Meeting multiple challenges of our global food and protein supply system – in one fell 'scoop'
In getting to know all +65 speakers taking part in The Future of Protein Production LIVE!, we are exposing the future trends and solutions that will take alternative proteins from pilot to plate. Here we speak with Susan Payne from Sustainable Planet, which grows premium plant-based proteins on a large scale while contributing to the regeneration of the Earth’s resources and mitigating carbon emissions
Familiar statistics they may well be, but they are nevertheless vital reminders of the sheer enormity of the challenge facing humanity.
In 30 years, there will be 10 billion people on the planet, requiring something in the region of 50-70% more food than is currently produced.
Yet despite today’s evident consumer shift to healthier, more sustainable, and ethical diets, meat as we conventionally know it will more than likely still be the dominant source of protein in 2050, and potentially well beyond that.
That’s bad news for animal welfare and the environment.
But here’s another conundrum. The feed required to nourish the livestock to eventually be slaughtered to end up on some of our plates is around 90% soy based. But there is insufficient arable land available globally to grow the volumes of soy required to meet that demand – not unless we wish to continue decimating the planet’s remaining rainforests.
So, what’s the likely outcome of this complex scenario? A global protein shortage – unless, of course, we find plant alternatives such as the one produced by Sustainable Planet.
The UK-based company is developing an alternative plant protein source using water lentils (aka duckweed or, if you’re a scientifically minded, Wolffia), described by Susan Payne, COO, as a “nutrient-packed protein hero”.
Water lentils are from a family of flowing plants that float on the surface of ponds and lakes. But if you dig about online, you’re more likely to find articles focusing on how to get rid of the ‘weed’ as opposed to harvesting and cooking it.
However, grown under optimal conditions, they can contain up to 40-45% protein. Water lentils also boast all nine essential amino acids as well as being rich in minerals such as zinc and iron, and they’re notably one of the best plant sources of B12, only naturally found in meat, milk cheese and eggs. Comparatively, water lentils contain more nutritional value and protein than, for instance, soy, peas, spirulina or chlorella.
As we grow it using non-arable land and 15 times less water than soybeans, it is a very attractive alternative plant protein source
The huge health benefits of water lentils are evidenced in plenty of research, too. One recent study revealed they can help keep blood sugar levels under control, making it a good choice for people with diabetes. They also contain minerals such as calcium, which is known for making bones stronger and healthier while B12 has also been linked to bone health and strength. Another investigation of the plant’s potential suggested consuming water lentils could be an effective way of treating anaemia (one study proved that to be the case in iron-deficient rats), meaning it could be a potential source of iron for vegans and others with an absence of red meat in their diets.
Although boiling up a pot of pond weed doesn’t sound too appetizing, water lentils have actually been consumed in parts of Asia for a very long time already (the Thais refer to it as ‘Kai naam’, or water eggs), although it is only now that the West has started to evaluate its potential benefits for human consumption.
If the nutritional benefits aren’t winning you over, though, consider that they’re also good for the environment and are highly sustainable to produce. Water lentils do not require any arable land whatsoever, and its biomass doubles every 24 hours. When compared to other nutritious foods such as spinach, kale and soy, water lentils require just a fraction of the water to produce a gram of protein.
“As we grow it using non-arable land and 15 times less water than soybeans, it is a very attractive alternative plant protein source,” Payne confirms. “Importantly, it is also climate positive, acting as a carbon sink. Over time with scale, with pricing matching soybeans, we expect water lentils to take a lead role in the fast-growing plant protein sector, especially as we roll out protein bars and powder in Africa and the Middle East over the next year.”
Sustainable Planet was founded in 2019 and has so far been focused on trialing its concept for water lentil production in different parts of the world.
As part of this, several countries have been used to trailblaze for its wider scale production, including Mozambique, Egypt, Thailand, India and certain Gulf states. Plans are also afoot in various African countries right now.
“These are typically fast-developing countries with lands available that would be otherwise unsuitable to traditional agriculture and with potential for high-impact returns,” confirms Payne.
By growing protein on salt flats in Mozambique or on sand in the UAE, we are offering farmers in these regions the chance to diversify into a new protein source usable in both human and animal foods
Sustainable Planet offers a unique product but the thinking behind the strategy is also worthy of mention. “We are early movers in this product, and the company addresses 13 of the 17 UN SDGs, and growing food using non-arable land with very little water is also unusual,” Payne continues. “By growing protein on salt flats in Mozambique or on sand in the UAE, we are offering farmers in these regions the chance to diversify into a new protein source usable in both human and animal foods.”
Payne is also keen to point out that Sustainable Planet will employ and train hundreds of subsistence and smallholder farmers to tend the ponds in which the water lentils are grown and harvest the material. In Mozambique, for example, this can increase their incomes by a factor of three. “We are also strongly focused on hiring and promoting women in the local operating companies as part of the overall business strategy,” she adds.
