On the currently virgin territory between the FrieslandCampina and Unilever buildings, the outlines of a new company on Wageningen Campus are to appear next month. The Upfield employees are expected to become part of the campus by the end of December 2021. Upfield is the world’s largest producer of plant-based consumer products and an authority in spreads since 1871. In 1930, the company became known as Unilever, following a merger between the Margarine Union and the Lever Brothers. Unilever subsequently sold its margarine division, which was re-launched in 2018 as Upfield.
Upfield’s mission is to create ‘a better, plant-based future’. The company produces brands such as Flora, Rama, Blue Band, Becel and Country Crock.
An interview with John Verbakel, chief R&D Officer at Upfield, involved in the construction and relocation as a member of the leadership team.
Will your role remain the same after the relocation to the campus, or will your duties change?
My job will not change as a result of our move to Wageningen, but we will. Following our departure from Unilever, we were occupied with the internal design of our business. We are currently in the next stage, where we will grow and develop our products. The focus will move towards a more future-oriented approach and external collaboration. Becoming a part of the Wageningen ecosystem is definitely a part of that development.
How large is the company? Will all divisions settle in Wageningen or just the R&D? What type of staff members will come to Wageningen?
Upfield is a so-called Fast Moving Consumer Goods business. We have 4200 employees across the globe. We sell our plant-based spreads in 95 countries and have about 3 billion euros in revenue. Our factory will remain in Rotterdam. We also have production facilities in 14 other locations throughout the world. The marketing, sales and finance division will relocate to the Amsterdam location. At the same time, all our R&D and related staff will operate at our Wageningen location. This amounts to a total of 150 persons. Primarily those with a university of applied sciences background, academics and doctorates.
Highly educated people. The fact that there is an agreement within Upfield that Wageningen is “the place to be” is nice, and makes this relocation good for our company’s development. Of course, there are a number of personal dilemmas, but fortunately, we have another 1.5 years to find viable solutions for everyone.
We will have to await the development regarding COVID-19, but if all goes according to plan, we will commence organising introductions to campus for our employees this autumn.
Other than your already plant-based products, how else are you committed to sustainability?
We are, indeed, already a plant-based nutrition company, but we seek to expand our portfolio. It is becoming increasingly clear that consuming large volumes of meat and dairy is not sustainable for us, nor for the planet. There is much room for improvement in terms of sustainability. WUR is already studying plant proteins, fats and dairy. We are eager to join that effort and invest in the production process of plant-based foods with the same flavour.
What are the latest developments in your field?
We strive to apply plant-based protein research to, among others, our vegan cheese spreads. We also want to improve the texture and taste of our foodstuffs: a plant-based cheese spread should have the same texture and flavour, and also behaviour when it is baked or cooked, as the products the consumer is already familiar with. Moreover, the packaging must be sustainable. Our goal is to have plastic-free packaging for all our products within five years, which is quite a challenge with oils and fats!
We have contacts with groups within WUR who work in these areas (proteins, texture and packaging). We can contribute to pre-competitive programmes, in collaboration with WUR, Unilever and FrieslandCampina, to fortify the scientific foundation. And, when it comes to marketing research, we are extremely experienced in marketing new products. If you make clear agreements and maintain transparency, there is no need to fear conflicts of interest.
The new construction has been announced as the Upfield Food Science Center. What will it look like?
Wageningen is to be the centre of expertise for all our divisions across the globe. The new building will contain a testing factory, several laboratories (chemical, packaging, micro-biological) and kitchens for consumers and chefs, also known as the experience centre. In the testing factory, we can scale up lab experiments to an actual production process to see if this leads to the desired product.
The kitchens are useful to see how chefs and consumers assess new discoveries, which is very important for the introduction of new products. The new building is to be the very heart of Upfield’s R&D.
Are there any extra sustainability aspects to the new building?
The building will have a natural look, with lots of wood and plants. If plant-based is your mission, settling for a concrete building makes no sense. And, the building will be climate-neutral. We aim for the BREEAM-outstanding certificate.
Do the current developments regarding corona impact the build and relocation at all?
The virus has no influence on the timing of the construction or relocation. However, we are fortunate that we have yet to begin construction. We are able to make our building ‘corona proof’.
We have checked aspects such as routing, ventilation, elevators and stairwells. These aspects can still be adjusted to prevent people from crossing paths. We are also planning to create more space per person. We will probably work from home two days a week, which will be facilitated by sufficient video capabilities.
Why settle on Wageningen Campus? What is the added value?
Wageningen is a treasure cove of expertise, with the university and the other institutes and companies in our field. We can use this expertise in the production process, but also in reaching the consumer to create an impact. We are eager to be a part of the campus culture, collaborate with students and researchers, find solutions together, always while respecting everyone’s role. This cross-pollination is absent in any other random business park and will affect our employees.
At the start of this year, we entered into a collaboration with FoodValley. I see great logistic advantages as well, such as the possibility to share instruments.
Over the next decade, how do you see the development of Upfield in the Wageningen context?
I feel that we are at the start of an S-curve accelerating towards sustainable and plant-based nutrition, at the dawn of a transition in food supply and the food industry. I believe this transition is only possible with technology and science, and we want to join WUR and other businesses in contributing to this transition. I expect rapid developments in the food and transport chains, which need to become sustainable. We work in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where this development is also underway. Thus, the transition towards plant-based is a global one. Being able to be a part of this journey is great.