A conversation with Dr David McNaughton, Soya UK

Published: March 21, 2024

Dr David McNaughton, the Managing Director of Soya UK, has over 30 years of commercial and scientific experience in the seed industry. In this interview, we discuss his background, his honorary doctorate from the Institute of Agriculture of the Ukrainian Academy of Agrarian Sciences and historical relationship with the Institute in Kyiv, leading to his current work promoting alternative crop seed

Could you tell us about your background and your company, Soya UK? 

Agriculture has been my whole life.  I was born and brought up on a family farm in Argyllshire, and after my school years were over, I worked on a dairy farm before going to agricultural college in Ayrshire, to study for an HND in Agriculture.  After that, I worked on various farms in Australia, before doing a BSc in Agriculture at Writtle College in Essex. From there, I joined the seeds industry in 1992 and 8 years later, I started Soya UK Ltd.

We are agricultural seed merchants who specialise in niche crops including soya, lupin, millet, triticale and high-protein forage mixtures. Other mainstream crops were already widely commercialised, and so to form a start-up seed companies in the UK seed trade, we needed to develop new, underutilised crops and build the market. 

What is the story behind your relationship with Ukraine? 

Our association with Kyiv goes back to 1997 when we first made tentative contact with the Institute of Agriculture in Chabany, Kyiv.  We began the testing and commercialisation of their varieties in 1998 and by 2000, we had formed Soya UK Ltd as a company with an exclusive license to commercialise their varieties in the UK and further afield. Our scientific co-operation was mainly centred around the testing and trials of Ukrainian varieties in other European markets, including the UK.  

We successfully established the varieties from Chabany in several new markets with Dieta (their main variety of white lupin), enjoying prominent market share in various countries including Chile, Canada, The Czech Republic and Lithuania. 

Furthermore, millet varieties from Chabany now account for 90% of UK production and provide around 25% of the UK’s overall requirement for millet in the bird seed trade. Similarly, with soya, we have grown the Chabany varieties in various markets across Europe, Africa, The Middle East and Australasia, and they enjoy a reasonable market share in a number of countries. 

What was your biggest challenge while building up the UK’s soya and lupin grower network? 

There has been a healthy amount of scepticism from farmers, academics and agricultural journalists.  Also, getting the feed trade to move away from soya and embrace a new protein source is extremely difficult (far harder than I would ever have imagined).

Feed companies in the UK are accustomed to handling large volumes of product, and they know that their standard formulations using soya meal already work well.  They also know that soya is a consistent and readily available ingredient which is already catered for within their manufacturing systems. Many feed companies have limited bin space, and they will often say that finding storage for another additional raw ingredient will necessitate dropping another ingredient, which they are reluctant to do. 

So the market for lupin is stuck in a “chicken & egg” situation, and it will be the same for other new and novel protein sources coming forward. Insect protein, lab-grown protein, algal protein etc. are yet to develop to the stage that lupin has already reached, but if & when they do, they will still face the same commercial barrier of trying to replace soya in the mainstream feed markets. 

One useful driver here, is the fact that soya values keep rising- 15 years ago, soya was worth £175 per tonne, and today it is around £425 per tonne.  This inexorable rise in soya values is set to continue, and this will provide an increasing incentive for feed companies to consider alternatives. 

What do you see for the future of the UK’s soya and lupin supply chain? 

UK Soya is GM free and fully traceable, so it replaces Canadian “I.P.” (Identity Preserved) soya beans.  This is a large and ready market which would buy 25,000 tonnes of UK soya beans today if they were available.  Market isn’t the problem for soya and nor is the gross margin – they are profitable.  The problem with soya is getting growers to grow them – however, we think we can see the uptake of soya increasing again, since wheat and oilseed rape are dropping in value so growers will look at alternatives.  

Another potential issue may be the extent to which spring niche crops are undermined by Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) payments. Farmers will be reimbursed for setting aside land, therefore slowing down the development of new crops that we will need in the future.  I’m hopeful the policy is adapted to support protein production in the UK rather than undermine it.   

How has collaboration pushed Soya UK forward? 

We have thoroughly enjoyed many exchange visits with scientists from the Ukraine travelling to the UK and other destinations to view the results of our trials in various countries over the last 25 years. I have also collaborated on an academic level, providing English-language peer reviews of PhD thesis works. Additionally, over the last two years, we have continued to support the Institute in Kyiv with the most precious commodity of all – our friendship, our companionship, and our ongoing support.  

We had a very positive experience working with CHAP on Improving the sustainability of lupins through conventional and next generation methodologies project, and already working on the follow up project ideas.  

You were recently awarded a doctorate degree- could you tell us about this honour and how you felt? 

During the recent troubles, Soya UK and the Institute of Kyiv have remained in close contact, and we have been able to ensure an uninterrupted flow of commercial support and co-operation.  In addition, we have been able to help with contribution to specific fundraisers for things like sleeping bags and equipment

A close friend Dr Vasyl Starychenko (who formerly was the head of the Wheat Research Department at the Institute of Kyiv) now holds the rank of Major in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, is already highly decorated, and is commander of a Tank Battalion.  It is humbling that Vasyl still finds the time for exchanges on the subject of agriculture, plant breeding and how the seed markets are faring.   

Needless to say, that you can feel rather inadequate when you are chatting with someone who is an absolute bona-fide real-life hero, and someone who is fighting for freedom for his country and his family. So, in this context, you can imagine how utterly humbled and honoured I was in December when I received word that the National Academy of Agrarian Sciences of Ukraine, had unanimously approved the proposal by the Institute of Agriculture in Chabany, to award me an honorary doctorate in Agricultural Science.  I cannot begin to express how this totally unexpected honour made me feel. 

 A lifetime of agriculture did not prepare me for this, and to receive this honour at this time, and in these circumstances, is simply beyond words.  

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UK Agri-Tech Centre

If you have any questions about Dr David McNaughton or have any general enquiries about UK Agri-Tech Centre, please contact us at: info@ukagritechcentre.com.