High-tech solutions to the protein transition: the rise of plant-based meat substitutes in the Netherlands

Plant-based meat substitutes: a booming market in the Netherlands

In the last few years, the Netherlands has seen a great rise of the production and consumption of plant- based meat substitutes. Plant-based meat substitutes are products that take the place of meat in the human diet and have an appearance, texture and taste similar to meat products. The total sale value of the plant-based meat sector, which amounts to €174 million, is one of the highest in the European continent. Moreover, the trends indicate that such rise is only set to increase, with sales of plant-based substitutes doubled in the last couple of years.

How has the Netherlands become a world leader in alternative protein?

But how did the Netherlands become a world leader in alternative protein? To answer this question, Dutch experts working in the sector were interviewed. According to them, the success of the Netherlands is derived by a combination of elements.

Firstly, the Dutch Government is supporting the protein transition. The National Protein Strategy is a strategy adopted by the Dutch government, of which the main goal is stimulating the development of alternative proteins. These objectives are reached by providing financing opportunities for the sector and by stimulating research and development (R&D) in alternative protein sources. Recently, the Dutch Government has even forwarded a €25 billion plan to buy out animal farms and cut down livestocknumbers, in order to reduce the country’s emissions.

The strong scientific knowledge base of the country is also fundamental to the rise of plant-based meat substitutes. The Netherlands has been called the Silicon Valley of food, for its strong science-driven food entrepreneurial ecosystem. 200 agrifood companies within a 10 km radius are present in the Dutch food valley. In such ecosystem, technology and innovation are encouraged, and are viewed as the solutions to the sustainability challenges of the present and future. The dense network favors what Wouter de Heij, CEO at TOP, has called the DNA of collaboration – the term refers to the knowledge sharing and open innovation practices that happen between companies in the Dutch context. Furthermore, as an agri-food tech power house, the Netherlands can rely on already existing and highly- developed logistical infrastructure, which early-on food startups can rely on.

Next to the material reasons for the development of the sector, there are cultural reasons for this development. Sustainability and animal welfare seem to figure as important motives for Dutch consumers to shift towards alternative protein consumption. A study by Wageningen University found that around 60% of Dutch consumers consider sustainability an important criterion when buying food products.

Dutch Food culture as a driver of innovation

While all these reasons are important, a fundamental element that might set aside the Netherlands from other European countries is its food culture. Dutch food culture is rapidly changing. Wouter de Heij and Jos Hugense – respectively CEOs at TOP and at Meatless – explained the historical reasons behind the Dutch ever-changing food culture. According to the interviewee, Dutch colonial history plays a role, as it has exposed the country to many different cuisines and diets. Already after WWII, when levels of globalization were lower than they are today, the Dutch were consuming Indonesian food. Dutch eating habits have therefore been for a long time been influenced and fused with culinary cultures from different parts of the world, in Asia as well as in Europe. As a consequence, Dutch consumers are open to try new products, making plant-based meat substitutes more appealable.

Furthermore, meat analogues are popular in the Netherlands because they are a convenient, ready to eat source of protein. Dutch consumers spend little time on food preparation and tend to prefer products that do not require much effort to be prepared. Plant-based meat substitutes reflect these characteristics, as they offer the client a sustainable source of protein that can be quickly prepared and consumed, without having to alter significantly existing eating habits and practices. In fact, while traditional Dutch diets are heavily based on animal meat, this might have a positive effect on the growth of the plant-based meat substitutes market. As these are products that are similar in taste, texture and use to animal meat products, substituting them to meat does not require learning new recipes, making them easier to substitute in one’s diet.

To conclude, the comparatively high rise of plant-based meat substitutes in the Netherlands is caused by a variety of interrelated factors. Understanding them is key to share lessons with other countries wishing to accelerate a transition to alternative sources of protein.

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