Jan Klerken, founder of Scelta Mushrooms, may have retired after close to 50 years in the business, but he says he won’t rest until the food industry is “100% clean”. Here, he explains how he turned the company around in pursuit of sustainability, and we hear how mushrooms are the unlikely stars of the circular economy.
When did you decide to steer Scelta Mushrooms towards sustainability, and how have you stayed competitive?
In 2002, I was a very early adopter of sustainable practices, and I changed the policy of the company. Since then, sustainability has been part of Scelta’s DNA, and we are seeing that sustainability is a business model where you can make money: we have grown from a small mushroom grower in the Netherlands to an international company that exports mushrooms all over the world.
In the beginning, there is more cost involved, and it takes time to implement these changes and convince people of the merits. But at the end of the day, it's more resilient. Cheap is not always best. So instead of asking how I could save money, I asked how I could spend money to make my products more attractive.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
There are quite a number of products and services that have changed completely – about 16% of our business could be totally new in the coming year.
Food shows have been cancelled, and our people have used that time to meet the buyers and the product developers. That helps us to come up with something new that is more sustainable, uses less energy and contains less salt and sugar – a lot of new products will be developed because of spare capacity.
How does that kind of innovation help you towards the goal of sustainability – just how innovative can you be with mushrooms?
There are a lot of possibilities. One of our factories is using mushroom stems that were thrown away in other parts of the business. We clean these stems, press the juice out of them and concentrate it. Afterwards, we have 100% taste and the remainder is only 50 or 60 metric tonnes a week of the casing soil. Now we have found very high-end ingredients for the cosmetics industry in this casing soil – and I can't sleep any more, because I think I have to get that to market as well!
In another example, we pick up horse manure and wheat straw from farms, and transfer it into a high-level substrate where we don't have to use pesticides. As soon as the mushrooms are grown, the spent compost is a high-end fertiliser. We are also working on mushroom strains that provide more taste, and are looking at substrates for a new type of strain where we can re-use the spent substrate – not as fertiliser, but as a feed ingredient.
Waste always has a value. And consumers are also interested in solving the problem of waste through sustainability, so it’s a trend that will only grow.
On the food service side, we created the Ecopouch. It uses 60–70% less material versus traditional cans or jars, so it creates less waste. It is also shelf-stable, so we don't need expensive and energy-intensive cooling. You can transport and store it at ambient temperatures for two years, which is a real advantage in terms of sustainability. Another of our products is high-protein mushrooms based on mycelium; adjusting protein levels means a reduction in the consumption of animal proteins – another sustainability benefit.
All of this makes us a very clean industry, but I will be only happy when the industry is 100% clean. That means I’ll be happy when there is no waste left and the by-products are reusable, preferably for the food or feed industry, or at the very least in the fertiliser industry. That's possible, but it takes some time.
In 2015 you brought your entire supply chain back to the Netherlands – why was that?
Until 2015, we had farms in Poland, Denmark, France, Spain, India and Indonesia. We decided to bring all growing operations back to the Netherlands mainly for sustainability reasons. I wanted to regain control over what we are producing. When growing is external, there is always the chance that people will start adding pesticides.
The farms in places such as Indonesia and India still exist, since we’re partnering there to increase the consumption of mushrooms, which were previously not popular. Now in India you see the internal consumption is picking up, which is a positive milestone from our side. But having our growers in the Netherlands means we can drive the kinds of sustainability initiatives I’ve mentioned.
You have spent 18 years making change happen. What is Scelta doing to create the change-makers of the future, and what advice would you give them?
We have a foundation called Kids University for Cooking which teaches children that food is not just fuel for their body, but something fun. They can create, grow and research their own food, and learn what waste is. This creates a culture of sustainability not only within our company, but also within our future market.
Younger generations definitely have a big part to play in sustainability – in developing re-usable products, learning how to reduce waste, and pioneering the sharing industry. And we really support that.
In food, unfortunately, we don't see much change – I think it’s time to see some game-changers. And the younger generations are much more aware of the environment and health. They are looking differently at products; they are looking differently at markets. I would say to them, “I give you the space to make your own errors, to make your own mistakes, to develop. But follow your heart.”