Planting the seeds of change – how Europe’s farmers can reap the benefits of plant-based foods

As the appetite for plant-based food grows across Europe, these products present new opportunities for farmers to produce the raw ingredients they need.

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18 June 2024

As the appetite for plant-based food grows across Europe, these products present new opportunities for farmers to produce the raw ingredients they need.

In this deep dive, we meet the people exploring the plant-based meat sector’s commercial potential for farmers, consider the primary obstacles and look at how governments and industry could help European farmers take advantage of this burgeoning industry.

Projects across Europe exploring new revenue streams from diverse and underutilised crops
UK – making the most of local crops

The UK’s Novo Farina is one company hoping to benefit from plant-based meat’s potential to introduce new revenue sources from underutilised crops.

Farmers and entrepreneurs founded the company to expand the range of products made from yellow peas – a plant that flourishes in eastern England but is not widely grown – and have created an on-farm production model utilising locally-sourced peas to make plant-based meat. “Everything we do we want to do on home soil,” Managing Director Emily Williams said.

As they looked for suppliers, farmers inundated them with interest – with many keen to switch to peas due to the crop’s ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, thereby reducing the amount of fertiliser needed. “We’ve never had any concerns about the security of supply,” Emily added. “The fact we’ve got farmers invested in the business shows the commercial opportunity.”

Sweden – Exploring versatile legumes

Across the North Sea, startup founder Eslam Salah has had huge success in finding Swedish farmers interested in growing lupin – a protein-rich legume more familiar in his native Egypt – as a basis for the plant-based products his company, Lupinta, is developing. 

Credit: Lupinta

After moving to Scandinavia, Eslam was eager to explore whether lupin was adaptable to the Nordic climate and set out on a mission to establish it as a mainstream crop, collaborating with the agricultural cooperative Lantmännen to prove its commercial viability in four different regions across Sweden. 

He wasn’t quite prepared for the response. “All the farmers were interested in growing it again – all of them,” he said. “And even after the project was finished we’ve had farmers contacting us and asking us whether we want lupin next season.” 

He added that their enthusiasm was partly due to the crop’s diverse range of uses and ability to generate an income during years in which fields would otherwise be left fallow, as well as its nitrogen-fixing qualities.

The Netherlands – unlocking new use cases for a historic crop
Credit: Agrifirm

In the Netherlands, the Royal Agrifirm Group has been working on projects demonstrating the economic and ecological potential of the fava (also known as faba bean or broad bean) bean – historically grown in Europe mainly for animal feed.  

The 8,500-strong cooperative, which has provided services to Dutch farmers for over 130 years, recently began focusing on protein crops for food. It is now collaborating via the FabaFood project with organisations such as plant breeder KeyGene, which has developed new varieties of the bean, and food companies including Ebro, Upfield and ME-AT, which use it as a basis for plant-based products.

Supply chain must provide certainty

However, significant barriers remain and much more work is needed to provide reliable revenue opportunities.

Credit: Novo Farina

Price challenges were a significant obstacle for Novo Farina in the face of cheaper imports, particularly from China. Emily said that although the company had demonstrated a British-made pea protein was a better product in terms of provenance, cost pressures meant they still had challenges being price competitive in the market.

Maureen de Haan of the Royal Agrifirm Group raised the importance of clarity around future demand. “If retailers and others can provide more certainty about future demand, this really helps because it enables production to scale and make prices more competitive,” she said.

Eslam added that while Swedish growers were willing to adapt, this transition depended on the plant-based sector scaling up and offering much larger volumes of delicious and affordable products, incentivising the supply chain to give farmers long-term guarantees to grow crops like lupin. 

Removing the barriers

Along with industry, governments can play a role – through investment, knowledge exchange and public procurement measures.

Novo Farina has encountered a challenge faced by most plant-based businesses in the UK – a lack of domestic crop processing infrastructure to derive the higher concentration plant protein isolates they need in addition to their locally-grown yellow peas. While the company is working to overcome this obstacle by building infrastructure themselves, enabling the entire operation to be carried out on-site, for now sourcing the protein isolates from abroad is the only option.

Credit: Agrifirm

Emily says the UK Government should do more to support homegrown businesses by promoting the domestic production of plant-based proteins, for example by changing procurement rules, and incentivising manufacturers to source locally produced ingredients.

Eslam agrees that governments must help startups by requiring public sector organisations to buy products from local companies.

Agrifirm’s work has demonstrated the need for stable demand, fair prices, and support mechanisms – issues that present a considerable barrier for Dutch farmers. 

The cooperative is now involved in measures to help mitigate risk, including a pilot scheme with the province of Overjissel to provide farmers with more attractive prices, and plans to work with financial services company Achmea to provide specialist insurance.

How governments can help

Governments are already exploring ambitious support mechanisms to help agricultural communities benefit from the transition. 

Canada has invested heavily in supporting organisations that bring farmers into the discussion and identify ways to move from growing animal feed to growing plant protein for human consumption. Denmark has pledged to pay €68 million in bonuses to farmers who grow protein crops, and Germany has earmarked €20 million to help farmers get involved in producing alternative proteins.

Farming innovators and entrepreneurs will be critical to the success of plant-based foods. But governments and the food industry have an essential role to play in supporting farmers to take advantage of the huge potential this sector holds.