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UK Grown Soya Brings New Opportunities

"The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture" - Thomas Jefferson

Change is Gonna Come

In food, much as in life, changes that appear irrelevant at the time can end up having a considerable impact upon our lives. Many of us will have read about the banning of neonicotinoid seed dressings back in 2018, but if not directly involved in agriculture, would probably not have paid much attention. Similarly, we may have heard about the explosive growth of Chinese pork and poultry farming over the past 15 years and found it interesting, perhaps even concerning, but it is unlikely we would have considered that it might impact upon the way we eat in the UK.

Within our increasingly connected global food system, such changes can reverberate around the world, often in unexpected ways. Whether we like it or not, we all directly connect with the food system every day, and what at first appears irrelevant, can end up affecting us profoundly. What is global affects what is local. Seemingly distant issues of agronomy have a real impact upon our plates and our wallets.

With such potentially far reaching impacts, it is the responsibility of those working within the food system to ensure that we react to change in positive ways. This is a story of how a small group of companies are trying to make some large global changes work for UK farmers, consumers and the environment. It provides a small snapshot of the sort of ground up shifts required to make a food system that works for everyone. And it starts with one of the most controversial crops of all.

Tainted Plant

Consumers find it hard to love soy. Although most of us consider a bottle of the fermented sauce a kitchen essential, it is a crop tainted by scandal and suspicion. Perceptions are so intertwined with GMOs, rainforest clearance and the evils of global monoculture, that many consider it a culinary taboo. A number of large UK manufacturers avoid it completely, and although many claim this is largely for allergen reasons, few steer clear of wheat, gluten, dairy or eggs so readily.

Ask anyone in agriculture about soya beans however, and the perception will probably be quite different. Soya’s global ubiquity as an animal feed is no accident. It is an extraordinarily bountiful and efficient plant, producing a higher yield of protein per hectare than any other staple crop. Being a leguminous plant, it fixes its own nitrogen, requiring far less fertiliser that commonly grown alternatives such as wheat or corn. In rotation, its root system leaves enough nitrogen and carbon in the soil to dramatically improve the yield of the crop that follows it. It can add over 2 tonnes per hectare to the next crop of wheat, reducing the need for expensive and polluting chemical fertilisers.

As a food stuff for humans, soya has extraordinary versatility, producing fermented tofus, beans and sauces, flours with enzymic properties highly valued in baking, and the sort of high quality protein isolates capable of mimicking the texture of meats and fish. Soy burgers, nuggets, dippers and sausages currently dominate the rapidly growing plant based foods market, providing a realistic meat like texture. Far from being a great evil, when fed to humans, soya is as close to a miracle crop as it is possible to be. Not only is easy to make delicious, but almost every alternative requires more energy, more land and more chemistry to produce the same results.

Perhaps some of the issues with soya derive from the fact that so little of the global crop, around 30% according to most estimates, actually gets fed directly to people. The protein that soya beans produce is extremely high in quality, and once the oil has been extracted, what is left is perfectly suited for creating the animal feeds that have driven the boom in intensive livestock production around the world. The huge growth in Chinese pig and poultry production has been made possible because of soya based feeds and most of the world’s dairy production now depends upon it. Globally, annual soya production has increased from just over 100 million tonnes in 1990 to over 350 million tonnes by 2019, largely driven by the burgeoning Chinese market. In that time, the price has more than doubled, crucially making soy a much more lucrative proposition for many farmers.

In part, this growing demand has also driven the perceived evils of soya. Much of the increase has sadly been met by clearing tropical forests and destroying ecosystems. Once diverse tracts of US and South American farmland has been replaced by endless fields of soy. Highly efficient GMO plants resistant to herbicides and insect damage have started to dominate across much of the world. A combination of protectionist EU policies and underhand practises by some GMO manufacturers has led to confusion and suspicion, particularly in Europe. Despite its environmental benefits and relative lack of chemistry when compared to maize, wheat or canola, soy has become uniquely associated with the harms of high tech monoculture.

