Plant protein project connects Dutch soybean chain

A two-year project, connecting every link in the local Dutch soybean supply chain from field to supermarket shelf, has just come to fruition. The results highlight the benefits of collaboration in developing new plant-protein products.

Innovation Performance Contract

Locally-grown soybeans was one of five starting points for the project, Transition to Plant Proteins, an IPC (Innovation Performance Contract). IPCs are government-subsidized cooperative projects between SMEs, in the same region, chain or sector, that collaborate in a multi-year innovation process. This particular IPC aimed to speed up the development of new products based on proteins from soy, hemp, algae, fava beans and seaweed. The soy segment involved three companies at different links along the supply chain. DutchSoy works with soy growers and breeders in the Netherlands to boost Dutch soybean production; Ojah produces meat alternatives, mostly from soy, and Botanic Bites makes vegetarian foods from a range of plant ingredients.

Innovative plant-protein concepts

“The intention was to accelerate market introduction of innovative plant protein concepts,” said Jeroen Willemsen, IPC project leader at The Protein Cluster. “We start by identifying market opportunities and consumer demands and move back down the supply chain. This worked out very well.” As well as demand from consumers for locally grown, non-GMO, plant-based foods, the project was also driven by a European Union protein strategy to decrease reliance on imported proteins. Currently, the EU imports about 95% of its soybeans and soy meal.

European-grown soy

For European-grown soy, challenges include lower yield per hectare and lower protein content compared to soy from South America, where the beans receive more sunshine. “We are still searching for the best way, because soy production is still really new in Europe,” said Peter Strijk, founder of DutchSoy. During the IPC project, the company analyzed 37 different soy varieties grown in Europe. It aims to breed soy with the highest possible protein content, and that also can be harvested early, as the Dutch climate requires. “We think that maybe we can’t have 100% Dutch soy. But maybe we can have 40% Dutch soy and build from there,” he said. “For me, it was reassuring to see the whole chain together in the IPC project, to get the different perspectives of everyone in the chain. Because when you work together, you can make sure that what you make is suitable for the next step in the chain.”

Sourcing plant-based protein

Ojah handles that next step in the chain. It has been processing soy and other plant proteins into meat alternatives for ten years. Joeri Hollink, Head of Product Development at Ojah, said sourcing plant-based protein has been and still is extremely challenging at times. “The market changes constantly: prices suddenly rise, or quality is lower than you are used to,” he said. “Equally challenging is having to deal with the mindset of the consumer. For example, when a part of the Amazon rainforest is on fire, as happened recently, soy is put in a bad light.” A few years ago, Ojah decided to stop sourcing soy from South America, mainly because of consumer perception. Over the past three years, about 95% of the company’s soy has come from Europe, and Hollink sees the results of the IPC project as a stepping-stone toward more locally-produced soy, eventually with higher protein content.

Undersized soybeans

Founder and managing director of Botanic Bites, Doreen Westphal, said it was valuable to see what goes into producing the ingredients she buys, from the selection of particular plants, to creating good product texture. As a result of the IPC project, she is buying undersized soybeans from DutchSoy to make falafel, complementing the company’s existing meat-alternatives range. “When I started, a few years ago, I was really critical of soy, but I learned from this project that a lot of soy is already grown in Europe – and, even better, in the Netherlands. Now that this soy is available I’m sure we’ll be using more.” Botanic Bites already uses fungi to create meaty textures, but soy’s high protein content makes it useful nutritionally. “I am really glad that we are cultivating these protein-rich plants in the Netherlands, our own Dutch protein chain,” she said. Now that the IPC project has come to an end, the entrepreneurs will continue working together within the newly established soy supply chain.