Europe’s Plant Protein Lifeboat

In keeping with their boisterous history, Europe is bracing for yet another revolution – this time an agritech revolution. Western Europe’s more densely populated land mass—~73 people per square kilometer versus North America’s ~23 people per square kilometer—means that “The Continent” (as geographers call it) needs to make moves today that ensure food security tomorrow. Producing enough food for the growing population in the so-called Old World is not as abstract and distant a problem as it sometimes seems here in the States, but an increasingly immediate one. Year over year, Western Europe has less food-producing land and more people to feed. France, through the centuries a rural farm-based economy (and even today a country that gives 50% of its area to agriculture) may just be the canary in the coal mine. France provides fully 16% of the EU’s agricultural land, but is losing about 203,000 acres of farmland every year to development, and to rising costs of production that are driving farmers away from this centuries-old way of life—and system for feeding the populace.

Now European researchers are intent on coming up with a model that sensibly and sustainably returns a measured proportion of land to plant-based protein, and so ratchets up the yield on dwindling agricultural holdings. To do this, they’re going to boost the ratio of European acreage given over to protein-rich plant varieties, and then look at infusing these proliferating plant proteins into Europe’s everyday consumables.

Uh…protein-rich plants? That’s an oxymoron, right?

The Great Sponge Workaround

When we talk about “food” we’re really talking about protein intake. The essential amino acids that comprise protein are essential to human life, and animals can’t make the stuff; only plants can do that. So what do we do? We laboriously—and wastefully—feed plants to our animals, and we eat the animals. It might seem slightly comical if it hadn’t lead us to such an historically dire situation. While a meat-based diet signifies an economically healthy culture and is the prize of the First World, animal agriculture has long been known to be a wildly inefficient use of available food-producing land. Think of slaking a great thirst by pouring a tall glass of spring water onto a sponge, and then gnawing the sponge to get the water back out of it. That is the animal agriculture model.

We pour millions of tons of plant protein into raising the cows, pigs and chickens we must then eat to get the plant protein back out of them. On the crowded European continent nutrition scientists are taking the sensible, if technologically complex, step of going around the “sponge” and reaching directly for the glass of water—plant protein.

New Crops for the Old World

Through new farming and yield management methods, and by effecting a 10% increase in land devoted to vegetable protein, Europe expects to boost plant-protein yield by 25%. To maximize the yield of protein for the growing population, researchers are focused on the most protein-rich, and otherwise nourishing plants in nature’s arsenal. Quinoa, chickpeas, lentils, buckwheat, and aramanth are nutritious and high in protein, and are leading the initial charge.

13 countries in all are joining forces to get this critically important research project off the drawing board and into European soil. Time is of the essence. Overseen by the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, the consortium of participating countries first came together in 2015, and is expected to meet its goals and launch the actual agricultural overhaul by 2020.

When Europe is able to wholly demonstrate the world-feeding value of making plant protein a mainstream player in the European diet, we’ll be on the road to realizing that plants are not just eye candy for sunlit windowsills. This foundational life form eats sunlight and turns it into food. Okay? That’s no small thing. The sun’s energy bathing the Earth is what gives us an ecosystem, and Life itself. The vegetable kingdom is the sun’s first stop, and a global treasure chest of nourishment we’ve yet to unlock to its potential. Common sense never sounded so exciting.


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