Co-Founder of Those Vegan Cowboys, the Netherlands
Is your (vegan) cheese alive? It might as well be! Hear this: After setting new standards in the meat replacement market with their company The Vegetarian Butcher, Dutch founding cowboys Jaap Korteweg and Niko Koffeman now have their eyes fixed on new horizons: grass-fed cheese & milk products, made by microbes instead of cows. How? This is a two-part story: “Before I got into meat and dairy without animals, I was an arable farmer – I still am, by the way.” Japp takes us to the very beginning, where he had taken over the farm from his parents. “When swine fever broke out in the Netherlands in 1998, I was asked if I wanted to store the carcasses of culled pigs in the cold stores of my farm. I could have made good money with that. I refused. And suddenly, I also decided to become a vegetarian – after which I found out how difficult such a decision is if you really like meat.” Breaking from his family lineage, he decided to pursue unconventional farming methods, such as organic arable farming without livestock. It eventually led him to founding The Vegetarian Butcher in 2010, together with Niko Koffeman.
While that led to a chapter filled with hard work, accomplishment, and being the change in the plant-based industry, including the fact that PETA created the ‘most animal-friendly company of the year’ award just for them in 2012, the story goes deeper. “A couple of years ago, I ditched cheese, and now we work on cheese without cows with Those Vegan Cowboys. We want to make cheese directly out of grass through precision fermentation: we are working on a stainless steel cow.
“Ten years ago, no one chose to back us. Today, investors are lining up.”
Inspirations, go-to’s and lifehacks:
- Pandemic lifehack that helped you survive 2021: As a real homebody; I’m not the best person to give pandemic life hacks. The whole working from home thing was fine for me, personally. It’s a very different story for the great number of entrepreneurs who are having a hard time right now. It would be great if everyone could open doors again.
- Last series/movie that kept you awake: A scene from the movie Schindler’s List has always stayed with me. In it you see a camp warden who randomly shoots at people when he feels like it. That touched me because I used to walk around with a rifle myself: back in the day, it was very common for a farmer to hunt. And when I see that scene, I think: people or animals, it’s the same. That the one holding the gun simply gets to decide who lives or dies. That realization made an impression.
- Favorite book / A book everyone should read: I’d say ‘Humankind’ by Rutger Bregman. He tackles common assumptions about the nature of man, and he backs it up with statistics. The examples he gives show that humanity usually makes good choices by nature. The other, negative side is more the exception than the rule. But the way the news works – only negative news is news – creates a faulty world view. We got this negative outlook, while in reality we are heading in the right direction. It’s good to keep that in mind when taking in the news. I read the newspaper myself, but I hardly watch TV. Another book that stayed with me for a long time is by Judith Koelemeijer, ‘The silence of Maria Zachea’. She interviewed her family to tell the family history 12 times from a different point of view. The amazing thing is that you get a completely different story 12 times, because those 12 brothers and sisters experienced everything so differently. It’s a book I often think about.
- Favorite food / favorite vegan treat: I don’t eat it that often, but I really like how Burger King’s plant-based Whopper turned out. It’s the result of a collaboration with The Vegetarian Butcher. I’m all for collaborating with those kinds of companies. If you want plant-based products to become the norm, you have to work with the big players.
While the pioneering spirit stays, a lot is different this time around: “When we started The Vegetarian Butcher back in 2010, we thought we had a 10% chance of success. Investors believed my prediction, but nonetheless chose not to invest.” A decade later, “the outlook is much more optimistic, even though this time we said we had a 5% chance of making real cheese with stainless steel cows: Investors were lining up.
In 10 years’ time, the market had completely changed. Investors see great potential in new meat and dairy, which in turn increases the chances of succeeding. By 2045, I expect we will consume 80% new meat and dairy, and only 20% animal-based products.”
“Sharing your ideas makes things happen.”
“One thing that always worked out for me was to talk about my ideas,” Jaap says of his default strategy in business and in life. “Some entrepreneurs tend to protect their plans, keep them to themselves. For me, it’s quite the opposite, and that has always worked well. If I’m excited about something, have an idea, I’m going to talk about it with anyone who’s interested. This way you can easily find people who can take your idea further, who have knowledge that I don’t have myself.”
It was no different in the early days of Those Vegan Cowboys. “I had no idea what I was getting into, so I went to talk to a biotech entrepreneur. He worked with precision fermentation to upgrade residual flows into high-quality animal feed. Thanks to him, we found the laboratory in Ghent with a team of experienced people. That’s what I like about sharing ideas. It makes things happen.”
The change he strives to achieve is “that we no longer use animals to eat and drink well. As we make this shift, we create much more space for nature. I do believe it will become a reality.”
Jaap is one of the Food Heroes for 2022. See more inspiring and world-changing stories from Food Heroes here.