Soya is synonymous with the booming free-from, plant-based trend, but despite the inherent green credentials, production can be controversial. Here’s how Alpro is squaring the circle
The soyabean doesn’t always get a good press. For every claim it offers a nutritious and green alternative to animal protein, there’s a counter claim that the crop, and its increasingly industrial production, damages the environment, leads to deforestation and hastens global warming.
Largely GMO soya from the US, Brazil and Argentina makes up some 80% of the world’s production, says the WWF, with the drive to capitalise on the US/China trade war and soaring demand set to see Brazil overtake the US as the world’s largest producer this year.
But not all soya is equal, points out Alpro UK & Ireland’s head of marketing Vicky Upton, who stresses the dairy alternative brand has taken a very different route to sourcing its most important ingredient.
Speaking from a French soya farm, Upton says Alpro - which decided to stop sourcing from GMO-dominated South America in 2011 - now buys 60% of its soyabeans from Europe, as part of a conscious move to safeguard GMO-free supplies of the crop.
“It’s crucial all our soyabeans are 100% sustainable and non-GMO, and do not originate from deforested areas,” insists Upton. “Local soya cultivation means a shorter supply chain, fewer food miles and a lower environmental footprint.”
The farm in question is owned by Alpro partner and farming co-op Groupe CAC, and is nestled on a plateau in the commune of Weckolsheim, south of Strasbourg, which supplies soya to the vegan food giant’s recently expanded factory at nearby Issenheim. “Most of our soyabeans now come from France, Italy and Austria,” Upton says. The rest come from Canada, by boat, to ensure minimal impact on the environment,” she adds.
The Weckolsheim farm is a far cry from the industrial megafarms of South America, and is very much “part of the local community”, says farmer Jean Goetz, so sustainable farming that follows much of the principles of an organic farm is the only option, he adds.
Soya from the farm can command a premium of as much as 30% on the market average, says Alpro’s sustainable development manager Greet Vanderheyden.
“The crop is unique in terms of health and the nutritional benefits it brings,” she says. “Soya is a quality protein, and is also good from an ecological point of view. This is despite its sometime bad reputation - linked to soya for feed and whatever is going on in South America. It has very low ecological footprint.”
Alpro’s soya is grown on rotation, rather than in a monoculture, she explains, with as little fertiliser as possible. It uses these techniques across 7,500 hectares in France and a recently launched trial in Belgium and the Netherlands, as part of a plan to source from as close to its factories as possible.
“It has enabled us to source all the GMO-free soya we need from within a radius of 50km to the factory,” says Vanderheyden. “It’s more expensive than GMO crops, but we don’t think there is enough proof in terms of the ecological impact and that GMO is fully safe.”
The farm delivers some 3.8 tonnes of soyabeans per hectare, and a crop high in protein, but one that is much less productive than Brazilian soya, says Goetz. “But we have the best quality of soyabean in Europe, as we don’t use pesticides [whenever possible],” he insists.
The premium price paid by Alpro for the crop recognises the quality it requires for its soya milk, adds Vanderheyden, who points out a long-term relationship with CAC allows it to keep prices stable, trace the product and pay “a fair and stable price” to the farmer.
From the farm, the soya is transported 20km to Issenheim, where it undergoes dehulling, cleaning and separating, before the milk is extracted, heat-treated and (sometimes) mixed with flavours or infused with extra calcium. Issenheim produces 80,000 one-litre packs on each of its two soya lines per hour, totalling 140,000 tonnes of soya milk a year from 10,000 tonnes of soyabean. It then ships to markets across Europe.
Manufacturing so close to the farm allows Alpro to efficiently “carve a sustainable footprint across every step of our production journey,” says Upton, and creates a “value” for local farmers. “We strongly believe there is a future for more European-produced proteins and we will take every opportunity to increase the number of our local soyabean projects.”