If something has shaped Brabant’s past, it is peasant life. For hundreds of years, agriculture and cattle breeding determined the filling-in of the sandy soils. In the twentieth century at least as important a flow of technology was added to this. Put the two together and you immediately see the unmistakable logic of Brabant’s top position in agritech. The knowledge of this primary sector from the past, together with the high-tech expertise of the present, provides the magical mix on which many Brabant successes are currently based. With more sustainable production methods, alternative proteins, and less impact on the environment, the sector makes an important contribution to the global challenges around food transition.
The entire agrifood value chain is represented in Brabant, from primary production to animal genetics and from vertical farm to wholesale. This applies to the entire sector as well as to sub-chains such as potatoes or chickens. And together they are proof that what really sets it apart is the unbeatable combination of representatives of the traditional agricultural sector with those of the high-tech sector.
The figures underpin the success story, according to the recently published overview report “Agrifood Sector: an in-depth overview of the agrifood sector in Brabant” by the Brabantse Ontwikkelings Maatschappij (BOM). On a global level, only the United States shows higher figures in agricultural export; within the Netherlands, Brabant is setting an example with 14,000 different companies and together more than 80,000 jobs. And these are only the representatives of the traditional agricultural sector – many of the closely related food technology and agrotech businesses still have to be added to this.
For Sandra van den Poll, BOM’s Project Manager for Foreign Investments with a focus on agritech and food technology, this is also the biggest ‘eye-opener’ of the research. “Of course we already knew that the high-tech sector in Brabant is now very much interwoven with the entire agriculture and livestock sector, but that is precisely why it is good to have hard evidence for this. What’s more, we have now got a much better picture of the strong cohesion.”
Not clearly visible
The BOM study looked not only at companies that are registered as agrifood companies, but also at the adjacent high-tech activities, such as companies that develop sensors, software, machinery, and processing technology for the food value chain. The BOM study shows that agrifood and high-tech in the regions of Brabant are cooperating intensively and are working hard on the solutions for global sustainable food production. “Our screening of more than 1,600 high-tech companies in Brabant with more than 10 employees shows that more than 30% of these companies are active in the agrifood sector”, according to the researchers. Their activities range from barn construction, air purification, climate control to greenhouse automation, agricultural machinery, and handling systems for sorting and packaging the harvest. And that’s no surprise because all these activities fall within a high-tech sector that accounts for 30% of all industrial R&D in the Netherlands, and 50% of all Dutch patent applications. It’s not for nothing that Brabant ranks fifth in Europe’s index of most innovative regions.
Sustainable development and exploitation of food production in Brabant come both from established companies and disruptive start-ups. Striking examples are The Protein Brewery (new vegetable proteins), Contronics (that can keep food fresh for longer), Carezzo Nutrition (protein-enriched foods) Signify and Plantlab (indoor farming), or ByFlow (3D food printers). The sum total of all these activities within the agrifood sector makes it clear that the entire value chain is well developed in the region. This also applies to support services and relevant knowledge institutions, which further strengthen the sector’s robustness.
Proteins are essential in the food transition
For Paulus Costers, program manager at Green Chemistry Campus, an innovation center in Dinteloord that is experimenting with the applications of vegetable proteins, it is high time that the western world understands the importance of the food transition. In a podcast for the BOM, he points out that it may not yet be such a common concept as the energy transition, but it is no less important for humans. “In the prosperous Netherlands, we are not yet confronted with the shortages that exist in very large parts of the world. Wars often originate from a food problem. But the world is one whole, so the transition is also enormously important to us. The pressure on natural systems is extremely high. If we want to change that, we have to do so in a way that serves the citizen as well as the consumer and nature. The protein transition is essential in this respect because protein is currently the most unsustainable part of our food chain. Carbohydrates are relatively easy to replace, they are already vegetable, but it is particularly urgent on the protein side, which is still almost entirely animal-based.”
