Rethinking plant protein production
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. At the same time, UK agriculture is beginning to reconsider how land is used and this could prove to be a huge opportunity.
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. Simply put, growing high protein crops – typically legumes – can be challenging for farmers in the UK.
Our climate, which is notorious for being often cool and wet, doesn’t lend itself well to such crops, which typically produce much better yields in traditional production areas like North America.
An added consideration is that because plant protection products for legumes are limited, they often require long crop rotations. All this means they don’t offer the same returns as other crops.
Historically, the UK has imported much of the protein needed for animal feed and for human consumption, and the market for plant proteins is growing: we are, by some metrics, the biggest market for vegan or plant-based foods in Europe.
Up to now we have met this need by importing products such as soy and maize, but it is becoming we increasingly clear that this exposes us to food security issues as well as off-shoring the environmental impacts.
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 an emulsifier or thickener, may be quite different to what’s needed as a vegan milk or egg substitute, and this in turn, 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, which is not 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.
Ms Senior leads CHAP’s Advisory Group, where key players from both inside and outside of agriculture are invited to discuss strategic issues affecting the sector. She is a passionate advocate for Agri-Tech entrepreneurship. Her recent podcast documentary ‘Innovating AgTech’ is available on all podcasting platforms. She runs PBS International Ltd, working with plant breeders and seed producers globally to design and manufacture solutions for pollination control.
The next article in this series will look at how the growing demand for plant proteins offers opportunities for UK growers.
For more on CHAP’s work in this area go to Seeking Future Proteins.
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