Developing VIP Leaf, an alternative plant protein

Vertical Future is leading the Innovate UK-funded Vertical Indoor Protein from Leaf (VIP Leaf) research project within the farming innovation program, aiming to develop a new source of alternative plant protein.

The two-year project will develop methods to use vertical farming facilities to grow amaranth, a plant known for its many health benefits and numerous antioxidants, which is also undervalued in the current UK food market. The amaranth crops will be used to develop a new source of plant protein that will decrease the UK’s reliance on imports of plant proteins such as soy and pea, boosting the UK economy and environmental impact and the health of the average UK consumer. Amaranth has been proven to be a lower-cost alternative to the more commonly used pea protein. Amaranth is commonly eaten in Southern Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America and with indoor farming technology, could be grown in the UK year-round.

The demand for plant-based protein is increasing as the vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian food markets grow as consumers look to make healthy and sustainable choices. The VIP Leaf project aims to address growing demand by bringing together experts working in vertical farming technology and crop biology to develop a high-yielding, high-protein, quality crop. The crop can then be used to develop recipes for a meat alternative that is a market-ready product for UK consumers.

Conducting the growing process exclusively within vertical farming facilities will reduce water and energy consumption, reduce the amount of land for cultivation, and decrease carbon emissions emitted during the transportation process as the vertical farm is located on the food manufacturing site. Vertically farmed amaranth will have lower environmental costs compared to other more widely available plant proteins.

The project will be led by Vertical Future along with the University of York, Crop Health and Protection Limited (CHAP), an Innovate UK-funded Agri-tech center, and Syan Farms and Eat Curious, a plant-based food development company.

VIP Leaf will leverage the experience of Vertical Future, who design, manufacture, and build a range of proprietary hardware and software technologies for vertical farms across the globe and access protein and crop-specific knowledge at the University of York and CHAP, and food manufacture and scale up production facilities at Syan Farms and Eat Curious.

Dr. Jennifer Bromley, Chief Scientific Officer at Vertical Future, said: “Being able to help contribute to the economy, environment, and health of the UK through our extensive expertise in crop science and vertical farming technology is an exciting place to be. The funding from Innovate UK makes the VIP Leaf project possible, allowing us to research new methods of growing amaranth in controlled environments to form an alternative leaf-derived protein ready for market consumption. The VIP Leaf project will make Vertical Future the first agricultural technology company to demonstrate its systems in producing plant-derived protein.”

Professor Katherine Denby, Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP), University of York, said: “We are excited to bring our extensive knowledge and expertise in horticulture and plant science to the VIP Leaf project. We work on developing improved lines of amaranth for smallholder farmers in Southern Africa and are excited to be able to now exploit opportunities for this underutilized crop in the UK. Together with the University spin-out, the Bio Renewables Development Centre, we will assess the functionality of the plant protein and provide data on the nutritional quality of the amaranth crop. The VIP Leaf project is central to one of CNAP’s aims – developing sustainable food crops – and we are looking forward to a productive collaboration with the other partners.

Dr. Ruth Bastow, Innovation Director at CHAP, said: “Our pilot study with Vertical Future proved amaranth to be a worthy candidate for an alternative plant protein that is not currently being utilized in the UK market. Now with funding from Innovate UK, the VIP leaf project will help translate our previous efforts into fully scaled-up operations within our hydroponic vertical farming facilities, along with taking advantage of Vertical Future’s operational R&D site. We are excited to strengthen our working relationship with the University of York, to become the industry’s R&D partner of choice for any future innovative ag-tech projects.”

Preyesh Patel, Founder of Syan Farms and Eat Curious, said: “We are honored to be conducting the growing process of the amaranth crop at the Syan Farms vertical farming facilities, which fully automates the growing process to create the ideal growing environment for amaranth to thrive. Our development kitchens and manufacturing facilities at Eat Curious will also be used to trial the amaranth produced into plant-based products to assess its potential to replace other plant-derived proteins like soy or pea currently on the market.”

Source: Vertical Farm Daily

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