With the global population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, there is a clear need to rethink the way our food system works and to find the most resource-efficient ways to feed a world facing numerous environmental challenges.
by Sam Gray
As part of its Horizon 2020 initiative, the European Commission put out a call to find solutions to help build a sustainable and future-proof food system. In response, a team comprising over 30 different organisations is working to address the challenge, using their combined expertise to uncover the next generation of ‘smart proteins’ in order to feed a rapidly growing world.
The Smart Protein project will develop the next generation of foods: these foods will be cost-effective, resource-efficient, and nutritious, using alternative protein sources such as legumes and side-streams of beer and pasta production to generate new ingredients as well as plant-based meat, seafood, dairy products, and baked goods. In creating these new food products, the project also aims to respond to some of the key environmental challenges we face in the 21st century.
Building an efficient food system
Today, meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy use around 83% of the world’s farmland, and contribute to more than half of food emissions. Despite this, they only provide 37% of our protein and 18% of our calorie needs. A shift away from animal-derived proteins can streamline our entire food chain. For example, 10 times the amount of plant-based protein can be grown on a piece of land in comparison to that needed to produce the same quantity of protein derived from beef. By focussing on plant-based rather than animal-derived proteins, the Smart Protein project is helping to build a more efficient and sustainable food system.
“There’s a clear need for us to make the global food system as sustainable as possible”, said Jens Tuider, International Director at ProVeg International, a partner on the Smart Protein project. “Through the Smart Protein project, we will have access to novel ingredients that can make our food chain more efficient”.
With two-thirds of agricultural land in the EU alone used for the production of livestock, Smart Protein can help drive the shift towards plant-based proteins, thus reducing the impact on the earth’s resources and resulting in a more secure and sustainable food system.
Agriculture that regenerates and restores our farmlands
In designing the Smart Protein project, it was clear that a regenerative approach to agriculture was needed, said Gemini Delle Vedove, who is leading the group’s agricultural efforts. “With this project, we want to diversify our fields, farms, and landscapes in order to ensure that the future of our protein production is both climate-proof and sustainable, thus moving agriculture from acting as a contributor to a solution to climate change”.
Decades of intensive farming have resulted in environmental damage to the land on which we grow our food, due largely to chemical fertilisers and modern-day intensive farming methods. When growing the ‘Smart Protein’ crops, farmers will follow organic agricultural practices, which will increase biodiversity, enrich the soil, and reduce water runoff.
On top of this, the crops selected for the project have valuable individual characteristics. Chickpeas, for example, offer strong drought resistance, while fava beans are able to act as a natural source of nitrogen to fertilise the soil, removing the need for the production of environmentally damaging synthetic fertilisers. The agricultural practices employed through the Smart Protein project are intended to have an enduring and positive impact on farming practices.
Locally sourced plant-based proteins
Consumers are placing more importance on locally grown and produced food, which can help reduce the carbon footprint of their diet, offer greater transparency in terms of food provenance, and also reduce the EU’s reliance on imports.
Through Smart Protein, trial sites are being used to test the suitability of crops across six different European climatic zones. Learnings from these trial sites will be used to help the agricultural sector understand more about the crops grown as part of the project, and the environments in which they can thrive on a larger scale. In turning more of European arable land over to plant proteins suitable for human consumption, the project aims to help to lower our collective carbon footprint and reduce dependence on imports, while creating jobs and helping rural economies thrive.
Working towards a zero-waste food system
In the EU, an estimated 20% of the food produced is either lost or wasted. This could be on the farm, in food processing and manufacturing, in shops, restaurants, or individual homes. Smart Protein is looking at new ways to reduce this waste, including converting waste streams of protein-rich crops used elsewhere in the food system into valuable by-products that can help create new and delicious foods.
As part of the Smart Protein project, side-streams from products such as pasta, bread, and beer production will be used, alongside fungi, to create high-protein foods that won’t compete with existing food production for resources. This could eventually lead to the complete avoidance of manufacturing waste through converting all components of protein-rich crops into valuable by- and co-products, thus reducing the environmental impact of agricultural systems associated with protein production even further.