P | P | P feat. The Soya Project

We caught up with Mark Horler, a Co-Founder of The Soya Project as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. The Soya Project began in 2017 as a collaboration between Mark and his Co-Founder, Kerstin Schreiber. The purpose of The Soya Project is to advocate the growing of soy within vertical farming systems in a profitable and effective way. The ramifications of successfully growing soy within Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) are huge, due to the scale of soy production for human and livestock consumption.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Hi Mark, it is so nice to meet you. Please could you introduce yourself, and what The Soya Project do?

Mark: Hi, I’m Mark Horler. The Soya Project is a project, not a company, with the aim of advocating the growing of soy and similar-type crops in vertical farming, or controlled environment agriculture (CEA) systems. Along with this, the project is also aimed at advocating for wider circular economy type approaches in controlled environment agriculture systems.

Apart from soy, which other plant species are you looking at?

Mark:  It is mostly focused on soy as the name gives it away, but the point is that if you can grow something like soy it opens up a lot of other crops, such as legumes, beans, and various similar crops that are not currently grown but could be if you can figure out the vertical farming technology.

What sort of scale are you at present, and the sort of timeline you are anticipating?

Mark:  At the moment, it is small-scale trials and trying to get some proof of concept down. We are then looking to scale in the future. We started in 2018 but the pandemic got in the way to some extent, as it did with many things. It has taken a while; I think because at the time the industry was focused around getting the basics right and focusing on the leafy green crops and soft market fruits that you see in the market at the moment. There is increasing interest in various other types of crop, with many people working at the R&D level and focusing on which crops might be possible in CEA. I do think over the next few years, we will start to see quite significant progress towards a whole variety of other crops in CEA systems, and soy is one of them.

Are you looking at the genetics of soy and potentially genetic modification or focusing on the ‘natural’ plant at present?

Mark:  It would be good to develop cultivars that are specific to CEA and vertical farming. The way that most crops are these days of this kind is that they are designed to be tolerant to pests, or fungus, hardy against weather etc. If you move all that indoors, then you don’t need a lot of this and can focus on other traits such as making the plant shorter, or make more bean pods, or whatever you would like to. Whether you do it through GMO or CRISPR or speed-breeding approaches, it would definitely be desirable in the longer term to develop cultivars that are specific. This is true of all plants; generally speaking, most CEA uses what’s out there and we are starting to see the emergence of seed companies who are looking at specific traits for vertical farming operations.

I don’t think any species of plant holds the same level of potential as soy cultivation! If you could transfer soy to the vertical farming sector, it would be such a huge development! The scale of soy production globally is so extensive, and people do not realise how much soy is fed to livestock and aquaculture. How much do you find the financial constraints influence the production of soy in vertical farming systems?

Mark:  To be honest, we have not gotten too far into the financial constraints yet because we are still in the growth trials and working out the optimal conditions. The economics will be a challenge because soy is a commodity crop, but what is quite interesting about the economic challenge is that people say that we cannot make it economically viable in a vertical farm, but the reality is you often won’t in a field either! Soy already requires enormous amounts of subsidies. Also, I think that inevitably you will start with certain particular use-cases for human consumption (which could include for example non-GMO). It will be easier to make it economically viable if you focus on human consumption crops and then, as you scale it up, you can make it more price competitive.

Could you share some of the origin story of The Soya Project?

Mark:  I got into vertical farming and CEA as an industry almost 10 years ago. What originally inspired me was a book by Dr Dickson Despommier called the Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. Dr Despommier’s argument was about large sky-scraper farms, but the core of his argument was about land sparing. In his case, he argued that if we could move a certain level of production into the vertical farms, you could restore native hardwood forests in the US. That land sparing argument really struck me, and I thought, if you’re going to have any kind of impact on that, you’re never going to do it with lettuce or herbs because that would be such a small proportion of the land we presently use for agriculture. I started thinking that we should be taking on the commodity crops, and if you were going to do this, which one would you start with? Of the commodity crops that are out there, soy is arguably the one that lends itself to this sort of a farming approach. Soy isn’t 8 feet tall like corn, and it is fairly leafy and green. I also think soy is the biggest crop that we are growing; I read that in the US it is grown on around 80 million acres! This is one country and is still such a staggering amount! When you look at the amount grown in South America and elsewhere too, it’s even more so. That’s where the idea for the project started from. What if we could have some impact on soy production on that level of land use. We also need to look at the economics, the policy, the revenue and scale-up. This is what all vertical farming companies are trying to do. If you can figure out all these things with soy, almost any other crop is going to be pretty much easy! Finally, as I have gone along, I have thought about the circular economy and thought about high-tech ecosystem farming where systems can share resources, and this inspired me further.

Kirsten and I worked together at the Association for Vertical Farming a number of years ago. We worked on various projects together, and I mentioned my idea to her, and we discussed it further. Academically speaking, she is a geographer. After our chats, we went away and planned it together and created The Soya Project. We are still at the stage of finding people to do trials with as the pandemic pushed things back. I have established a global informal of network with interest in this that have gotten in contact and given their perspective. In my other work I run an industry association and networking is a big part of what I do and so I can bring people together with a mix of skills and make The Soya Project a reality!

I am glad that the pandemic has not stopped The Soya Project from progressing because the potential is huge. Many people associate soy with vegan and vegetarian options and don’t recognise that soy is predominantly produced as livestock feed. The whole food system has gone a bit mad!

Mark:  Yes, the food system has become very odd in a lot of ways. This is largely due to everything being centred around economics. People say, ‘what is the most economically profitable thing we could do’ and then that – and only that – is what we should do.

Have you looked into commercialisation at all and the sectors you would focus on?

Mark:  In the early cases, the animal feed sector would be tricky because soy is so cheap, and the economics wouldn’t stack up. Also, if we are growing soy to feed to animals than it doesn’t make sense. If your aim is to stop rainforest deforestation but you are still growing soy for cattle than you are missing the issues in the food system.

For economic and logical reasons my target market for the soy would be human consumption. There is a good case for producing soy closer to where it is consumed rather than cutting down rainforest in Brazil.

In terms of funding and investment, what stage are you at?

Mark:  At this time, the project isn’t funded! At the moment, The Soya Project is just an advocacy thing. We are trying to get to the stage where we can get some trials or projects off the ground and work out how to finance that.

Thank you for your time, Mark!

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