The Slow Move North

Although not limited to the tropics, soya beans have always required a certain amount of solar energy to grow and a long enough photo-period to flower, so restricting their range. Until relatively recently, this has prevented the crop from growing in Northern Europe, meaning that countries such as the UK have never had access to its agricultural benefits, and import around 3 million tonnes of soy every year to provide feed for livestock. Perhaps surprisingly, the solution to this problem did not come from the capitalist agri-tech giants that dominate global seed production, but from the wheat growing regions of Soviet Russia and a few secretive scientists working within the communist regime.

As Soviet agriculture slowly escaped the pseudoscientific grip of Lychenkoism in the early 1960s, its plant scientists started to look towards soya as a way of improving their traditional wheat based systems. They sensibly realised that if they could overcome the heat and photoperiod issues, soya could become a valuable rotation crop on the vast wheat fields of the Ukraine. Over a number of years, they developed varieties that would grow despite the shorter, colder days of that region, something that had eluded agricultural scientists elsewhere. Whilst the rest of the world focused on intensifying soya production in warmer climes, in Soviet Russia and some parts of Eastern Europe, new varieties became a valuable break crop, albeit one that remained under the global radar.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, with the economies of the regions opened up to the world, a few British agricultural pioneers traveled to the Ukraine, having heard that agronomists there had achieved what few thought possible. Working with Ukrainian plant breeders, David McNaughton from the organisation now known as Soya UK, eventually started to bring back varieties with the potential to grow in the South of England. The work was initially slow and frustrating, but the introduction of the Siverka variety in 2015 proved to be a game changer. Here was a plant that could enable UK growers to match the yields of South American or US farms, and potentially provide a hugely valuable break crop for UK wheat growers. More recently, the Arnica variety has enabled soya to be grown as far North as Humberside and as global prices have risen, soya has started to become a highly attractive option. In recent times, it is also one that UK farmers desperately need.

New Rotations

UK arable farming has been dominated by rotations of wheat and canola (rape seed) for several years now and many of us have become used to the vibrant yellow and green patchwork that appears across the land every spring. Yet despite being dominant for most of this century, problems have blighted this rotation over the last few years. Firstly, the banning of neonicotinoids throughout the EU in 2018 left the canola crop highly susceptible to cabbage stem flea beetle, with little left available as an effective treatment. Losses due to these pests have left the economics of UK canola hanging by a thread. Production has fallen from seven hundred thousand hectares in 2015 to less than three hundred thousand this year.

Secondly, black grass, a near untreatable weed on many UK farms, has been damaging wheat canola rotations, again with little agro-chemistry on offer as protection. As more and more weeds develop resistance to available chemicals, and chemical bans reduce what can be used, farmers are increasingly turning to more traditional agronomic solutions. Rotations such as soya can provide a valuable spring crop that interrupts the growth cycle of black grass, preventing it from becoming established. Rotating wheat and soya is thought to be one of the best interventions available for controlling this weed.

At a time when farmers are desperate for new break crops, soya has a number of other advantages. It requires less chemistry than other plants, fixing its own nitrogen and having no serious pest issues. Its newly increased price is providing a good margin for growers, with the yield and quality of the new varieties equivalent to anything produced around the world. What’s more, as a sustainable, traceable, GM free soy, the UK grown product is priced well above the global average.

As the large global seed companies still focus their GM varieties entirely on the high volume production regions such as Brazil and the US, the opening of new markets in more temperate areas has been left to small local plant breeders, such as those in the Ukraine. Even if you wanted to grow GM soya in the UK, it would not be possible, as none of the GM varieties would flower at such a high latitude. UK suitable beans are not only free from GM, the entire seed stock is now grown within the UK and so fully traceable, making any GM contamination incredibly unlikely.

Feeding People

Another key difference with UK grown soy is where it ends up, with the vast majority being eaten by humans rather than livestock. Much of the UK crop is currently delivered to one site, a mill at Royston in the East of England that has been processing soy since the 1960s, long before it was grown here. Most of the beans coming into the plant are Canadian grown non-GMO varieties, but the proportion of UK soya has been steadily increasing, from virtually nothing five years ago to around 3000 tonnes in 2019. Over the next few seasons, UK Soya hopes that enough will be grown here to provide all the of the mill’s requirement, around 12,000 tonnes.

