If you work in agriculture, does the term “plant-based protein” make your eyes roll into the back of your head? It has become synonymous with veganism and we in Irish agriculture pride ourselves on the ability to produce world-class animal proteins like dairy, beef and lamb, so you can be forgiven for having that reaction.
Most plant-based proteins currently on the market are highly processed and full of confusing-sounding ingredients. We can make the argument that, nutritionally, they don’t hold a candle to the real thing. But what if we could produce a plant-based protein grown by Irish farmers, processed in Ireland and sold to consumers with nutrition and the environment taken fully into account?
What if this were a financially viable option for farmers in which to diversify?
To reach our climate goals, we are told that most of us should reduce the amount of animal products we consume. It’s not really that simple, though. We also need to think about the nutritional value of what we’re putting into our bodies, the communities we support when purchasing our food and the overall sustainability (taking the three pillars of economic, environmental and social into account) of our food systems.
Still, plant-based protein alternatives are rising in popularity; not just among vegans and vegetarians, but increasingly with flexitarians. Market research from Rabobank (2019) indicates there are several “pull” and “push” drivers for increasing consumer interest in plant-based alternatives.
Push drivers include things like sustainability and health concerns, while the pull drivers include convenience (many of these foods are easy to prepare and consumers are increasingly time poor) and – funnily enough – curiosity (“Will this plant-based nugget actually taste like chicken?”).
Ireland could have a bright future in the cultivation and growing of crops for creating our own plant-based proteins, which could provide opportunities for Irish farmers. Two research projects are looking at this possibility: U-Protein and Protein-I.
I won’t lie – these projects are complex, multi-faceted and difficult to understand if, like me, you don’t have a background in science. They are looking at the same broad concept, which is the idea that Irish crops could be grown for the production of highly nutritious plant-based proteins, but are specialising in different areas.
With U-Protein, researchers are focusing on the extraction of protein from different types of plants; experimenting with similar processes we already see in animal protein manufacturing (like how we turn whey into protein powder).
In Protein-I, researchers are looking at crop type and plant-based protein product development, but are taking a very close look at human nutrition and finding that essential balance: can we create a plant-based protein alternative which is highly nutritious but also tasty enough for consumers to want to purchase?
U-Protein (Unlocking Protein Resource Opportunities to Evolve Ireland’s Nutrition) aims to diversify Ireland’s agricultural output through the possibility of plant-based proteins. They want to do this in a way that will enrich our agricultural systems and help future-proof our food production system.
A budget of almost €3m has been allocated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the project will take five years to complete. Up to 45 staff are involved with the project and the research is happening in five different Teagasc centres, as well as in their educational collaborating partner institutions: NUI Maynooth (NUIM), University College Cork (UCC), NUI Galway (NUIG), Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and the University of Limerick (UL).
The project is organised within six separate tasks, the first and most important: considering land use and overall sustainability of the plant-protein crops. After all, if the crop cannot be sustainably produced within Ireland, what’s the point? From there, the tasks range from crop growth, protein extraction (how you isolate and remove the protein from the crop) and then drying the protein into an ingredient for use in the end food product. These foods will then be assessed through a series of nutritional trials.
The project has the potential to create an alternative enterprise for Irish farmers, complementing existing dairy, beef and cereal production systems
They will use the “residual biomass” to create new ingredients, reduce waste, produce energy or create another product.
Professor Mark Fenelon is the co-ordinator of U-Protein.
“U-Protein is unique as it studies ways to [add value to] the entire plant material using novel fermentation techniques,” he explains. “The project has the potential to create an alternative enterprise for Irish farmers, complementing existing dairy, beef and cereal production systems.”
The aim here is to create innovative ingredients from crops like fava beans, peas, lupins and oats.
In addition to the crops mentioned above, the team works closely with several Irish companies, including Beotanics, a Co Kilkenny-based nutrition and plant breeding company, who have provided high-altitude Andean crops (like certain varieties of roots and tubers) selected for Irish agronomic conditions, to the U-Protein research team.
We have the opportunity to produce high-quality protein-based foods to meet the requirements of a complete balanced diet
“The objective is to find crops from which protein can be isolated, are nutritious and have a low carbon footprint,” Mark explains.
