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Technology, taste and transforming the plate

As plant-based food gains traction, MYCO Holdings opts for a greener approach to manufacturing. Chief executive David Wood highlights the firm's focus on taste and sustainability, aiming to meet diverse consumer needs and revolutionise the industry beyond veganism.

In a culinary revolution that has taken the world by storm, the plant-based industry has transformed the way we think about food.  As businesses embrace the increasing demand, the plant-based market has made its way into supermarkets, high-end restaurants and fast-food chains across the globe, from meatless patties and veggie sausages to southern fried soy and faux fish. The shift in consumer preferences towards plant-based options reflects not only a desire for healthier choices but also a growing awareness of the environmental impact of traditional food production.

But as an industry that prides itself on helping the planet, is it enough to switch out the ingredients and slap a ‘suitable for vegan’ sign on the packaging? Darlington-based MYCO Holdings, the brains behind meat substitute Hooba, doesn’t think so. Here, chief executive David Wood speaks to NET’s Kate Hewison about plant-based food, where other businesses may have gone wrong, and why the firm’s artificial intelligence vertical farming model could be the answer to a greener future.

MYCO Holdings is made up of two businesses – MYCO, which focuses on the product, and Myriad, which focuses on the technologies of sustainable eating. With the help of artificial intelligence, they use vertical farming to grow mushrooms as the base of their meat replacement.

David tells NET Curated: “Our mission is very clear – to produce the most delicious and environmentally sustainable food.

“To do that, we look primarily at plant-based foods, and the ways in which we can produce it, by minimising the carbon footprint of the ingredients while still ensuring the food is as delicious as possible.”

The meat industry contributes to a considerable percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and loss of biodiversity, so it’s understandable why switching to plant-based protein is a more sustainable option for the planet.

But it’s not just about what’s in the products themselves.

David says: “Currently, about 70 per cent of plant-based protein tends to be soy or pea-based.

“But a lot of that protein is shipped in from around the world, so it isn’t particularly sustainable because of the carbon generated during that process.

“What we’re trying to establish effectively is a vertical farming system that any production unit can put at the side of the factory to grow its own mushroom-based protein.”

In the compounds of its new North Yorkshre plant, MYCO Holdings’ vertical farming works in one metre IBC containers (picture a one-metre square water butt). It puts in locally-made straw substrate that is then inoculated with mycelium, which is the base of the spore that grows into mushroom stems. They are then put into a dark room or a container and, four or five weeks later, they have a harvest of mushrooms.

To aid growth to its optimal level, the team at MYCO uses artificial intelligence (AI).

David says: “We have a small team of people who are developing AI programmes and software to monitor the environment and the progress of the growth, to learn effectively the conditions that best suit the mushrooms.

“That can be moisture, heat, light or the fibres of the substrate.

“Shipping things all around the world to consumers isn’t sustainable; AI will enable us to grow protein nearer to the point of consumption.”

Unlike other sectors’ apprehension, AI is something MYCO Holdings welcomes with open arms.

David adds: “We see AI as something that is going to improve our output and yields.

“Ultimately, that means we’re more likely to have successful businesses.”

Although the global plant-based food sector is estimated to be worth more than $161 billion by 2030, over the past few years the industry in the UK has stagnated. Whether that is due to funding, lack of sales or over-saturation of the market, there’s one common denominator that overrides all those elements.

David says: “Part of the issue as to why the plant-based industry has stalled over the last 18 months is because it’s not serving the needs of the modern consumer who aren’t vegan.

“In fact, 98 per cent of people consuming plant-based products aren’t vegans; they’re in it for health, sustainability or lifestyle reasons.

“So, if you’ve got a product that is just plant-based, but you’re missing the health bit, or you’re missing the sustainability bit, then actually you’re not meeting the needs of what your consumer wants.”

Before he joined MYCO Holdings at the end of last year, David was managing director at the recently-rescued Vbites, headed by Heather Mills, and was on the senior leadership team at Northumbrian Fine Foods. With decades of experience under his belt, he knew what he needed to do to appeal to MYCO’s consumers.

He says: “If we’re going to convince people to eat non-meat products, then the quality has to be really amazing.

“For me, it’s the excitement of the challenge and it’s about putting my knowledge together about how we can manufacture products that are suitable for consumers, that will also meet our mission of sustainability.”

So, what’s next?

David will oversee the launch of MYCO’s sustainable food strategy at its new 20,000sq ft site in Leeming Bar, off the A1(M), near Bedale, North Yorkshire, which should create around 70 jobs in the next 24 months. Alongside this, the team plans to launch a new range of products and scale up the IBCs to 30, with a plan to commercialise the solution so any food factory can produce its own protein in a sustainable way.

It’s all part of a plan, says David, to ensure MYCO’s products aren’t targeted to a certain demographic or people with a specific diet.

Instead, it’s all about providing great taste, farming sustainable ingredients and creating plant-based products for everyone.


Banner image: It’s Not Rocket Science

March 2, 2024

  • Business & Economy
  • Feature

Created by Kate Hewison