grow in commercial plantings – it also has very specific requirements in terms of soil, water and climate”

First Light Mushroom and Crop & Food Research have collaborated on the science behind forest-grown mushrooms for six years. First Light Mushroom, together with investment from the government’s Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, through Crop & Food Research, have invested more than $10 million over that period to develop and apply the technology to develop this new industry.

“We now have limited plantation areas inoculated to produce the gourmet crop and with this success we will expand the area to produce for world markets. The great thing about Saffron is that it can be grown annually under pine plantations, as a secondary crop, until the pines are harvested.

“It’s a perfect marriage of long and short term cash flows, presenting an additional revenue opportunity for our forest business.”

As a government-owned research company, Crop & Food Research has a role in helping transform the New Zealand economy by providing the science to develop new, high-value export industries.

Business manager Graham Smellie says Crop & Food Research’s goal with edible mushrooms is to help develop a large scale high-value export industry over the next 20 years.

“The success achieved so far would never have been achieved without the research and commercial partnership we have forged through our joint venture company, called Jukebox. The commercial partner, First Light Mushroom, is the licensee and operator for the technologies involved in this new business.

“This is a very exciting development for us, scientifically. To achieve it we have undertaken years of research to create a platform of knowledge on the complex symbiotic relationship between ectomycorrhizal fungi, trees and soil.

“The progress we have made over recent years has enabled this development and we are looking forward to commercial-scale fruiting of other edible mushrooms in coming years.”

Mr Smellie says the real opportunity for New Zealand-grown forest mushrooms is to supply the Northern Hemisphere markets in their off season.

“The mushrooms fruit at different times: in New Zealand, Saffron fruit between February and June. Some varieties do not preserve well and so are best eaten fresh. So there’s potential to supply international gourmet food markets when our fungi are fruiting, and nothing is available locally in the Northern Hemisphere.”

On Friday, 23 May, the Minister of Agriculture Jim Anderton will attend a special lunch at The Marina Restaurant in Gisborne to celebrate the first commercial harvest of the highly-prized forest-grown mushroom, Saffron.


For more information contact:
Sheldon Drummond
General manager, First Light Mushroom Co Ltd
Phone 021 738 496

Graham Smellie
Business manager, Crop & Food Research
Phone 027 450 5523

Katherine Trought
Communications Manager, Crop & Food Research
Phone 027 431 3261

Research collaboration key to new exotic mushroom success
Background information
The New Zealand company, First Light Mushroom Co Ltd, is on the verge of breaking into Northern Hemisphere markets with Saffron Milk Cap (branded as Saffron) using the technology and research and development support from Crown Research Institute, Crop & Food Research.

The Saffron forest mushroom is the first mushroom species of a number that First Light Mushroom will be targeting for export sales. Crop & Food Research and First Light Mushroom are pioneering the technology for their production and supply.

The world market for ectomycorrhizal edible mushrooms, such as Saffron, is valued at $US5 billion per annum. They are regarded as a delicacy and are a high value crop in the countries in which they are eaten, mainly Europe, Asia and North America. These mushrooms are, at present, largely harvested from the wild and demand for them outstrips supply. Yields have fallen dramatically during recent decades due to the world’s changing environment.

Crop & Food Research began research and development on ectomycorrhizal mushrooms about 15 years ago. The aim was to secure a secondary income stream for plantation foresters, and to satisfy the increasing demand for a diminishing supply of this highly valued food.

Initial support for R&D from government (through the Foundation for Research & Technology) and from Crop & Food Research’s own financial resources, led to the development of appropriate intellectual property and technology.

Initial research and development led to a break-through, in early 2002, when Saffron was harvested from three New Zealand trial sites.

In early 2003, First Light Mushroom and Crop & Food Research formed a joint venture, called Jukebox, to commercialise the intellectual property developed in the R&D programme. At that time First Light Mushroom invested some $1.5 million directly with Crop & Food Research in research and development.

First Light Mushroom has subsequently bought substantial properties which have been specially developed for the programme, together with their research capability, nurseries and laboratory, and have progressively infected pine trees in these areas.

First Light Mushroom will make a direct investment in developing the industry during the next five years of more than $10 million, a formidable investment which is supplemented by the investment in research being made by Crop & Food Research and the government, through the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.

First Light Mushroom is now undertaking the first commercial harvesting of the Saffron mushroom, with other species to follow as the technology progresses.

This represents a substantial step forward for New Zealand. It has been achieved through scientists and industry working together to extend the nation’s wealth and skill base.

A bit more background
Ectomycorrhizal edible mushrooms: These mushrooms are found only in association with the roots of certain trees. They form a symbiotic relationship with their plant hosts. The trees benefit from the relationship because the fungus helps with the uptake of essential minerals from the soil, and the tree in return provides the fungus with carbohydrates and a place to live.


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