Preparing for a ‘protein transition’

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I chair the Crop Health and Protection (CHAP) Advisory Group, bringing together a range of perspectives from the agrifood value chain and other sectors to discuss topics of importance to agriculture.  Recently, we discussed how the UK can become more self-sufficient in plant-derived protein. CHAP’s Strategic Marketing Manager, Janine Heath, conducted this interview to highlight some of the insights from that meeting.  It is reproduced with minor changes for clarity, with permission from CHAP.

A pressing need to rethink plant protein production, to be more secure & sustainable.

Protein, specifically protein for plant-based diets, is a hot trend in the food world. Despite this, the UK imports a large proportion of its plant-based protein needs, both for human consumption and animal feed. As a result, there is a pressing need to rethink plant protein production to be more secure and sustainable. This is especially true in the UK agriculture where an active conversation is going on nationally about how land is used.

Why isn’t the UK growing its own plant protein?

UK agriculture is great at producing cereals, which contribute significantly to our daily protein consumption, as well as high quality animal-based protein. But we are far from self-sufficient.  

Our climate, which is notorious for being often cold cool and wet, doesn’t lend itself well to these crops. It is challenging to grow high protein crops, typically legumes, in the UK. They typically yield much better in traditional production areas like North America. In addition, plant protection products for legumes are limited and as a result, they often require long crop rotations. All this means they don’t offer the same returns as other crops. 

Fava bean being grown in the UK by The Honest Bean, a leading company at the forefront of UK sustainable plant protein production.

Historically, the UK has imported much of the protein needed for animal feed and for human consumption – for example, we are, by some metrics, the biggest market for vegan or plant-based foods in Europe. We’ve met this need by importing soy, maize etc, but we increasingly realise this exposes us to food security issues as well as off shoring the environmental impacts.

This is a very emotive subject – are you suggesting cutting out meat?

Meat is just one source of protein, but the picture is wider than that – ‘protein’ covers a broad range of products. What’s needed as a functional ingredient, such as an emulsifier or thickener, may be quite different to what’s needed as a vegan milk or egg substitute, and this is different to what’s needed for animal feed. There may be different solutions for each of these needs.  

The conversation about plant-based protein often becomes one of meat versus plants, vegan versus carnivore. This isn’t helpful! Lots of voices speaking loudly about this only polarises the debate. ‘Balanced’ and ‘diverse’ are important characteristics for both our diets and our production systems, so for me this means both animals and plants.  

At the same time, we know we need to make changes. Our current national diet has a negative impact on the environment and is bad for our health. In my view, we need a variety of solutions to make these changes, over emphasising any one solution is not helpful.

One particular challenge is that evidence suggests relying too heavily on highly processed food, including meat substitutes, is not a good idea for health reasons and practical reasons.  I can’t see the UK becoming ‘lentil central’ overnight because dietary preferences are slow to change, but moving the dial even a little could still have a big impact.  

What should we be doing?

One opportunity we could take advantage of is that we’re in the middle of a considerable re-think about how land is used. For instance, the health advice encourages us to reduce (but not eliminate) meat consumption which means we can dedicate less of our land to growing feed.  Land use transition could be accelerated if we look at alternative animal feed sources such as insects, duckweed or microbial proteins. These novel approaches have a smaller physical footprint, often use waste as an input, and would also free up land to be used for other purposes such as DEFRA’s ambition for carbon capture.

Insects, including those produced using waste products, could be sources of animal feed protein.

Another opportunity is that legumes are great for soil enrichment, important in low input systems. Including more plant proteins within our existing systems will help make us more self-sufficient and sustainable. To facilitate this there is huge scope for developing novel plant protection products for legumes and breeding more robust varieties, both of which would increase the potential of including legumes within cropping rotations.

Thirdly, protein can be extracted from what is currently considered a low value outgrade product. Innovations such as this from within the sector include B-Hive’s process for extracting protein from the outgrade potatoes generated from packing and processing, including potato peel and unmarketable produce. The result is a vegan-friendly, allergen-free functional protein. 

For all these changes, a major challenge is the coordination of Government, agriculture and food industry backing for the systems-level adjustments needed. We may need changes in regulations around what can be fed to animals, greater protein processing capability in the UK, greater expertise and investment in breeding for protein crops to name just some of the challenges.  

Does CHAP have a role to play?

Absolutely! One of CHAP’s roles is to facilitate collaboration across the agrifood system, helping to bring together participants from across the sector to facilitate a transition to more self-sufficiency in protein production. Events like the Advisory Group help to stimulate discussion and find common ground for collaboration.

We can also have more impact by coming together with other Agri-Tech Centres.

We can also have more impact by coming together with other Agri-Tech Centres. On the topic of animal feed, for instance, CHAP collaborates with CIEL (Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock). Combining the facilities we have across all four Agri-Tech Innovation Centres will be invaluable for developing and trialling innovative solutions to the challenges we face, whether it’s crop monitoring and biofungicide development for high protein crops, or control systems for growing novel protein sources in indoor settings.  

I am a passionate advocate for Agri-Tech entrepreneurship, and my recent podcast documentary ‘Innovating AgTech’ is available on all podcasting platforms. 

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