For the last six years, Nathan Verstuyft has been working on a top-secret crop project in Southwest Texas for America’s top-selling hummus brand, Sabra. In partnership with seed breeding company Equinom, he’s been working with Sabra to find a new sesame seed that can be grown in the U.S. to make the company’s best-selling hummus. Now that they think they’ve got a winner, Verstuyft and other growers are currently seeding for the 2020 harvest and expect it to be in hummus products by 2021.
For those not familiar, hummus is a traditional Mediterranean dip made with a blend of chickpeas, ground sesame seeds (tahini), oil and garlic. It’s insanely popular in the U.S. and Sabra accounts for over 60% of the roughly $1 billion market. The company sources its chickpeas from local farms in the Pacific Northwest but most of its sesame seeds are grown outside the U.S. That’s because the varieties grown here in the U.S. don’t make very good tahini. And the sesame varieties that do aren’t suitable for the U.S.
Sabra launched “Project Destiny” to create a new variety to be grown in the U.S., one that would simultaneously bring the supply chain closer to home and create a new “gold standard” sesame seed. Sabra turned to Israel-based seed breeding company Equinom, that uses bioinformatics-based approaches and traditional crossbreeding techniques to develop strategic seed and legume varieties. They use computer models to help pinpoint each marker for selection, allowing them to tweak a wide variety of traits that impact sugar levels, protein, and even moisture content.
Sabra also needed the new sesame variety to appeal to U.S. farmers and understood that crop yield would be important on that front, as well as adding protective traits like shatter-resistance. Sabra approached, Verstuyft, a young farmer looking to expand beyond corn and cotton. He also saw it as an opportunity to branch off and make his own mark, he told Forbes, so he jumped at the offer.
Verstuyft worked closely with Mario Vazquez, an agronomist and senior sourcing manager at Sabra, as they experimented with dozens of different varieties over the years. The latest seeds grow well in both Texas and Oklahoma and Verstuyft has produced bumper crops, but the whole thing was kept under wraps because Sabra allegedly didn’t want the competition knowing it was already being grown in the U.S. The company doesn’t feel it’s found that “gold standard” just yet but are happy enough with what they do have to go full-steam ahead, with U.S. grown-tahini being the standard for Sabra by the end of 2022.
The seed company, Equinom, recently announced plans to expand in the U.S. following a $10 million Series B funding round led by BASF Venture Capital. The company focuses on non-GMO seed and pea plants that largely serve the plant-based food industry, including brands like Beyond Meat and Ripple Foods. The company basically designs “super-trait” seeds on demand for food companies. Equinom then breeds the plants naturally and conducts global growing trials to confirm seed viability in multiple cultivation locations, according to the company. They are launching a high protein pea variety in 2021. Last year, the company said it was developing a high-protein, non-GMO soybean, which they say offers almost 58% protein or about 50% more than the industry standard. (Sources: Food Dive, Forbes, Seed World, AgFunder)