A more fitting location could hardly be imagined: the Avebe Innovation Center on the Zernike Campus in Groningen. There, in the beating heart of innovation of the globally operating company, the Food & Business Event organized by the NOM took place last May 12. A report of a more than successful afternoon.
Led by Business Developer Alex Berhitu of the NOM, the Food & Business Event was all about the food transition. And especially: in enthusing and stimulating northern SMEs to help in the transition to a healthier and more sustainable food system.
The need is crystal clear to all. To cope with the consequences of climate change and global population growth, the way we produce and consume our food must change dramatically. Less animal-based and more plant-based, short chains, recycling of residual streams and no waste. Especially in the Northern Netherlands there are plenty of opportunities to successfully shape this radical change. To actually seize those opportunities and thus profit from the food transition as a region, we need everyone. Agricultural cooperatives, supply companies, knowledge institutions and certainly also SMEs.
'Look around you and keep innovating,' was the message Natascha Kooiman, who kicked off the event with a clear story, gave the entrepreneurs in attendance. Natascha is one of the initiators and quartermaster of the Transition Coalition Food (TcV), a mutually supportive network of frontrunners in the world of agriculture, food, nature and health. Within this front-runner movement, which strives for a healthier life on a healthy planet, she is concerned with the protein transition and food environment. 'Although there is a growing need among consumers for healthy and sustainable food, there are still far too many incentives through supply and advertising that encourage unhealthy food choices,' she argued. 'As a result, for example, we eat far too few fruits and vegetables. Simply because the food environment largely determines our eating behavior.'
The protein transition touches on much, almost everything. It relates to health, biodiversity, climate change and food security, among others.
Politics on the move
Natascha underscored the importance of the protein transition to accelerate making the food system healthier and more sustainable. 'The protein transition touches on a lot, on almost everything. It relates to health, biodiversity, climate change and food security, among other things.' This is why TcV recently asked the cabinet in an open letter to anchor the ambition for a protein transition to 60% vegetable and 40% animal by 2030 and 50/50 by 2025 in the coalition agreement. Or more precisely, it is up to politicians to activate the business community to make plant-based the new normal.
You just have to use common sense and try to cooperate with nature as best you can.
No less inspiring was Alex Berhitu's "on stage" conversation with arable farmer Geert Lindenhols and Filips Jager, CEO of I am Algae from Bolsward. Two Northern entrepreneurs who have already made great strides in the food transition. 'I like to make people yellow,' laughed Geert, who presses his rapeseed into oil and sells the purely natural and vitamin-rich rapeseed oil to consumers under the brand name Geerts Best. At the same time, he grows field beans, a somewhat forgotten crop packed with unsaturated fatty acids and plant protein and thus a great meat substitute, from which he makes field bean meal and field bean flour, among other things. 'It's all there in your immediate environment,' he stressed. 'You just have to use common sense and try to cooperate with nature as best you can.'
Ground algae culture
But you can also give nature a hand, as I am Algae demonstrates with its inventive microalgae cultivation system. The company, which consists of a team of bankers and techies, is convinced that growing microalgae can contribute substantially to the protein transition, Filips told me. 'Algae consist of 70% protein and growing them is basically not difficult at all. It is mainly climate-related. However, we cultivate without sunlight, but with the help of artificial light and CO2. Moreover, the system we developed is not soil-bound, which means you don't need acres, so it can be applied anywhere. Because we cannot compete with the freezer section in the supermarket, we deliver the fresh frozen Spirulina directly to the consumer. That's another area where you have to be innovative.'
Indeed, innovation is the key word in the food transition. But you innovate together, not alone. By combining forces and knowledge, many wonderful things can be created. In short, cooperation is the driving force behind innovation. This was demonstrated once again during the presentations of two appealing Northern food programs: FoodPlus and Fascinating. FoodPlus builds on the successful activities of the recently completed Food2020 interreg project, a cooperation project in the Dutch-German border region that helps SMEs develop innovative products, services and applications. How the further support will be implemented in concrete terms? "That will only be determined after we have carefully inventoried the current wishes and needs of SMEs," Lyanne Ausema, who works at TCNN as a project manager in the Food2020 project, among others, told me.
Fascinating, which stands for Food Agro Sustainable Circular Nature Technology in Groningen, is an open test and innovation program that was officially launched over a year ago. Since then, agricultural cooperatives Avebe, Agrifirm, Cosun and FrieslandCampina have been working together with UMCG, LTO Noord and others on possibilities for realizing a circular food system. In other words, a system that balances sustainability, healthy food, natural value and economic impact. But in order to actually realize this ambition, more parties are needed, including SMEs. Not only from Groningen, but also from Friesland and Drenthe, for example. That was, so halfway through the event, also the reason that Tjeerd Jongsma on behalf of Fascinating and Dina Boonstra on behalf of the NOM festively signed a cooperation agreement.
'As NOM, through our broad national and international network, we can play a role in connecting SMEs with Fascinating,' Dina clarified the background to the cooperation. 'In addition, we have also been asked to carry the ideas and initiatives developed in the program out to Friesland and Drenthe, and we will also ensure a connection to projects and programs outside the North.'
Fruitful work sessions
But what do SMEs need tomorrow to come up with a pilot product or service? What are they missing in their business to realize innovation? To find out, and from there to see how FoodPlus and Fascinating can support SMEs even better, both Northern programs held separate working sessions after the break. They were fruitful meetings, to be sure. In an open, critical and above all constructive atmosphere, aspects such as more and better cooperation in the chain, the need for reliable project partners and suitable housing for pilot plants were frequently mentioned. Clear points of departure for the various programs. There were also enough handles for innovation that afternoon for the participants, who undoubtedly returned home after the successful Food & Business Event full of new insights, contacts and inspiration.
A good dozen companies came forward during the meeting for further exploration for cooperation. If you would also like to explore further what this could mean for you please contact Joep de Vries.