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With the world’s population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, the World Resources Institute predicts a 79 percent increase in the consumption of animal-based foods between 2006 and 2050. As arable land and water become scarcer, raising livestock to convert plant matter into protein will not be a sustainable plan for feeding the planet. This means there is an urgent need to develop sustainable plant-based proteins that are attractive, nutritious and accessible.
Emanuele Zannini is one of the leading food scientists at Protein2Food, a plant-based protein research and development project involving 19 institutions in 13 countries and backed by EUR 9 million from the European Commission through March 2020. Here, Zannini spoke to Landscape News about Protein2Food’s goals for making Europe’s protein supply more sustainable.
How did you get involved in Protein2Food?
I had been thinking about farmers needing to purchase raw material to feed their cattle, which is making their lives very hard, and also about the problem of sustainable protein. My parents were farmers, so I’ve always had a close relationship with the dynamics in agriculture. And I thought, “We need to do something.”
I started researching quinoa, amaranth, lupin, fava beans, lentils and chickpeas – they’re all grains, so they’re also able to address the increasing demand for gluten-free products. Many of them are well adapted to Europe’s environments, so we understand the best production areas in different parts of the continent.
Why is now an urgent time to develop plant-based proteins?
Humanity is in a critical condition as the global population is expected to reach 9 billion in 2050, and we need to feed everyone. Europe has huge protein deficiencies, because we decided not to feed cows with cows, and we try not to use genetically modified organism (GMO) products such as feed additives. The biggest producers of proteins are in North and South America, and it’s difficult to get GMO-free products from those continents. China is increasing its demand for protein, so we have huge market competition.
When we develop plant-based proteins, we are targeting entire ecosystems. Most legumes capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and store it in the soil, restoring the soil’s productivity without depleting natural resources.
How do you take market demands into consideration?
Most of the plants we’re developing are well-known protein sources in Europe. Some belong to food traditions in different countries, which means that consumers are more willing to include these plant-based proteins in their daily diet.
For instance, in France or Italy with their fine food traditions, if you promote hamburgers made from insects or algae, people aren’t so keen. Reducing the consumption of animal proteins by replacing some with plant-based proteins that used to be common in European diets is a much softer approach.
You and Elke Arendt co-authored Cereal Grains for the Food and Beverage Industries, which covers many of the protein-rich plants you’re currently working with at Protein2Food. Tell us about this book.
I have a personal attachment with “Quinoa” (Chapter 12). Quinoa is able to grow in poor soil, so it’s much more competitive compared to wheat. It’s robust and resistant to heat and drought. The amino acids are balanced, and it’s rich in minerals such as zinc. In order to integrate quinoa into the mainstream European diet, science has a lot to work on in making its taste suitable to consumers and improving its nutritional qualities at the same time.
At Protein2Food, we have developed different protein-rich ingredients from quinoa, including beverages such as quinoa milk. We are also conducting a study collecting samples of different plant-based milks available in the market. What we saw is that almost all of these ‘milks’ are basically just sugar and water. The plant ‘base’ of the ‘milks’ were in concentrations below 0.3 percent, so consumers are being misled into thinking these ‘milks’ are healthier because they’re plant-based.
We got into trouble because the big companies producing plant-based milks weren’t happy with our findings. But we need research on this topic because consumers want more plant-based proteins, and yet they’re being sold ‘rice milk’ that’s really water and sugar at three times the price of regular cow’s milk.
This is important with the rising number of vegans and vegetarians, particularly among people who have kids to feed. One of the problems is in infant food. Feeding them ‘rice milk’ or ‘oat milk’ is not going to meet the child’s nutritional requirements. So one of the important things about developing plant-based foods is meeting nutritional requirements.
Going back to your roots, what does this mean for farmers?
We’re proving to farmers as well that there are options out there, including lower production costs. Farmers need to find a safe way to earn profits from things that consumers and industry demand. This has led to quinoa being produced in France, Italy and Denmark. See, farmers are not just food producers but also guardians of our lands and rivers. We must introduce a culture that complements and supports farmers.
What has been your proudest milestone at Protein2Food?
We’ve been able to develop new generations of nutritious food prototypes that are respectful of natural resources. We only develop food prototypes that we believe are tastier, healthier and more sustainable than existing alternatives on the market.
We’ve developed a huge amount of knowledge that will be shared to everybody. I think society should get back what it’s invested in: our knowledge, and later on, the food and beverage prototypes as well.