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Dionne Oomen and Johan Jansen, LocalTea Zundert
  • Article 8/10/2022

High tech makes agriculture a top player in agrifood

5 minutes reading time

If anything has shaped the past of Brabant, it is industrious farming life. Agriculture and cattle breeding have characterised how Brabant’s light and sandy soil has been exploited for hundreds of years. In the 20th century, a new, and at least as important activity has emerged alongside this traditional sector - technology. Add the two together and you can immediately understand the logic and inevitability of Brabant's leading position in agri-tech.  

The centuries of knowledge accumulated in this primary sector are the fertile soil in which the additional high tech expertise of the present has taken root and grown vigorously to generate the magic mix that underpins many of Brabant’s current successes. Thanks to more sustainable production methods and a reduced environmental footprint, the sector contributes significantly to meeting and overcoming the global transition challenges we currently face. 

The entire agri-food value chain is represented in Brabant, from primary production to animal genetics and from vertically integrated farmers to wholesalers. This applies to the entire sector and also to related secondary value chains, such as those associated with potatoes or chickens. Together, they prove that what really sets them apart is the unbeatable combination of businesses rooted in the traditional agricultural sector working together with high tech enterprises. 

Spotlight on cohesion and collaboration

After the USA, the Netherlands is the second largest agricultural exporter in the world, and Brabant is the strongest agricultural area in the Netherlands, with 14,000 different companies and a total of over 80,000 jobs. And these statistics only represent the traditional agricultural sector, as they do not as yet include many of the related food technology and agri-tech activities. 

Sandra van den Poll, Project Manager Foreign Investments at the Brabant Development Agency (BOM), whose work focuses strongly on agri-tech and food tech, commissioned an extensive analysis of this (combined) sector in 2020. “Obviously, we already knew that the high tech sector in Brabant is very much intertwined with all areas of the agriculture and livestock sector. Thanks to this research, we now have a much better picture of the concrete relationships and connections.”  

Solutions for sustainable global food production

The BOM study looked both at companies registered as agri-food companies and the high-tech businesses associated with the sector; i.e. companies that develop sensors, software, machines and processing technology for the food value chain. Agri-food and high tech collaborate intensively across Brabant's regions, and are already devoting significant resource to developing solutions for sustainable global food production. The study points out that: “An analysis of the more than 1600 high tech companies in Brabant with a workforce of more than 10 employees indicates that in excess of 30% of these companies are active in the agri-food sector”. Their activities range from the construction of animal stalls, air purification and climate control equipment to greenhouse automation, agricultural machinery, and handling systems for sorting and packing harvested produce. Which is hardly surprising, as all these activities fall within the scope of a high tech sector that accounts for 30% of all industrial R&D in the Netherlands and 50% of all patent applications. It is no coincidence that Brabant is in fifth place on the list of the most innovative regions in Europe.  

Both established companies and disruptive start-ups are involved in the trend towards sustainable development and exploitation of food production in Brabant. The long list of prominent examples includes The Protein Brewery (new plant-based proteins), Contronics (which keeps food products fresh for longer), Carezzo Nutrition (protein-enriched foods) Signify and Plantlab (indoor farming) or ByFlow (3D food printing equipment). Seen collectively, all these activities within the agri-food sector clearly show that the end-to-end value chain is extremely well developed in the region. The same applies to support services and relevant knowledge institutions, which further strengthen the power and potential of the sector. 

Proteins are an essential ingredient in the food transition

In the view of Paulus Costers, programme manager at the Green Chemistry Campus, an innovation centre in West Brabant where researchers engage in extensive experimentation to determine the possible applications of vegetable proteins, the western world needs to wake up to the importance of the food transition with some urgency. He points out that it may not yet be as well-recognised a concept as the energy transition, but it is no less important to human life and society. “The pressure on natural systems is extremely high. If we want to change that situation, we have to act in a way that benefits our citizens, consumers and nature. The protein transition is an essential element in this endeavour, because protein is currently the most unsustainable part of our food chain. Carbohydrates are relatively easy to replace as they are already plant-based, however the protein issue is particularly urgent because it is still almost entirely animal-based.” 

