News - July 4, 2019

Students think up solutions to world food supply problem: Turbo beans and silk caterpillar protein

Tessa Louwerens

Hoe voeden we in 2050 een wereldbevolking van 9 miljard mensen? Met dit niet geringe vraagstuk gingen studenten aan de slag tijdens de WUR Student Challenge: ReThink Protein, die dit jaar voor het eerst werd georganiseerd. Resource sprak met drie finalisten over hun oplossing.


text Tessa Louwerens

‘Rescue Morama beans from obscurity’

‘Our idea is to use a local solution to tackle a global issue’, says Mathilde Annequin, a student of Nutrition and Health Engineering at Unilasalle Beauvais, France. She and her team looked into the potential of Morama beans, which are indigenous to most parts of southern Africa. ‘These beans are amazing: they thrive in semi-arid regions like the Kalahari desert and require little water. They are also high in protein, comparable to soy beans, and contain healthy oils.’
Despite these benefits, the beans have not been domesticated and are an underutilized food source, limited to rural southern Africa. ‘We want to rescue Morama beans from obscurity by developing nutritious and protein-rich products, using simple and cost-effective processing techniques that can be replicated even in remote African regions.’ The team made a flour from the beans and used this to make cookies and porridge. ‘When you roast the beans they have a nice nutty flavour.’ 
The team is now in touch with people in Botswana who are working on a pilot project for domesticating the beans. The students are already thinking about their marketing strategy. ‘I’m from West Africa and another teammate is from Botswana, so we know a bit how the market works.’


‘Involve the meat industry in the protein transition’

‘We sometimes jokingly compare ourselves with Tinder,’ says Yentl te Riele, Master’s student of Communication, Health and Life Sciences at WUR and a member of the Protein Forward team. ‘We are convinced that the food of the future is plant-based. We can see that transition taking place, but we think it could go a lot faster if all the parties in the food industry, from the innovative startups to the big companies, worked together more. At present their interests tend to clash. Take the occupation of the pig farm in Boxtel by vegans, in response to which farmers lit the barbecue.’

With their startup Protein Forward, the team hopes to break down the divide by bringing the different parties together, in round table discussions, for instance. ‘For the protein transition, we need all the parties. It requires a holistic approach. We think you shouldn’t turn your back on the meat industry, but get them on board in the developments.’ Te Riele admits that this is no easy task. ‘Not everyone is ready for a transition, but the meat industry is seeing profits falling and at the same time a gap in the market that it doesn’t quite know how to respond to. On the other hand, there are lots of young, innovative small companies that might have plenty of knowledge and ideas, but don’t have the capital to grow. Protein Forward works like a kind of Tinder for those parties. With the big difference that you don’t have to swipe 100 times in the hope of a match, because we look for the right match in our network.’


‘Make use of the experience in the silk industry’

‘Insects are often mentioned as a novel sustainable protein source,’ says Anjani Nayak, an Erasmus exchange MSc student at WUR and a member of the SWAP (SilkWorm As Protein) team. ‘To rear them requires new techniques to be developed. But there is an industry that already has thousands of years of experience: the silk industry. After the silk is harvested, the pupae, about 250 million kilos of them per year, are used as fish food or fertilizer. We have found a method to process the pupae into a protein- and iron-rich powder that contains around 70 per cent protein and keeps for a long time.’
The team’s initial idea was to use the powder for human consumption, perhaps for malnourished children in India. ‘But we realized that to do that the production method would have to be very cheap. Also, the legal regulations are unclear and we discovered that consumer acceptance in India is very low.’ So they decided to focus on the pet food industry first. ‘In Europe there are 360 million pets and the number of pets is still increasing. The same goes for India, due to increasing wealth. Insect-based pet foods are a good option for animals with allergies and also for owners that want to feed their pet a sustainable diet. We have found a silk grower who is willing to support us by providing pupae and a place to process them. If we are able to establish a market in the pet food industry, then in a few years, if acceptance grows, we might be able to take the step towards products for human consumption.’

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Rethinking protein

The WUR Student Challenge: ReThink Protein is an international competition for individual students, student teams and student startups. Students are challenged to come up with a business plan (the ‘ideation’ category) or a prototype with which we could provide the growing world population with protein in a sustainable, healthy and affordable manner. The teams submitted their draft ideas in January this year, and then developed them further with the support of coaches from the industry. The finale was held on 27 June. Team SWAP (silk worm as protein) won in the Ideation category, and team GrainGain won in the Prototype category. GrainGain used a residue from bear brewing to make protein powder which can go into products such as healthy snacks.