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Ireland’s plant protein potential: what is holding us back?

Ireland’s plant protein potential: what is holding us back?

In a world where concerns mount over food security, nutrition, and environmental sustainability, it’s hard to overlook the potential of protein crops to help tackle such issues simultaneously, writes Alan Fahy, Research Officer at Teagasc Johnstown Castle.

The humble family of protein crops have long been known to offer a multitude of benefits to farmers, including enhanced soil fertility, a myriad of ecosystem services, as well as financial savings through reduced fertiliser usage. At the same time, there is a growing consumer base demanding more localised, traceable produce with high nutritional value.

One interesting development in consumer trends is the radical increase in plant protein demand within the agri-value chain. The global plant protein market is valued at over €17 billion per year and is expected to grow steadily over the coming decades. Interestingly, Ireland imports basically all of its plant protein from both EU and non-EU countries, while Ireland itself produces some of the highest yields of protein crops such as peas and beans in Europe.

The Protein Payment Scheme has however catalysed a surge in protein crop cultivation since its introduction in 2015, yet this proportion remains just a fraction of the most popular tillage crops. The question must be asked as to why there is a relative absence of mainstream protein crop production and utilisation here in Ireland. One must wonder if the protein payment were to go away, would the area grown revert back to pre-payment days, which averaged just 3,187ha annually from 2000-2014.

Is there somewhat of a chicken and egg scenario going on here, whereby farmers are reluctant to grow a crop without a viable market to sell – and will  the market side not buy in to any stringent expansion in the absence of a strong national supply?

While it’s hard to overlook the place for protein crops in terms of Ireland’s environmental targets, it seems equally as hard to overlook the market opportunities that this globally growing market could grant multiple sectors in Ireland. At the moment, however, there is little evidence of organic and symbiotic market growth in the protein crop production-utilisation area at national level.

Interactive workshops

Two research workshops are being held by Teagasc, in association with the U-Protein Project (30th and 31st of May), to identify the barriers to Irish plant protein production and circularity along the full supply chain.

Poster for interactive workshop on plant protein potential summarising the content included in the text of this article

We welcome all stakeholders involved - farmers, the food industry, agri-business, merchants, research, nutrition, logistics, circular economy, consumers, etc. - to offer their insights, experiences and perspectives as to what factors are holding back the development of this market in Ireland. Information gathered on the day will be used in research to examine sustainable pathways to Irish protein production.

For more information on these workshops, contact Alan Fahy at 086-2565412 or by email at: Alan.Fahy@teagasc.ie

Find out more about the U-Protein project here.