With a scalable product such as ours, yields can reach more than 40 tons a hectare per annum, compared to around 4 tons per hectare a year for soybean protein
The old adage, ‘If you want something done properly, do it yourself’, is pretty apt for Sustainable Planet’s mission. Why? Payne, who has worked in food production in Africa for over a decade, is disappointed at the under-funding in what is the critical food and agriculture sector over decades, especially in the face of an impending protein crisis, widespread food crises, and hunger and malnutrition still affecting millions of people daily. “This would not be the case with proper funding alongside well-organized and focused food-delivery systems,” she believes. “For example, with a scalable product such as ours, yields can reach more than 40 tons a hectare per annum, compared to around 4 tons per hectare a year for soybean protein. And we can grow it all year round, 365 days a year in the right climate, not just as part of a six-month crop cycle.”
Of Sustainable Planet’s notable achievements, winning the global Food Tech Challenge award – topping a list of 667 companies from 79 countries globally – was a huge milestone.
However, Payne and CEO, Sven Kaufmann, are also especially proud to have been nominated by Oxford University for the ‘Earthshot Prize 2023’ and being selected as a Patron and sustainability company endorsed in His Majesty at 75: The Leadership and Vision of King Charles III, a commemorative book by Royal biographer Robert Jobson to be launched on the newly crowned King’s 75th birthday later this year.
Perhaps not as much as an accolade as those gongs, Payne also happens to be one of +65 speakers appearing at The Future of Protein Production LIVE! conference and exhibition, taking place at RAI Amsterdam on 11/12 October.
We see countries that are perfectly suited to grow the product, with a large population seeking employment and experienced teams on the ground to manage and develop projects, but we must slow our evolution in line with available funding
Of course, there are challenges that abound for Payne and her colleagues. “We share the biggest challenge with most other companies of this nature – funding to scale up at the speed we seek to do so,” she says. “We see countries that are perfectly suited to grow the product, with a large population seeking employment and experienced teams on the ground to manage and develop projects, but we must slow our evolution in line with available funding.”
On a positive note, though, Payne is pleased to see multiple plant protein-based products being developed that are nutritious and delicious, and she is especially encouraged to see large meat-eating economies such as Nigeria and Pakistan turning to plant-based proteins.
There are increasing numbers of vegetarians and vegans worldwide who are seeking products that suit them. In our opinion, this growing sector is far more interested in delicious plant-based foods that do not taste like meat – low sugar, unprocessed, healthy, protein-packed alternatives
“There are increasing numbers of vegetarians and vegans worldwide who are seeking products that suit them,” Payne notes. “In our opinion, this growing sector is far more interested in delicious plant-based foods that do not taste like meat – low sugar, unprocessed, healthy, protein-packed alternatives. I am a vegetarian and have been since my early teenage years; my co-founder, Sven, has been vegan for years. We are both good examples of consumers seeking just these types of products that do not necessarily taste like meat, and we suggest more focus on these products.
“I am a major consumer of low-sugar, low-carb protein shakes,” Payne continues, when probed further about her own lifestyle (not many interviewees care to discuss this). “People over 50 as well as young people especially require protein. As someone in that category – over 50, as well as being a Masters Athlete for the England and Great Britain distance running teams – I drink at least one protein shake a day and feel very fit and properly fueled as a result. Bars are also a good source of energy and our bars in the Middle East, for example, use water lentil protein alongside local dates that are not always the correct shape or standard to be used for resale on a standalone basis. I like this use of food – combining ingredients that are locally sourced and healthy, and that may not always be perfectly shaped but are certainly perfectly edible.”
Overall, Payne predicts ongoing considerable growth in the alternative proteins industry with new products coming online every year. “These may be less focused on alternative meat-flavored products and more on high-protein shakes, soups, and other products that are simply healthy and low sugar/low carb, and not necessarily meat flavored.”
Not only are we interested in addressing food security and solving global hunger with a premium product at a low price, the carbon-reduction aspect is a critical part of our venture
Certainly, Sustainable Planet has the technology and the know-how to produce different products using the water lentil plant. Interestingly, it has global exclusivity on a patent from Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands for extracting RuBisCo from water lentils. Once the water lentils have been through a refining process, you can even create an isolate product that is 75% protein – and that 75% isolate is odorless, tasteless, and colorless, so you can add any flavor you like. As a comparison, soya is a lower 25-35% protein.
Initially, Sustainable Planet is growing water lentils in 6in-deep ponds, 3m wide and 40-100m long. But it plans on ‘grow plots’ of up to 1,000 hectares on land that is otherwise unsuitable for conventional agriculture. “Not only are we interested in addressing food security and solving global hunger with a premium product at a low price, the carbon-reduction aspect is a critical part of our venture,” Payne concludes. “This is a climate-positive plant and, because of its ability to absorb carbon emissions, we look forward to creating an additional business trading carbon credits as an overlay to building our plant protein business as well.”
• Susan Payne is one of more than 65 speakers appearing at The Future of Protein Production LIVE!, taking place at RAI Amsterdam on 11/12 October. Click here to secure your delegate's pass and join more than 400 senior-level industry professionals to hear a fantastic agenda featuring 30 standalone presentations, take part in six engaging panel discussions, watch an exciting Startup Pitch Symposium and network with +30 exhibiting companies and other attendees
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