‘This ticks every box worth ticking’: The agri-tech start-up aiming to grow water lentils at scale

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/	Roiyadi Roiyadi
Image: Getty/ Roiyadi Roiyadi

Related tags Duckweed plant-based protein Protein Africa

UK-based food production company Sustainable Planet has unveiled technology to use desertified land to grow the highly nutritious and potentially climate positive duckweed plant.

Looking to tap the plant-based trend using soy and pea? Some argue these ingredients are old hat and food industry trend watchers are looking to the many alternative proteins aiming to come into commercialisation.

Duckweed, or water lentils, is a family of small flowing plants that float on the surface of ponds and lakes, similar to water lilies. The plant has been hailed as the world's most complete food source because of its high levels and quality of protein, vitamins and minerals. If duckweed is grown under optimal conditions, it can contain up to 40% protein. It has also been claimed to be a potential plant-based source of B12, otherwise only naturally found in meat, milk cheese and eggs.

Then there are its sustainability credentials. Duckweed is one the smallest, fastest growing plants in the world. It can be cultivated in nearly all geographic locations and altitudes on water. Water lentils require no arable land to grow and - thanks to being able to effectively absorb contaminants like nitrogen, phosphorus, heavy metals, and carbon dioxide from the air - the plant is said to boast huge climate mitigation potential.

The water lentil "hits every sweet spot​", said Susan Payne, Chief Operating Officer at Sustainable Planet, a UK-based agri-tech food production company with ambitious plans to grow water lentils on a large scale to supply as a nutritious, sustainable ingredient to the global food industry. It's an "exceptional​" plant with the potential to solve a host of problems facing today's food industry from the need to increasing food security and combating climate change from she told FoodNavigator. Sustainable Planet plans to grow water lentils on a large scale, whilst contributing to the regeneration of the earth’s resources and mitigating carbon emissions. The company says its production process allows duckweed to be grown on non-arable land and in saline water, using up to 20 times less water than required for protein isolates such as soy. The start-up aims to dramatically reduce protein imports.

Bringing a new protein source to scale

The challenge, of course, is achieving scale. Sustainable Planet was one of the recent four winners of the FoodTech Challenge, a global competition seeking the world’s most innovative solutions to address food security. It is now seeking funding to grow. The business started in 2019 and has been focussed on trialling its concept for water lentil production in different parts of the world. It has shortlisted several countries to produce water lentils, including Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya, India, Egypt and some Gulf states. These are typically fast developing countries with available land otherwise unsuitable to traditional agriculture and with potential for high-impact returns.

For example, the company has been allocated 10,000 hectares of saline-impacted land that is otherwise unusable to grow food by the Mozambique government. “This provides a solution to the government to allow us to access that land and to use the services of hundreds of small-holders farmers who otherwise cannot feed themselves,”​ Payne explained. “It also quadruples their income.”

Sustainable Planet claims it has the technology and the know-how to produce different products using the water lentil plant. It also, for example, global exclusivity on the patent from the University Wageningen in the Netherlands for extracting the RuBisCo isolate from the water lentils.

Initially, the company is growing water lentils in 6 inch deep ponds 3 metres wide 40-100 metres long. It plans to grow plots of up to 1,000 hectarages on land that is unsuitable for agriculture. 

Africa and Middle East key end-use markets 

"We are in Africa and Middle East because we found we can access very large amounts of non-arable land on which to grow the plant protein and our business model revolves around growing plant protein using non-arable land and very little water.”

“We can hit scale in the countries in the countries we are focusing on because there are thousands of hectares of desertified land that need to have some kind of food grown,”​ said Payne.  

From the water lentils it produces protein power to go in sports supplements, pasta and soups; starch for the bakery sector; protein concentrate for pet food; and protein isolate for meat, fish and egg substitutes, protein drinks and protein bars.

"We have far more demand than we have supply which is why we have to scale up quite vigorously now. Wherever we are regionally located we are fielding calls from buyers of plant protein,"​ the COO continued. 

The business aims to disrupt the prevalent plant proteins soya and pea. “These both require arable land and large amounts of water along with fertilisers and in some cases chemicals,”​ said Payne. “Water lentils are grown on non-arable land using 20 times less water with very little fertilizer and no chemicals. The biomass doubles every 24 hours in optimal conditions and in sub-optimal conditions every 2-3 days. It grows all year round in tropical and sub-tropical temperatures so what we are doing is focussing on developing countries that are low-cost producers and produce wide-scale employment in emerging economies that will then attract hard currency into those economies and we can export this protein power which does not need refrigeration and is very easy to transport. 

“Once we process it using the IP we have through our refining process you create a product which is an isolate and the isolate is 75% protein as opposed to the raw material which is 45% protein and that 75% isolate is odourless and colourless and to which you can add any flavour you choose. As a comparison, soya protein is 25% protein so even if we just keep it as a raw material and we use it various foods, which can be done. It can also be used as high-end animal feed."

'We are low-cost producers'

The product is premium in quality but not in terms of price, she added. “The point of this is to be an alternative to the likes of soy and pea. We are expecting that it will be a good cost compared to other proteins because we can produce it at a cheaper level. We want to make sure we are low cost producers of what we think is a very fine product. It's a premium product in terms of quality. If you compare it to soya and pea it has more vitamins, minerals and amino acids.”

The carbon reduction aspect is a critical part of the venture, stressed Payne. “Not only are we interested in addressing food security and solving global hunger - that sounds a very big remit - but this has the capacity to do that because it can create masses of protein at a very low cost. The second point is that it addresses the carbon footprint that we create and it also acts as a carbon sink [because it] absorbs nitrates and produces oxygens and it reduces carbon emissions.

"This is a climate positive plant and because of the plant's ability to absorb carbon we can create an additional business on top of this business which is selling carbon credits."

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