From health-related expenses to greenhouse gas emissions, there are huge hidden costs associated with food in the U.S. These were uncovered by a recent Rockefeller Foundation report. It concluded that true costs are more than three times current food expenditures and described the U.S. food system as “broken.” The report called for urgent holistic and transformational change.

Tackling the disconnect between seed, farmer, and consumer

One company that’s on a mission to deliver that change is St. Louis, Missouri-based Benson Hill. The company is working to offer solutions to two interdependent challenges in our food system: a disconnect between seed, farmer, and consumer, and a lack of resilience. The COVID-19 pandemic made very clear that the current food system isn’t optimized for resilience. According to Benson Hill CEO Matt Crisp, that’s because what we think of as a ‘system’ is actually a set of very siloed steps in a complex value chain. One thing this leads to is rigidity and inertia, which can stifle the innovation that builds resilience. Another is a disconnect between consumers’ needs and farmer incentive programs. Consumers are demanding high-quality plant proteins, but farmer incentive schemes mostly focus on yield as opposed to quality traits. Benson Hill is working to change this with its integrated supply chain model. This consists of seed innovation and a closed-loop farming system. Benson Hill is using this model to deliver Ultra-High Protein soybeans to its own soy protein manufacturing operations to create better ingredients for downstream customers. It’s a business innovation model that joins the dots between seed, farmer, and consumer.

Shifting the paradigm of how plant protein is developed and grown

In its closed-loop system, Benson Hill is shifting the paradigm of how plant protein is developed and grown. First, it is working to develop seeds with the genetic characteristics to deliver the taste, texture, and nutrition profiles that consumers demand. Then it supplies these soybean seeds to its network of American farmer partners. Farmers in the network are encouraged to follow regenerative agriculture practices. And at harvest, they’re rewarded for desired quality trait outcomes as well as yield.

Setting the pace of consumer-focused innovation in food

At the recent Future Food-Tech Summit in New York, Benson Hill’s President of Ingredients Bruce Bennett explained that the company works with ‘nature as a partner and technology as an enabler.’ That’s how it develops seeds with the protein functionality consumers demand. Benson Hill’s CropOS® platform is the culmination of this merger of nature and technology. It helps unlock plants’ vast and mostly untapped natural genetic diversity. CropOS combines data science, machine learning, biology and genetics with decades of high-performance breeding data. That enables proprietary phenotyping, predictive breeding, and environmental modeling algorithms. By using technology to take some of the guesswork out of breeding, Benson Hill can accelerate the development of plant varieties with desired quality traits, such as more favorable nutrition and flavor profiles. Because it can develop plant varieties more efficiently than conventional breeding programs, it means that Benson Hill can get more nutritious and more sustainable plant protein ingredients to market faster.

Higher protein beans for more sustainable processing

The latest addition to the company’s TruVail™ soy protein ingredient portfolio is a great example. Soy protein concentrate ingredients typically need a water- and energy-intensive protein concentration step. The proprietary soybeans in TruVail crumble deliver up to 20% more protein right out of the ground than average U.S. commodity soybeans. That enables CleanCRUSH™ ingredients, which are designed as a functional replacement for soy protein concentrate without the need for the concentration step. The result is a CO2 emissions reduction of around 50% and a water use reduction of around 70% compared to conventional soy protein concentrate.

A readily available alternative to TSPC

TruVail crumble is also a great example of how Benson Hill’s integrated supply chain is less prone to global supply chain disruptions. Textured soy protein concentrate (TSPC) is a key ingredient in plant-based proteins and meat extenders. The boom in plant-based proteins in recent years means there’s huge demand for TSPC right now. But supplies are squeezed because there’s simply not enough concentration capacity to meet demand. TruVail crumble made from Benson Hill’s Ultra-High Protein beans doesn’t require a concentration step. That means it is less impacted by the capacity shortfall. Once harvested, soybeans are processed at the company’s own crush facilities in Iowa and Indiana. That gives U.S. food producers a readily available alternative to TSPC and shows the potential of integrated supply chains.