Could UK farmers grow more plant-based protein?

By Dr George Cusworth, University of Oxford


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European livestock farming is heavily reliant on imported animal feed, notably soy from South America. Large areas of forest and grassland are being converted for intensive production, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. Researchers at LEAP are looking at the potential that locally grown legumes – the plant family that includes soy, peas, beans, chickpeas and alfalfa – could displace the need for some of this imported feed. We are considering the opportunities as well as the barriers to scaling up UK legume production. This research involves interviewing arable and livestock farmers in the UK to understand their perceptions of climate change and to discuss what futures they see for legumes.

Legumes currently occupy around 4% of cropped land in the UK. This land is largely dedicated to field beans and peas, which are both sold for human consumption and animal feed. On paper there would appear to be great scope to increase the scale of legume production. Doing so would help manage the environmental impacts of the livestock sector and provide nutrition for those looking to reduce their meat and dairy consumption. Legumes are high in protein, have good fibre content, and are low in fat. They can either be eaten as unprocessed wholefoods, included in food processing to fortify other foods (such as bread) or as part of the growing market for meat-replacement products.

Legumes also confer benefits to the arable systems in which they are grown. In modern farming, the nitrogen required to secure high crop yields is typically delivered through the use of mineral fertiliser. Yet fertiliser production and application cause significant greenhouse gas emissions and local biodiversity impacts. Legumes fix nitrogen from the air into the soil and improve soil fertility. By using legumes to fix nitrogen, farmers could maintain yields whilst reducing the environmental footprint of their farming. Rotational management that includes a legume crop breaks up successive crops from individual plant families (usually cereals or brassicas). This practice is known to improve soil health and increase resistance to pests and disease.

There are, though, major social and economic barriers to increasing the country’s legume production. We know from previous research that UK arable farming – and European agriculture more generally – has become ‘locked-in’ to a specialised and intensified system of high-yielding cereals and oilseed products. This yield uptick has been underpinned by developments in the machinery, agricultural chemicals and cultivars designed with those select few agricultural products in mind. Legumes have, however, largely been excluded from this research and development agenda. As a result, and relative to the wheats, barleys and oilseed rape products farmers have become accustomed to growing, they are seen as risky, low-yielding and unprofitable.

We are conducting interviews with stakeholders up and down the value chain – from producers, food processors, agricultural merchant and industry bodies – to properly diagnose the nature of this lock-in, and to help understand whether a ‘break-out’ is possible and desirable. We are looking at the reputations of legume crops amongst farmers, plant breeders, and amongst machinery and chemical companies. We aim to understand the environmental and business management decisions of key actors at different points along the supply chain, to fine-tune efforts to make our food system more sustainable.