Achieving sustainable plant-based proteins from the UK’s production systems

Innovation and collaborative R&D are vital in advancing the alternative protein sector as they improve sustainability, productivity, and contribute to lowering carbon emissions. In essence, they are crucial to delivering practical solutions that can be implemented by farmers and growers.

In this insightful blog post, Dr Réka Haraszi, Innovation Sector Lead at CHAP, delves into the complex landscape of alternative proteins. Discover the challenges and exciting opportunities faced by this sector in the UK, as well as the game-changing initiatives CHAP is pioneering to drive positive change.

“As a connector and innovation centre in the agri-tech landscape, CHAP supports the development of novel technologies and approaches, including plant-based alternative protein production*, crop protection and quality. In today’s UK agriculture sector, a crucial challenge to establishing a sustainable and resilient plant-based protein supply chain lies in the disconnect between farmers and growers on one end and the upstream supply chain on the other. Consequently, this gap results in numerous production challenges, contributing to both economic and environmental impacts. This is where CHAP can support the sector to overcome such obstacles by facilitating stakeholder communication and providing relevant information regarding the latest innovative solutions to farmers and growers, and ultimately align with supply chain demands and sustainability goals.

Amidst the pandemic, there was a noteworthy surge in the adoption of plant-based protein, which has since receded. Similar to many other sectors, the plant-based protein industry has also encountered health concerns related to ultra-processed foods. Nonetheless, it remains a critical sector in the production of sustainable, low-emission food, demanding support and investment to continue R&D efforts and develop further innovative solutions.

This need for further investment and R&D efforts has been recognised by organisations such as GFI (access report here); UKRI (access report here) and CHAP. As a result, additional funding calls have been launched to support the delivery of innovative solutions in the alternative protein sector.

Figure 1. Recommendations made by CHAP (as part of a horizon scanning report on alternative proteins) to UKRI to action on the progression of the alternative protein sector.

At CHAP, we have identified the sector’s need for support, which has led to our engagement in a series of Defra-funded projects, delivered via Innovate UK’s Transforming Food Production challenge. A summary of these projects is provided below:

Figure 2. Overview of CHAP projects. To access the full story, visit our news section here. To read the full press releases, you can access them via the following links: VIP Leaf, Sustainable Lupins, Sustainable legumes.

While these projects have only just started, we have already recorded promising results, especially in sustainable protein crop production:

  • Regenerative agricultural practices in crop cultivation have a greater impact after a few years when the soil microbiome is restored to a favourable quality.
  • Leaf protein production in vertical farms has introduced a valuable, novel source for a healthy and sustainable plant-based diet.
  • The application of biological crop protection treatments holds promise for enhancing legume production in the UK.

Moreover, alongside the recently funded projects, as part of CHAP’s ongoing New Innovations Programme, we have set out to identify the key challenges and potential novel solutions in the plant-based alternative sector. The output of the project will be a solution-focused business case developed via the Five Case Business model approach. The focus will be on UK farming and production systems for plant-based alternative proteins for human nutrition, with both extracted and whole-crop protein sources in scope. The New Innovations programme is centred around stakeholder involvement, to ensure that we understand industry needs and can co-develop and deliver an impactful action plan for the sector.

The UK’s plant-based alternative protein ecosystem involves a myriad of creative and enthusiastic entrepreneurs – a noteworthy advantage on the global stage. However, the lack of infrastructure for scale-up food production, especially for ingredient processing is a key barrier and has resulted in many companies looking overseas for partners and support in both Europe and North America. Today, maintaining the entire plant-based supply chain within the UK is a significant challenge. Agriculture and food constitute a global production system, and outward and inward trade is a key mechanism for small islands such as the UK to ensure they have enough food/feed. However, an ambition to retain more of the plant-based supply chain within British borders would significantly contribute to achieving the country’s sustainable goals.

Recognising the numerous challenges faced by the sector, CHAP plans to host an in-person event in early 2024, bringing together growers, researchers, breeders, and food processors. This event will offer a unique opportunity for networking and collaboration, with the aim of bridging the gaps and fostering a more resilient and sustainable supply chain. Stay tuned to our social media channels for more information, including dates, location, and a comprehensive agenda.”

If you would like to take part in this dynamic event, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us via enquiries@chap-solutions.co.uk

*: our scope is: Plant based proteins are proteins from any plant source that are used for human nutrition either as whole crops on their own or as part of a food product or derived from a plant and used as ingredients in food products as an alternative to animal proteins.

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.

If you have a project idea or want to find out how you can work with CHAP, please send us an email using the enquiries form at the bottom of our homepage.