21 Jan 2015

Science looks to traditional Maori techniques

6:58 am on 21 January 2015

Plant and Food Research is focussing on recruiting Māori students to help fulfil a growing need for specialist skills in horticulture and food science.

It is also working with Māori communities around the country to get rangatahi interested in the industry.

From left: Amy Maslen-Miller, Hone Ropata, Hanareia Ehau-Taumaunu - summer students at the Plant and Food research Centre in Auckland.

From left: Amy Maslen-Miller, Hone Ropata, Hanareia Ehau-Taumaunu - summer students at the Plant and Food research Centre in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Mani Dunlop

The centre offers scholarships to Maori for its summer student programme.

One of the students, Amy Maslen-Miller, who is doing her masters, is investigating kamokamo growing techniques to help gain more information for an export market in the future.

She said it was this sort of mahi that made her to get into science.

"At uni I was really passionate about plants and really passionate about sustainability in crops for Māori and Pacific Island communities - which is exciting because you can contribute doing research and science and really helping."

She believes there needs to be more Māori influence in science at a secondary school level, to help encourage students to take the subject up.

Another student on the programme, Hone Ropata, is studying the possible impact of myrtle rust incursion on Māori plant species.

He said he feels mātauranga Māori has a lot to offer western science.

"There is a lot of knowledge that has been lost, but there are little nuggets that pop up now and then, and they add so much, so if we can preserve it as much as we can I think it will take us a long way."

Hanareia Ehau-Taumaunu who grew up in Ruatoria, is working on building relationships with Māori kiwifruit growers, who comprise about 15 percent of the industry.

She said her curiosity for science started when her nannies and papas taught her about rongoā or Māori medicine.

Ms Ehau-Taumaunu said the science world has become very open to learning about how the two work together.

"Scientists I talk too are very interested in it [mātauranga Māori] and see how they can incorporate it into their work"

A PriceWaterhouseCoopers report released last month found that improvements in the performance of Māori freehold land could add billions of dollars to the economy.

The Plant and Food research centre's summer student intake is part of the more than $10 million a year it spends on work related to or involving Māori.

Chief Operating Officer Bruce Campbell said in the last few years, it had recognised the importance of having Māori working in food science.

"As we talk to Māori groups around the country, there is a lot of interest in how to use land and resources in a productive way - so a lot of interest in horticulture.

"And what we are finding is the opportunity for young Māori from those groups to come and see what role science can play, that is a really valuable opportunity."