The U-Protein project manager, Dr Sinead Fitzsimons, says: “We have the opportunity to produce high-quality protein-based foods to meet the requirements of a complete balanced diet while enhancing the diversity of crops within Ireland.”
This project is also being funded by the Department of Agriculture, and for a similar amount of €2.2m (a further €1.2m will be given by Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).
Protein-I is a multi-disciplinary research project that will also take five years to complete and will take a nutritional, crop science and food marketing approach to both help diversify plant protein and provide Irish-made plant protein products with high nutritional content.
It is largely focused on traceability; taking a whole-systems approach starting with soil health, going through to product development and taking into consideration the overall health of the end consumer.
We will also work with consumers to ensure that what we propose in terms of new crops for Ireland will lead to foods that they will be willing to purchase
Additionally, Protein-I is not looking into the processing of plant protein as a key focus – instead, there is some collaboration happening between the two projects.
“We have a strong element of human nutrition,” says project co-ordinator and human nutrition Professor Lorraine Brennan. “We will also work with consumers to ensure that what we propose in terms of new crops for Ireland will lead to foods that they will be willing to purchase.
“Within the island of Ireland there is an urgent need to diversify the foods which currently contribute to our population’s protein intake,” she continues. “We need to develop options to allow alternative sources of protein to be produced in Ireland to meet consumers’ needs. However, we need to do it in a fashion that allows for development of the rural economy.”
The project is being led by Lorraine and her colleague Professor Fiona Doohan, who works in the area of plant health. Both are based in UCD and are working closely with research partners in Teagasc, NUIG, UCC, QUB and Ulster University.
Areas of research will look at crop type, market research and product development. Fiona says we should be focused on developing nutritionally dense plant-based proteins to capitalise on the market.
“[For this research], nutritional quality is a key selection criteria when selecting [crop] varieties,” Fiona says.
“Unfortunately, to date, nutrition has not [traditionally] been a major factor in selecting varieties, with the emphasis [instead] on yield. There is great potential to enhance the nutritional quality of plant protein through breeding and cultivation practices.”
Susanne Barth is senior researcher at Teagasc Oak Park crop science department in Carlow and is also involved with the Protein-I research. She is focusing on which types of protein crops we could be growing.
The big novelty is that we will test a range of varieties for each of these cereals under a number of cultivation and nutrition regimes
“We will look at cereals – wheat, barley and oat varieties – in great detail in glasshouse and field experiments,” she explains.
“The big novelty is that we will test a range of varieties for each of these cereals under a number of cultivation and nutrition regimes – like biofertilisers, biostimulants and low-input conditions.
“There is a smaller number of varieties for quinoa and peas available for the sector, so we will test them under field conditions only and bring them out to farms in different regions in Ireland to trial them under low-input conditions.”
The residual biomass used in this article refers to any material remaining after the extraction of protein from the plant resource. Sometimes referred to as waste, this biomass material can be used to create new ingredients through fermentation to reduce waste, produce energy or create another product (including packaging materials).
A question of climate
While our agricultural system has traditionally been based on the British model, we actually have a different climate from Britain. Susanne says our Atlantic climate may allow for different crops to be grown in different parts in the country.
“We are very good at growing cereals in Ireland, just not at a high-quality baking standard, which simply means the protein [in our crops] could be better exploited for human nutrition,” she says.
“Therefore it is necessary to bring in food science to make the most out of Irish grown cereal protein. However, we must also take the opportunity to grow other protein crops like legumes (peas, beans, lentils, lupins) and alternative crops like quinoa. For some of those good experience exists, but for others we need varieties well suited to our climate and suitable agronomic protocols.”
Should Ireland have a future in plant-based protein? ? It can make sense, if it provides opportunities for farmers – particularly for those in tillage and horticulture. If demand for these types of foods is already present, why wouldn’t we take advantage of the opportunity?
Should beef or dairy farmers be worried about these kinds of proteins “taking over”? I don’t think so. This research, if successful, will provide an opportunity to innovate while, hopefully, helping us meet our agricultural climate goals.
All the better if more money ends up in farmers’ pockets as a result. Have your say – reach out to ICL@farmersjournal.ie to give us your opinion.