Protein replacement poses challenge

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Capacities for completely replacing animal protein in the human diet are limited and would require “major changes” in the structure of global agricultural food systems, according to new research.

A study carried out by Scottish scientists demonstrates the importance of a sustainable supply of lysine globally. Lysine is one of the amino acids essential for human nutrition.

Researchers from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), the James Hutton Institute and the University of Aberdeen’s Rowett Institute have found that the current production of plant-based lysine that can be considered a replacement of animal-based lysine comes largely from soybeans, which are grown and imported from a small number of countries.

For example, the amount of lysine currently obtained from all other leguminous protein crops – such as beans and peas – is less than a fifth of the amount of soya-based lysine, and far below the global human demand.

Published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, the study finds that broadening the supply of plant-based lysine would mean increasing soya production outside its current main production areas in Brazil, the USA and Argentina.

Yet there are alternatives, for example: increasing the production of legumes other than soya, such as beans and peas, or other lysine-rich crops; obtaining plant-based lysine from sources not currently used for human consumption (such as oilseed); or, manufacturing lysine from non-standard plant-based sources, such asvia fermentation.

The study’s lead author, Dr Ilkka Leinonen from SRUC, said: “Switching to a plant-based diet may not be as simple as previously thought.  All of these options would require major changes in the structure of global agricultural production and address the barriers associated with current agri-food systems.

“Some of these options may also have consequences on agricultural land use, because alternative crops would need a much bigger land area to produce the same amount of lysine as soya.”

The study was funded by the Scottish Government SEFARI Gateway project, Pathways toward a sustainable protein economy. Author institutions are supported by the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme, and PPMI and RMR are also supported by the EU-H2020 funded project TRUE:

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Editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is an avid follower of Stoke City.