The Future of Protein Production Summit Speaker Profile: Rieks Smook, CEO, Grassa
Feeding humanity has interested Rieks Smook, the CEO of the Netherlands-based Grassa, for much of his life. After agricultural college and university, he started a career in corporate finance at Rabobank and found himself advising food and agri companies all around the world on financing their business development. The challenge of feeding ~10 billion people by 2050 in a sustainable way was only then starting to become a part of the discussion. So, when Grassa came along, Smook seized the opportunity as it was all about efficiency and sustainability.
In a nutshell, Grassa makes 'normal' grass better. How? Grass is processed into four high-quality products through a natural process of pressing, heating and filtering. These four products include opened grass, grass protein, sugar with a prebiotic effect (FOS), and finally a plant-based fertilizer.
A protein for human consumption is the end game, Smook explains. The grass juice, obtained from pressing the grass, is heated. The dissolved proteins in the grass juice then take on a solid form and are filtered out of the moisture. A grass protein concentrate is then created, which at the moment is preserved and used as an ingredient in animal feeds (pigs, chickens, fish, dogs, etc), both wet and dry, but in the near future, it could be used for human consumption.
Grassa is one of 18 young companies pitching his company's innovations at The Future of Protein Production Summit, taking place virtually on 21/22/23 February 2023. What makes Grassa special? Why was it handpicked from hundreds to be one of the 18? "We make more efficient use of the worlds most common crop (grass)," Smook reveals. "One of the products (opened grass) has the same functionality as the original grass, but makes the use more sustainable with less emissions and manure. Additionally we produce grass protein which is digestible by monograstic creatures including humans and a local alternative to soy. So, we make additional food from the same grass, while making the use of grass more sustainable."
Smook reports that grass protein has a high-quality amino acid profile, with 17% more essential amino acids than soy protein. This makes grass protein a perfect and sustainable alternative to soy, a product that is cast in a bad light due to its high CO2 footprint and deforestation of tropical jungles. "If 25% of the grass in the Netherlands is processed into digested grass, an amount of grass protein concentrate is created that can meet the entire Dutch soy demand," Smook says.
Convincing dairy farmers that opened grass is as – or sometimes even more – effective as the original grass, while extracting part of the most valuable ingredient (protein) has not been without its challenges, according to Smook. "We overcame this through public research on the product by renowned universities and practical tests. Our biggest challenge was the initial volume required to get off, takers to start developing products with your ingredients, and finance (the CapEx in building the initial capacity) as it is capital intensive."
"The food ingredient market is a high-volume, low-margin game," Smook continues. "Established (less sustainable) products have the scale to be cheap, which make them hard to compete against. True pricing will help, as will putting a little innovation tax on the unsustainable bulk products, which subsidizes the introduction of the sustainable product. When the uses of the sustainable product increase, it will get less subsidized and prices will morph to the price of the old unsustainable product."
Agriculture, Smook believes, has ultimately harvested many of the low hanging fruits (and seeds and tubers). With deep tech and completely new proteins, though, he thinks we are reaching for something new, completely overlooking the next low hanging fruit in the green leaf parts of plants.
"In the future, my hope is that plant-based proteins get more and more attention," Smook says. "They should get way more attention as a complete shift in eating patterns (less animal, more plant based) needs to happen. This marketing campaign should be instigated by governments. What pisses me off is the polarization of the subject of plant based. It is not the complete opposite of animal based. Both are needed to feed the world. We just have to become more efficient with the resources we have."
When asked to imagine where Grassa could be in 2030, Smook is hopeful that it will eventually be just as normal to feed biorefined grass to cows as it is to silage the grass fed to cows. "Grass will be seen as a new protein crop," he concludes. "The proteins coming from the grass will be feeding both humans and livestock, replacing the imports of soy and other feed from other continents. The manure will circle back to the land from which the grass was taken. And all over the country, there will be local units pressing the grass to opened grass, while regional refinery facilities will refine the grass juice into the nutrients that separately can be more efficiently applied in the food sector.”
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