How the Netherlands became a plant-based protein powerhouse
Though small in land area, the Netherlands is a big player in the global food industry. Though it’s less than half the size of North Carolina, the country is the second-largest agricultural exporter—of things such as potatoes, onions, and vegetable seeds—in the world by dollar value, behind only the U.S. And lately, the Netherlands has been focusing not only on how to feed the world with plants, but how to feed the world with plant-based proteins.
There are already more than 60 companies and research institutions in the Netherlands focused on plant-based protein, from Dutch-born companies such as the Vegetarian Butcher to U.S. brands such as Beyond Meat, which is opening a co-manufacturing facility and production site there this year. Upfield, which owns vegan cheese company Violife along with plant-based spreads such as I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, announced over the summer that it would invest 50 million euros ($58.1 million) for a Food Science Centre focused on the future of plant-based food.
That center, expected to open before the end of 2021, will be located in the Dutch town of Wageningen, which is home to Wageningen University and Research, a giant in agri-food research and ranked one of the best agricultural universities in the world. The campus includes the former agricultural research institutes of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, and it’s the only Dutch university, per its website, focused specifically on “healthy food and living environment.” It’s also part of “Food Valley,” a region of the Netherlands in which so many food companies and agricultural innovation research centers are located that it’s been called the “Silicon Valley of food.”
And these companies have the backing of the Dutch government, as least when it comes to their mission of replacing meat with more plant-based protein. In 2018, the Council for the Environment and Infrastructure, an independent advisory board for the Dutch government made up of scientists, professors, and environmentalists, released a report on how climate targets require a new food policy. A major part of that policy, per the Council, would have to be replacing animal protein with plant-based protein. The report recommended that the government work with the entire food value chain—from farmers to production to retail—to ensure that Dutch eat less animal protein. Of all protein in a Dutch diet, animal protein accounted for 60%, per that report, and the Council recommended it be “no more than 40% by 2030.”
It’s difficult to know what proportion of protein consumption comes from animals in the average American diet, to use in comparison to the Dutch number. One 1999 study found that 69% of U.S. protein consumption came from animals, and in 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that the average American would eat a record 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry that year.
Plant-based proteins have gotten more popular lately, selling record numbers at grocery stores, appearing on menus at fast food restaurants across the country, and snatching up millions of investor dollars. Though a few companies and products—such as Beyond Meat and Impossible’s burgers—have dominated that expansion in the U.S., there’s still room, experts say, for innovation in ingredients, items, marketing, and distribution. To speed up those developments and the adoption of meat alternatives, the U.S. could learn a few things from the Dutch, says Martijn Lammers, a food and agricultural expert at the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency, a part of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy that advises foreign companies on operating in the Netherlands.
First, the Dutch built a research and development ecosystem for plant-based protein, getting all kinds of stakeholders on the same page with the goal of promoting more meat alternatives. “The system of support by which this ecosystem thrives is the quadruple helix, the collaboration of government, knowledge institutions, companies, and the general public,” Lammers says of the Netherlands, and Food Valley in particular. Within Food Valley, there’s a group called the Protein Cluster that brings together plant-based businesses. “By tying all these stakeholders together, each of the stakeholders benefit.”
Another important lesson from the Netherlands: preparing natural meat companies to pivot. In 2019, Dutch meat producer Vion launched a vegan brand and converted an entire one of its slaughterhouse and meat processing facilities into a plant-based protein factory. Beyond Meat’s first European production site is a co-manufacturing facility with Dutch meat company Zandbergen. And Dutch-Anglo powerhouse Unilever recently launched a $94 million Netherlands-based plant-based food research center called the Hive.
“I spent some time at one of the Dutch meat companies and they say, well at the moment we do 10 to 20% plant protein, and the rest is animal-based. I think in 10 years time it will be the other way around,” Lammers says. “It will be great for both the environment and consumers.” Collaboration with the meat industry could extend into grocery aisles, too. Lammers says it’s striking to him to see a section for meat products and a separate one for plant-based products. “You would expect them to be next to each other. That’s where the power of the meat industry really comes in,” he says. “If you go to Burger King or KFC, [plant-based protein] is on the same menu. You don’t get a separate menu for vegan food, it’s just another product.”
Finally, the Dutch experience in this field tells other countries to anticipate the “ingredient gap.” Experts at the Protein Cluster say the growing demand for plant-based protein may eventually cause a shortage of ingredients—for instance, pea protein. That opens up room to innovate, Lammers says, and to reinvest in the food chain by thinking of new ways to use what was once considered food waste.
Some of the Netherlands’ success with plant-based protein innovation is thanks to its location, which makes it an ideal distribution hub for the rest of Western Europe. “We have a number of U.S. firms that are eyeing the Netherlands … which fits in with the trend already here, that the Netherlands is often a good staging ground for companies that want to distribute their product from the U.S. to the mainland of Europe,” Lammers says. “It’s easy to reach several big markets in a day—France. Germany, the U.K.” That central location also helps with research and development, because companies can test their plant-based proteins on different European consumers.
Even though agricultural research has been prominent in the Netherlands for about 150 years (Wageningen University has existed in some form since 1876), Lammers admits plant-based protein innovation is still relatively new. “We’re only at the beginning of this, but the impact is growing. Once the meat industry becomes more involved, we’ll see a big push in terms of price but also in terms of what’s possible,” he says. And it’s inspiring that other countries are looking to the Netherlands to build out their plant-based protein markets. “An ecosystem always benefits from other ideas, other companies,” he says. “More is always better.”