New Zealand scientist Dr Philip Elmer has won the kiwifruit industry’s top innovation award for his contribution to the fight against diseases and the industry’s efforts to become more sustainable.
Dr Elmer, a senior scientist at Crown Research Institute Plant & Food Research, was awarded the Sir Brian Elwood Award at Zespri’s annual Harvest Dinner, for leading the team which developed the organic-certified biological control agent Aureo®Gold which is being used in the fight against Psa.
“Aureo Gold was developed during a time of real hardship as most of New Zealand’s 2600 kiwifruit growers were forced to cut out all or some of their vines because of Psa, with many pushed to the financial brink,” Zespri Chair Bruce Cameron says.
“The industry needed hope and Dr Elmer and his team played an important part in that, leading the effort to find a new way of controlling the disease which was safe, bee friendly and did not affect the quality of canopy and the fruit.
“Thankfully, despite the immense pressure, his team succeeded and Aureo®Gold is in high demand today. It’s also taken on new significance, with more consumers now looking for more sustainably produced products, and growers looking to further reduce their environmental footprint.
“It was an incredibly important innovation and we’re pleased to have Dr Elmer on the team,” Mr Cameron says.
Developed through the industry’s longstanding partnership with Plant & Food Research, AgResearch and UPL (formerly Etec Crop Solutions Ltd), Aureo® Gold ticks both boxes as a biological control which is BioGro™ organically certified, adding to the industry’s sustainability efforts.
Kristy McDonald QC, Chair of kiwifruit industry regulator Kiwifruit New Zealand, says the importance of science and innovation to kiwifruit is underlined by the discovery.
“The kiwifruit industry has a proud record of innovation, investing heavily in developing new varieties and products in search of better tasting, higher yielding fruit with a lower impact on the environment.
“Innovators like Dr Elmer are an important part of those efforts. He’s thoroughly deserving of this recognition and we thank him for his contribution,” Ms McDonald says.
Fellow judge, NZKGI Chairman Doug Brown, echoed those sentiments, noting the importance of growers having the right tools to help combat Psa.
“It is important for the industry to find new tools such as Aureo® Gold to combat Psa and having a sustainable biological option is particularly helpful to support growers.
“NZKGI congratulates Dr Elmer on his valuable contribution to the kiwifruit industry,” Mr Brown says.
Dr Elmer has spent more than 30 years developing tools and technologies to manage diseases which impact the New Zealand horticulture industry. He is a world leader and using his expertise to improve how we grow and manage pests and diseases in a more sustainable manner.
Last year he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Kudos Awards for his regional and national contribution to science, and to the international profile of New Zealand science.
Dr Elmer says the joy he gets from his work stems from leading a team that is both passionate and energetic about helping New Zealand’s horticulture become more environmentally sustainable.
“I love biocontrol research and the freedom to develop new biologically-based solutions to industry problems,” he says.
“Where else can you realise that a micro-organism you stashed away in a freezer over a decade ago is the key to controlling a bacterial pathogen that killed so many vines? I guess that makes me a ‘stamp collector’ that collects micro-organisms instead of stamps.
“When we started, we had our fair share of sceptics and many thought that Psa was just too tough for a biological control to handle. Therein lies the heart of why we do what we do – our team loves a challenge and Psa was the biggest one we had ever faced.
“This award means a huge amount to my team and recognises all the hard work and technical barriers we had to overcome - from discovery in 2012 to commercial product being sold in 2018.
“Our mission does not end here for the kiwifruit industry. We are constantly looking to improve what we have developed and right now we are working on a new plant defence booster that will help boost the power of Aureo®Gold – so watch this space,” Dr Elmer says.