Wim de Laat at The Protein Brewery in Breda is well aware of this challenge. He has devoted the last 10 years to producing proteins from sugars at a laboratory scale. Beets, maize and potatoes are an equally nutritious, but much cheaper and above all more sustainable, source of protein than cows, pigs and chickens. “We have the capability to satisfy the global population's complete protein needs without nitrogen emissions, without animal suffering and without soil exhaustion.” In 2021, The Protein Brewery will set up the first commercial-scale process to replicate the results it has so far achieved in the laboratory. “We are building our first demo plant for this. Partly because of existing regulations, we will not be able to scale up to the level demanded by the market for another three years.”

Brabant is a global player

Alongside protein production, Sandra van den Poll also sees agri-tech as an essential component of the transition. Here too, Brabant is a recognised global player. BBLeap, where precision agriculture is elevated to a completely different level, is a good example of a company active in agri-tech. The founder of this start-up based in Gilze-Rijen, Peter Millenaar, realises that he has barely scratched the surface in terms of this technology’s development potential. “It's too early to speak of a major commercial success, but we will get there.” BBLeap designs and builds nozzles that can be mounted on existing agricultural machines to provide precision metering at individual plant level. “Not on the basis of the average of the average, which is how existing machines work, but rather a specific metered quantity that can be adjusted to a different value for small areas measuring 50 x 50 cm, or even 25 x 25 cm.”  

BBLeap has developed a unit called the Leapbox, which is capable of changing the volume delivered to the 250 pulsating nozzles at a rate of up to 40 times a second. The first field unit has been built and put into service, in close collaboration with an international leader in precision agriculture, Jacob van den Borne in Reusel. The latter is already very enthusiastic about the new device, however Millenaar is still far from satisfied. “We always want to achieve more than customers feel possible. Furthermore, we don't create our solutions to meet a specific market demand. We try to conceive and design something that will produce the best result. We aren’t farmers and we don’t grow produce: we are a technology company that can help farmers by coming up with solutions they haven’t thought of themselves.”

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A unique opportunity for Brabant

According to Van den Poll, all these examples illustrate the province’s strength in agri-tech and the sheer scale of the protein transition. “I see both developments in a specific context, as solutions for the major issues we currently face in the agricultural sector. Innovation can help us overcome the challenges that are now bubbling to the surface with increasing regularity.”  

It is exactly that powerful combination of agri-food with food tech and agri-tech as logical supplemental building blocks that places Brabant in a special and fairly unique position. “Because the province is densely populated, with an agri-food sector that has a major impact on the living environment, there is a pressing need here for smart solutions that minimise undesirable effects on people, animals and the environment”, Van den Poll comments. “And because the rest of the world increasingly faces the same problems, our far-reaching expertise in this area is an asset we can use to good effect. I see a golden opportunity for exporting Brabant’s know-how in agri-tech and food tech.” 

The ongoing development in the sector is supported by the nine agri-food clusters in the province. Foodtech Brainport in Helmond is one of them. Director Jos de Boer explains how this innovation centre in Helmond contributes to the development of new methods of sustainable food processing: “We focus on circular food production methods. We help make food innovations market-ready and publicise new technology so SMEs can start using it.”  

Foodtech Brainport concentrates on four lines of research, says De Boer. “Preservation techniques to increase the shelf life of foodstuffs, smart food processing using robots and, last but not least, reducing industrial food waste.” The creative use of the outer leaves of an endive for producing meat croquettes is an example of the latter line of research. “They have a meaty structure, so they are an ideal ingredient for a tasty croquette. Chips made from unsaleable apples are another example, or hamburgers made from minced meat mixed with the stems of oyster mushrooms.” 

The potential is almost limitless according to De Boer, however a technological breakthrough is almost always needed to bring a product to market economically. “Preparing something in a kitchen is one thing, scaling it up for industrial production is much more challenging.” Foodtech Brainport helps businesses solve that problem, possibly by deploying its own ‘innovation brokers’. Together with the eight other clusters, this initiative ensures that Brabant will maintain its leading position in agri-food, both now and in the years to come. 

There are nine agri-food clusters, several campuses and other forms of collaboration in this area in Brabant: 

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