Foodvalley spotlights innovation to solve the ‘complex puzzle’ of healthy and sustainable protein

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags plant-based vegan Protein

Innovation in proteins will be needed to solve the ‘complex puzzle of achieving a healthy and sustainable protein balance’, according to Dutch agrifood ecosystem FoodValley.

Foodvalley - which works to promote cooperation between companies, knowledge institutions, educators and regulators – staged the third edition of the Foodvalley Protein Summit last month (17 October). The event, the organisers said in a statement, was attended by more than 400 participants from 250 organisations ‘from every corner of the globe’.

Foodvalley brought together diverse players from across the value chain, from farmers and manufacturers to investors, researchers and regulators. The event is an initiative developed by Foodvalley in collaboration with Wageningen University, ag biotech company KeyGene and The Protein Cluster, an project from Foodvalley, Oost NL and the Dutch provinces of Gelderland and Overijssel.

'We all need to be vegan' and other 'trendy protein myths' 

The Protein Cluster project manager Jeroen Willemsen told the audience that new models need to be developed across the supply chain in order to deliver a sustainable protein future. This future, he continued, will include both vegetable and animal proteins.

"We need both vegetable and animal sources in order to achieve a future-proof protein supply,"​ Willemsen said, according to Foodvalley’s post event round-up. "This will need innovation throughout the entire chain, from production to consumption."

He was not the only speaker to stress the role animal agriculture can play in a sustainable food system. Stacy Pyett, program manager of proteins for life at Wageningen University and co-author of the Mansholt Lecture 2019, insisted that we do not ‘all need to be vegan’.

"Many people think that animals are an inefficient source of protein, so we all need to be vegan. Wrongly so,"​ she emphasised in her presentation.

Debunking what she described as ‘four trendy myths’ Pyett also rejected the idea that there is not currently enough protein to feed the world’s population.

"There is enough protein available. The problem is its uneven global distribution,”​ the researcher asserted.

In Europe, for instance, more than 50% of protein is derived from animal sources and ‘all countries have excess protein. In contrast, African countries derive more than half their protein supply from plant sources and there are ‘many countries with insufficient supply’.

And while she said it is ‘partially true’ that plant-based alternatives ‘have a lower footprint’ she also noted it is ‘partially true’ that they are ‘of a lower quality’.

Food tech for sustainable protein 

Pyett identified four directions for technological innovation that could increase protein availability and sustainability.

Firstly, she suggested, it is necessary to ‘improve crops’. Few breeding initiatives focus specifically on protein and collaboration between food tech and plant breeding ‘presents as an opportunity’, Pyett suggested.

She also believes that ‘innovative aquatic production systems’ can be part of the solution and noted that today oceans provide just 7% of our protein despite covering 71% of the earth’s surface.

“Aquatic protein crops like seaweed and microalgae still requite energy-intense downstream processing, technology breakthroughs are needed,”​ she suggested in her presentation.

Seaweed - getty inusuke
©Getty Images / Inusuke

Increased availability from plant and aquatic sources could lead to the development of new production systems and ingredients, for example, algae and duckweed or protein production using fungi, bacteria and yeasts. Pyett pointed to the potential of biosynthesis to ‘decouple production from resources’ and develop ‘no-waste energy-food production systems’.

Finally she stressed the urgency of tackling food waste and loss. "In particular with fruit and vegetables, there is significant loss in the chain. There are great opportunities for farmers in terms of the value of these residual flows. Protein from potatoes is already available in the Netherlands; protein from rapeseed meal and beet leaves is on its way."

The positives of eating more plants

If a sustainable and healthy food system does not require all of us to go vegan, we should nevertheless be increasing the proportion of plants in our diets, according to Evelien de Olde, senior researcher at Wageningen University & Research.

Currently, she noted Dutch people obtain around of 60% of their protein from animal sources such as meat and dairy. "A 25% share would be much more sustainable and healthier,"​ she claimed.

This message was reinforced by Wageningen University’s Emely de Vet, who argued that the healthy choice must be the ‘easy choice’.

“Consumption is not merely the matter of an individual but [the] result of social, cultural, economic [and] physical context,”​ de Vet argued in her presentation, stressing the role that the food environment, availability, social mores and policy play in shaping consumption habits.

To support a transition to more plant-based diets, de Vet suggested that it is ‘not about forbidding options’ but ‘exploiting biases, heuristics and perceptual errors’. Initiatives that deliver could range from changing the balance of ranging in supermarkets to exploiting the ‘mindless effect’ of portion size by cutting meat’s share of plate.

"If we want to change consumer behavior, we need to combine several strategies - from creating a wider range of in-store vegetable products, to nudging people, unconsciously, into making sustainable and healthy choices,"​ she explained. "This requires cooperation between different disciplines and links in the chain from production to consumption.”

Taste is key as plant protein mainstreams 

McDonald's (France)
McDonald's move in plant-based is proof positive the category is mainstreaming ©McDonald's

Ultimately, if consumers are going to increase the proportion of vegetable-based protein in their diets the industry needs to deliver what they are looking for.

"Products with vegetable protein must, first and foremost, pass the taste test,"​ said Chris Kerr, founder of plant-based alternative seafood innovator Good Catch.

Mathijs Huis in 't Veld, of healthy fast food concept Jack Bean, also stressed taste is crucial: "We want to prove that plant-based can be very tasty."​ He said that three challenges are standing in the way of the plant-based category: convenience, cost and culture.

For this reason, the move of plant-based proteins from a niche category into the mainstream bodes well for the sector.

McDonald’s, for instance, believes it can ‘scale for good’, leveraging its size to tackle issues like food waste, climate action and transition to more sustainable protein models.

The company is working to find the ‘right balance in our protein offering’ between beef, chicken and veggie, marketing communications director Annemarie Swijtink noted. Last month, the fast food giant introduced the veggie HomeStyle crispy chicken, which, Swijtink suggested, is only the beginning of the vegetarian journey.

“We accelerated our protein journey in 2018 with the introduction of the HomeStyle burger and Make it Veggie… and we continue the journey in 2019.”

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