Plant protein may hold the key to fighting hunger and global warming

Initial results from a collaborative EU research project suggest that diets that draw protein from plant sources may hold the key to fighting hunger and global warming in years to come.

If we grow and consume more legumes, such as peas, beans and lentils, we will benefit from their higher nutrient density and simultaneously reduce the environmental costs associated with food production.

The initial results come from ‘Project TRUE’, which brings together 24 institutions across Europe, and specifically from a study conducted by students Shauna Maguire and Conor O’Brien from Trinity College Dublin, who are supervised by Assistant Professor in Botany, Mike Williams.

The researchers score dietary protein sources in terms of both the environmental cost of production (which incorporates greenhouse gas emissions, groundwater pollution and land requirement), and their nutrient content.

Professor Williams said: “Plant protein sources, in this case legumes such as peas, beans and lentils, show the highest nutrient density and the lowest environmental costs associated with production. For example, peas have a nutrient density to environmental footprint ratio approximately five times higher than equivalent amounts of lamb, pork, beef or chicken."

"In other words, you receive more beneficial nutrients per 100 kcals of legumes than similar amounts of meat, and at far less an environmental cost.”

Applying these environmental and nutritional indices to a range of diet scenarios, the Irish researchers have calculated the benefits that occur in terms of reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased nutrient densities where the proportion of animal protein consumed is reduced.

Professor Williams added: “Such quantitative estimates of sustainable food and agriculture will hopefully allow a more informed choice for consumers when considering the main protein component of their diet. Further research is assessing the nutritional and environmental benefits of novel legume products.”

Alicia Kolmans, from the Research Centre for Global Food Security and Ecosystems at the University of Hohenheim in Germany, said: “These first results of the TRUE Project are an important orientation for European consumers and decision makers, considering the risks to society emerging from the global increase in animal protein consumption, including growing environmental problems and increased food insecurity due to the competition between food and feed on global fields.”

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