Wim de Laat of The Protein Brewery from Breda has been aware of this for a long time. At a lab level, he has been producing proteins from sugars for ten years now. Beets, corn, and potatoes are just as nutritious but much cheaper and above all a much more sustainable source of protein than cows, pigs and chickens are. “Without nitrogen emissions, without animal suffering, and much less soil-intensive, we can provide the world’s population with its complete protein needs.” Thanks to a recent investment of €22 million, next year The Protein Brewery will be able to take the first steps towards a commercial interpretation of what has until now mainly been visible at the lab level. “In 2021, we will have our first demo plant, and partly due to regulations it will cost us another three years before we can really start serving the global market on a full scale.”
Nozzles on agricultural machinery
Sandra van den Poll not only mentions the importance of protein production but also agritech as an essential part of the transition. And Brabant also plays a role in this on a global level, as evidenced by the many globally operating companies active in the agritech sector. BBLeap, where precision agriculture is taken to an entirely different level, is a good example of such a company active in precision agriculture. Founder Peter Millenaar of the start-up from Gilze-Rijen is aware that he is at the forefront of developments. “It’s just too early for great commercial success, but that’s still to come.” BBLeap designs and builds nozzles that are mounted on existing agricultural machines and thus can provide a dosage at the plant level. “Not on the basis of the average, like existing machines work, but with a specific dosage that can be different for each area of 50 by 50 centimeters, or even 25 by 25.”
BBLeap’s Leapbox has up to 250 pulsating nozzles whose output can change up to forty times per second. The first application was built in close cooperation with the international leader in precision agriculture Jacob van den Borne from Reusel. He is already very enthusiastic about it, but Millenaar is still far from satisfied. “We always want more than the customer can imagine. Nor is it the case that we make our solutions on the basis of market demand. We try to imagine a situation that produces the best results. We’re not farmers, we can’t grow, we’re a technology company that can help farmers with solutions they haven’t yet thought of themselves.”
An opportunity for Brabant
According to Van den Poll, all these examples show how strong the province is in agritech and in the major transition taking place around proteins. “I emphatically see both developments in relation to the resolution of the major issues currently facing the agricultural sector. Innovation can help resolve the tensions that we now regularly see bubbling up.”
All this together puts Brabant in a special position. “Precisely because Brabant is a densely populated conurbation with high demands from the agrifood sector on the living environment, there is also high pressure here to develop smart solutions with minimal impact on people, animals, and the environment”, Van den Poll notes. “And because these problems are increasingly occurring elsewhere in the world, this creates opportunities to use the high level of knowledge that we have. Including the export opportunities for agritech and foodtech in Brabant.”
It is, therefore, logical that the BOM has various programs and projects for the development of business models around protein transition, smart farming, efficient use of raw materials, and reduction of food waste. In addition to these new niches, the report also mentions ‘development areas’ around promising themes such as agro-robotization, alternative proteins, data science in agrifood, and innovative cultivation technologies.
For Sandra van den Poll, the niches around agritech and the protein transition will receive full attention in the coming period, but she also focuses on these development areas. “There is a lot of innovative technology there that has potential solutions to offer. So we are certainly also going to look into the opportunities around these development areas, for example by supporting companies that are active in some of the sub-areas. By establishing themselves in Brabant, they will be able to participate optimally in our ecosystem. Thanks to this report, I can very easily show why they should want this, what exactly is the added value for them. For example, I’m now working on a pitch for a company that I’m sure would be very happy to set up in Brabant. By pointing this out to them, we can help such a company, but at the same time further strengthen our ecosystem.”
Brabant has nine agrifood clusters, campuses, and other forms of cooperation:
- Food Tech Brainport, Helmond
- GrowWise Research Center by Signify, Eindhoven
- Precision Ag(riculture) Center South, Reusel
- Green Chemistry Campus, Bergen op Zoom
- Nieuw Prinsenland (Agrofood Cluster), Dinteloord
- Green Protein Excellence Center, West Brabant
- Agri & Food Plaza, Den Bosch
- The Jam Factory, Den Bosch
- Delta Agrifood Business, Bergen op Zoom