Seed crops and grain legumes have traditionally been culturally and culinary important crops across many countries in Europe, think chickpea soup from Greece or roasted faba bean snacks from Italy! Yet, analyses from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) a partner in the PROTEIN2FOOD project, found that the production and consumption of these crops have been dwindling since the 1960’s (figure 1).

Figure 1. Consumption of PROTEIN2FOOD crops across EU-28 countries from 1961 to 2013

Protein rich crops are the centre piece of PROTEIN2FOOD, with the main aim of the project being to develop innovative and resource-efficient protein-rich food crops and food prototypes to help the transition to more plant-based diets. While consumer acceptance of these food prototypes has previously been studied in the project, understanding the profitability and convenience of the crops and prototypes from the producers’ perspective is just as essential.

With their work, UPM has analysed the historical market trends of protein-rich crops from the PROTEIN2FOOD project (quinoa, lentil, chickpea, faba bean, lupin and buckwheat) and other important protein sources (soy, wheat, cattle, pig, poultry, whole cow’s milk, cow’s milk cheese, fresh cream, cow’s milk butter), identified significant variables that have the potential to drive the patterns of production and consumption, while trying to understand the future prospective of the protein-rich crops market.

The researchers at UPM found that geographic and socio-economic factors such as inconsistent financial support offered to producing certain protein crops, unreliable yields, low profit margins, cultural differences and changes to European policy interventions such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have influenced these downward trends in seed crop and grain legume production and consumption.

The research group was able to contextualise the swings in production of these crops by analysing various CAP interventions over the last 50 years. Since its beginning, the CAP has undergone many reforms, from the MacSharry Reform in 1992, which brought about large changes to the support system for protein-rich crop producers, to the CAP Health Check in 2008, which saw the removal of the protein premiums and low-point of protein-rich crop production in Europe. However, recent changes to the CAP as of 2009 have apparently resulted in an increased planted area of the crops, hopefully reversing the long-term declines.

The overall dietary importance of protein-rich crops has been decreasing, partly due to the replacement of plant-based proteins with animal-based proteins.. Increases in wealth, limited knowledge about the benefits of plant-based proteins and the lack of innovation in products containing protein-rich crops suitable for modern consumption, have been major reasons attributed to this steady decline of these otherwise traditional crops.

While the total European consumption of protein-rich crops has declined, the changes are far from equal in the individual countries. UPM’s research found that between 1993 to 2012, France experienced a 124% increase in plant-protein consumption, while Germany saw a decrease of 49%. The increases in countries such as France, UK, and Denmark suggest that Europeans are starting to accept and understand the benefits of consuming plant-based proteins.

European consumers are increasingly becoming more aware of the origins, ethics, healthiness and quality of the food products they purchase, pushing for more diversified plant protein products in line with their modern consumption patterns. Protein-rich crop production is expected to increase by 40% in the following decade, through favourable policies and socio-economic factors, yet the major driver for these crops will still be more animal feed products.

The team also has a report on the socio-economic assessment of the new protein rich food productions and the economic, social and political implications to be complete at the end of the project in February 2020.