Project TRUE (TRansition paths to sUstainable legume-based systems in Europe) looks to address the reason why legume production is not more popular in European agriculture.
“Legume based systems have not been adopted in common farming practice, due largely to the fact that their potential profitability is questioned,” said a team from the University of Hohenheim, in Germany, one of the 24 partners that form this collaboration.
“Pulses only grow on 2-3% of the arable land in the EU. That makes the EU highly dependent on imports of feed-legumes and fossil energy, which is required for the production of inorganic nitrogen fertilisers.”
Horizon 2020 programme
TRUE brings together countries such as Denmark, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Kenya to exchange knowledge in order to develop sustainable legume-based farming systems and agri-feed and food chains in the EU.
As well as plant cultivation experts and agricultural economists, researchers from the Hohenheim Research Center for Global Food Security and Ecosystems (GFE) are participating, as are businesses involved in legume commodity production.
Efforts are boosted by a €540,000 EU grant, part of a €5 million grant from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme “Sustainable Food Security (SFS) - Resilient and resource-efficient value chains.”
“The potential of legume-supported food production is immense,” said Dr Pietro Iannetta, an agroecologist from the James Hutton Institute’s Ecological Sciences group based in Scotland and coordinator of TRUE.
“Under current consumption patterns Europe imports 70% of its protein. There is also an increasing demand for plant protein which can help tackle poor diets and health problems.”
Legumes, which include peas, beans, lentils, soybeans and peanuts, are a significant source of protein, dietary fibre, carbohydrates and dietary minerals.
Their role in lowering blood pressure and reducing LDL cholesterol levels has been well documented.
The growing preference for healthy, sustainably grown food, both by consumers and shops adds to the value of this initiative and its objectives.
Dr Iannetta commented that there were opportunities for small growers to innovate, diversify and shorten their supply chains by developing their own high-quality legume-based products.
“Currently, legumes occupy only a small portion of conventional farmed systems and co-ordinated support and development of capacities within local supply chains is therefore essential,” she said.
“More obvious items on the shelves include grain legume-based breads and crisps. Less obvious legume based products are sustainable proteins in the form of meats from aquaculture-based fish and shellfish farms, and legume-grass fed cattle and now even beer.
“However, to maximise the benefits the level of interest needs to be encouraged in a manner which ensures home-grown legumes are exploited.
Legume nitrogen demand
Coventry University's Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) is also playing a key role in the project.
The CAWR team will focus on investigating the potential of heritage bean varieties and how they can positively impact ecosystems, as well as exploring how legumes can help maintain soil fertility in organic greenhouse horticulture
“Soil fertility is a particular issue in organic and low input greenhouse horticulture,” said CAWR researcher Dr Francis Rayns.
“The use of animal by-products such as blood and hoof or horn meal is common, but this raises ethical issues. Legumes in various forms can offer an alternative.”
“Legumes are a very special type of crop, since they require no inorganic nitrogen fertiliser. The nitrogen demand of legumes is met naturally via a symbiosis with soil bacteria that is contained in legume root nodules.”