At the plant, owned by bakery supplier AB Mauri, soy beans are slowly steam cooked over a number of hours, dried, then ground into flour, which finds its way in the the majority of UK industrial bread production. Currently, the UK product disappears into the supply chain, anonymously combined with Canadian grown. But more recently, AB Mauri have started to look beyond bread, towards the increasingly competitive plant based foods market.

The Protein Problem

The majority of plant based burgers, sausages, nuggets and steaks on the market today are made from some form of protein isolate, with the dominant varieties being soy and pea. Much of this is produced in the US and Canada, where both crops are grown in enormous quantities. Isolating protein from soya or pea is a large scale industrial process, requiring a good deal of energy and water. Often, solvents such as hexane are used and the resulting protein is highly processed, with an awful lot of environmental impact embedded into it. When making plant based products, these isolates can be extruded to give them texture, either in high moisture systems to make a meat like paste, or through a lower moisture system to produce the dried, textured vegetable protein known as TVP.

If you want to make vegetable based food products that replicate the texture of meat, these sort of extruded isolates are the best starting point. Currently however, there is a complete lack of processing facilities to isolate vegetable protein in the UK, meaning that the majority is imported from the US and Canada. It is perhaps not that well known that as the UK market for plant based products develops, most are made from protein grown thousands of miles away that has been put through a highly energy and water intensive process. A recent study on the environmental impact of soy protein isolates showed that many have a global warming potential higher than that of unprocessed pork and similar to beef, which is perhaps problematic for a manufacturing sector that trades on its environmental credentials.

At the AB Mauri plant, lacking the sort of processing facilities that could create protein isolates, they are taking a radically different approach. The steam cooked soya beans that are usually ground down to flour are cut into a fine kibble, resembling kibbled almonds, which can then be incorporated into plant based sausages and burgers. These are a whole food rather than an isolate, and behave in a different way to a standard TVP. They provide less of a meat mimic than a whole food addition, giving a nutty texture, high quality protein, unsaturated fats and plenty of fibre. The long steam process removes the flavour taint that affects many soy based burgers and sausages, leaving a versatile, cost effective ingredient for manufacturers, with a price point far lower than commercially available isolates. Although the product has only recently launched, interest from manufacturers and retailers has been incredibly strong, with the first commercial retail products containing kibbled UK soy due to hit stores early in 2021.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of this new ingredient, sold under the brand name NaturaSoy, is that the soya will be 100% UK grown, allowing the sort of on pack provenance claims that are elusive in the current plant based market. UK soya is already an agricultural success story, but as it becomes visible to consumers in this way, interest is likely to grow exponentially. Once it is seen to be possible, ethical and environmentally conscious consumers are likely to start demanding more locally grown plant based options, inevitably leading to the development of new crops and investment in novel processing facilities. Companies such as Nottingham University based New Food Innovation and Sheffield’s Fruition Food Accelerator are leading a variety of projects to develop cleaner and greener ways of concentrating vegetable proteins on a smaller scale. Using NaturaSoy as a template, they are also looking to convert different plant based whole foods such as lentils and Fava beans to give them new and exciting textures, opening the door to a new generation of plant based ingredients.

The famous Jefferson quote at the beginning of this article is as true today as it has ever been, but perhaps needs a slight revision. For although successfully introducing a new crop is a rare and powerful thing, much of our novel domestic agriculture is focused on the production of biofuel or animal feed, both of which raise serious questions about the effective use of agricultural land.

But introducing a new crop, then finding a way of turning it into delicious, healthy food that people will want to eat, now that’s a rare thing indeed. It requires joined up thinking, genuine innovation and an awful lot of hard work to make it happen. But if we are serious about creating a better food future for this country, this sort of field to fork innovation is something we are going to have to start doing far more often.

For Further Information email: naturasoy.info@gmail.com

About AB Mauri

AB Mauri UK & Ireland is a business entity formed from the merger of Cereform, Mauri Products and Gb Plange UK. The company is dedicated to providing a comprehensive range of technical bakery ingredients and yeast products to bakers in the UK and Ireland.