Photo by Peter de Jong
  • The Expert

The Expert - A global leader

How can we work more sustainably, smarter and healthier? In this edition, we give the floor to expert Peter de Jong. Peter de Jong is a lecturer in sustainable dairy and food processing at Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences in Leeuwarden. He also works as program director at the Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT) and as principal scientist food processing at NIZO. He is also involved as program director in the open innovation program Fascinating (Food Agro Sustainable Circular Nature Technology in Groningen).

The way we produce and consume food will have to change dramatically in the coming years. For our own health, to keep up with population growth and, of course, for a livable planet. But what is needed to set this transition well in motion? And what role can the Northern Netherlands play in it?

Peter de Jong is an expert on agriculture and food. As a chemical technologist, he deals with sustainability from various positions. For example, maximizing raw material use and extracting the maximum nutritional value from food products. 'I wear many different hats and I guess that has to do with age,' jokes De Jong. 'The common thread is that I make the link between raw materials, the way of processes and the quality of the product.'

Food Transition

For some, protein transition is the holy grail and for others a loaded term. De Jong himself prefers to draw the problem more broadly. 'We have a growing world population and we have to feed it in a healthy way. We usually get enough calories, but the most important thing is the nutrients we need. These must of course be produced in the most sustainable way possible. For that you want to use all possibilities.'

'Plantbased is an important part of that transition, but not necessarily with the idea of completely replacing all animal-based with plant-based,' De Jong continued. 'That might be possible in an individual diet, but it won't work on a global scale. So in addition to plant-based proteins, the share of dairy and even meat will have to increase a bit. Not because people are going to eat more meat, but because there are more of us.'

Also, according to De Jong, not all proteins are equal. 'This is because not all proteins are equally easy to digest, nor are they always of the same quality. To really initiate a transition, you will have to ensure high quality and good taste at a lower price. The farmer will also have to earn from it. That is where the biggest challenge lies, and despite the popularity of plant-based products, they are starting to run into this. A next step has to be taken now.'

'When it comes to the method of processing, the plantbased world is still in its infancy. So let's focus on developing technology that leaves proteins from crops more intact, because our strength lies in knowledge.'

Peter de jong


De Jong points out that there is also much to be gained in the area of processing for plant-based alternatives. The carbon footprint of dairy products, for example, is greatest on the farm, while not much more needs to be done in the factory. Processing takes up only 6-10% of the total footprint, depending on the product. However, it is much more difficult to extract protein from crops, which requires much more processing and takes a lot of energy, which can compromise sustainability in large-scale production. This highlights the need for further development of process technologies.

And that is precisely something De Jong is concerned with. 'To extract high-quality protein from crops, you actually need the mildest possible process. And that also costs a lot less energy at the same time. But the milder the process, the more microorganisms remain intact, so that's a bit of a tension. We are currently working at Van Hall Larenstein, together with companies and with support from the Dairy Campus innovation fund, on a new pasteurization technology. This technology ensures that the whole process takes less than a second, while killing all the harmful microorganisms.'

'In the total energy consumption of the Netherlands, the agrofood industry occupies a good second place after the petrochemical industry,' continues De Jong. 'This is partly due to inefficient processes, such as the drying of food. Within the Fascinating program, we are currently working on the development of an innovative drying system based on zeolite. This system converts humid air into dry warm air, reusing the generated heat for the drying process. This allows us to achieve significant energy savings, estimated to be between 20% and 30%. This is very substantial.

Cooperation with the market

Another common thread in De Jong's research is seeking collaborations with companies. 'My roots are at NIZO in Ede, where research is funded entirely from the market. Many companies also hook up with Van Hall Larenstein, the ISPT and Fascinating. This is important because it gives focus to the research topics. It also provides a lot of new and valuable knowledge.'

'For large equipment manufacturers, new process technologies are mainly a niche alongside their existing portfolio. And these companies are generally not that fast either. In my experience, for real innovation it is best to collaborate with SMEs,' De Jong continues. 'That is also something that characterizes the Northern Netherlands, by the way, that we look for local parties to cooperate with. That works much faster because of the shorter lines. In the Randstad people first look to the very large parties for collaborations.

Netherlands Knowledge Country

According to De Jong, it is not only important to optimize the processes, but the earnings model must also be right throughout the chain. 'It is essential that farmers actually benefit. It makes little sense to encourage them to grow more protein crops if this is less profitable than, say, sugar beets. So a fair earnings model is important. But even more important is that we produce high-quality protein that is better than what is currently on the market.'

'The Netherlands is a small country, so we should not try to produce more. Of course we cannot compete with countries like Canada. However, our strength lies in the fact that we are a knowledge country,' continues De Jong. 'That is what we are known for worldwide and what largely drives our economy. When it comes to the way of processing, the plantbased world is still in its infancy. So let's focus on developing technology that leaves proteins from crops better intact, because again, our strength is our knowledge. With the Fascinating program, the Northern Netherlands has a global pioneering role in this respect!'

'In my experience, the best way to achieve real innovation is to work with SMEs. That is also something that characterizes the Northern Netherlands.'

Peter de jong