Pea power drives plant-based food firm's £3m expansion
- Credit: Brittany Woodman
An expanding plant-based food firm will need farmers to grow more Norfolk peas to help it satisfy an explosion in demand for sustainable meat substitutes.
Novo Farina uses locally-grown whole yellow peas to make replacements for meat and wheat-based ingredients for the food industry and retailers.
At its current base in Bowthorpe, it makes a texturised pea protein for plant-based burgers, sausages and other vegan products, and it also supplies pea flour, pea crumbs and gluten-free snacks.
But after securing £3.1m from private investors earlier this year, it is now planning the next phase of its development.
Managing director Dr Chris Harrison said the firm has bought new equipment and hopes to move to a larger premises at the Food Enterprise Park at Easton next year, to scale up its production, and pursue its goal of producing its own protein-enhanced products.
All of this is powered by rapid growth in demand for high-protein meat substitutes from increasingly health-conscious and environmentally-aware consumers who want carbon-friendly products that don't rely on imported soya, rice or chickpeas.
And the company's expansion could also create valuable opportunities for East Anglian pea growers.
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About 600 acres of peas were grown for the company last year, but that could rise to 3,500 acres for the 2023 harvest, and as much as 10,000 acres in the next five years if the expansion goes to plan.
And with environmental considerations topping the agricultural policy agenda, Dr Harrison said that meant more growers could get guaranteed prices for a leguminous crop that boosts soil nutrients, while contributing to a sustainable, low-carbon food chain.
"The pandemic has definitely made people think about nutrition and their health, and one of the consequences of that has been an obvious uptick in seeking to reduce meat in the diet," he said. "There has been a huge health driver in the last 18 months, but we also hear more about the sustainability factor.
"With COP26, there is a lot of healthy debate about how things fit together between meat and all the other stuff. We are not evangelising about a vegan diet, but we see this as part of a bigger picture, and what we are saying is there are alternatives to meat.
"The other thing to bear in mind is that across all diet behaviours, there has been a move to a higher-protein, lower-carb diet, so plant protein has become a big thing now, not just plant-based. That is what has caused the explosion of interest in peas, because peas are a protein crop, really.
"Soya has been around as an alternative protein for all my life, but of course a lot of soya around the world is GM [genetically-modified]. There is non-GM soya being grown in Europe, and there is a small grower group in the UK. But do I think it is a goer as a protein crop in the UK? No, not really.
"I think peas are a logical choice for now. In East Anglia, there is knowledge and land and equipment and lots of people who like growing peas, so we don't have a problem attracting people to grow peas at the right price."
Dr Harrison said the company is also working with scientists at the Norwich Research Park on improvements to pea varieties and novel genetics to boost protein level and quality.
Rob Alston is another director of NovoFarina, in charge of its pea production - as well as being a supplier from his own farm.
Although the firm specialises in plant-based products, he said pea crops and livestock should complement each other in a sustainable farming landscape.
"The main advantage of peas is the sustainability benefit," he said. "Pulses are leguminous, with minimal artificial fertilisers and they are fixing nitrogen in the soil.
"One of the things the investors liked was that we can produce locally in Norfolk, with full traceability and provenance, but we have also got the environmental credentials that we are growing a cover crop in front of the peas and then grazing livestock over the winter, so they will also be putting organic matter back in the soil.
"The reason farmers have not grown peas in the past is the prices have been historically poor. Novo Farina is paying a premium to the farmers, and they know they are growing them as part of a sustainable system."