Alternative proteins and novel crops have great potential – so why aren’t we growing them?

Mint grown in Norwich by J Bond & Son (credit: J Bond & Son)

A free Agri-TechE webinar on 17 June will discuss the opportunities, challenges and market demand for alternative proteins and novel crops.

Despite the increase in consumer demand for plant-based proteins and $741 million investment into US alternative protein companies in the first quarter of 2020, the land area used in the UK for alternative crops has barely changed for almost 40 years – is this a missed opportunity for profitable diversification? The Agri-TechE webinar on 17th June 2020 ‘Novel and Alternative Crops – Improving rotation and the bottom line’ will investigate the potential of this market from the perspective of a number of growers.

“Protein is the big question – where do we get it from? We’re looking for novel crops and technologies that can provide more locally produced protein sources for animals,” comments Dr Mike Salter, R&D Facilitator at AB Agri, a global animal nutrition and agricultural services business of Associated British Foods, and a member of the Agri-TechE stakeholder committee. Part of his work is to look at new ingredients and he agrees there is a huge potential for innovation.

“We’re feeding protein to pigs and poultry in high levels. A lot of that is soy imported mostly from the US – Europe imports 14 million tonnes of soy a year.

“So at AB we’re looking at different proteins… some crops like broad beans have often been stated as a decent candidate, but they don’t make sense economically for farmers. Although broad beans have triple the protein content of wheat, you’re getting less than an eighth of the yield.

“We are using distiller’s grains as a source of animal feed protein. That’s a biproduct of the drinks industry, or of bioethanol, so it’s a circular relationship that works really well. But in terms of volume, it doesn’t come close to fulfilling our requirement.”

The alternative crops webinar will include input from Edward Blanchard of Suffolk Produce, David Bond of Norfolk Mint Growers (part of Condimentum), Bruce Knight of Legume Technology, and Brin Hughes, Agronomy Manager for Richardson Milling (UK) Ltd.

The Bedford-based millers source oats from various locations throughout the UK and it has recently seen and increase in consumer demand. Brin wants to see more growers picking up alternative crops, but offers this advice: “When looking at oat varieties (and this applies to any crop), it’s a good idea to talk to your merchant to understand what the end user is looking for, rather than simply choosing the highest yielding variety. And then pay attention to crop management; oats are a cereal and respond well to precision agronomy.”

Mike travels the world looking at innovations; he continues: “There is some interesting work going on at Aarhus University in Denmark, where they’re working on extracting protein from grass. Grass is about 12% protein and Danish government made a decision that it wanted the top 25% of the Jutland peninsula to be returned to grassland for environmental and cultural reasons. The issue is transportation as the grass has a high water content, so processing must be done onsite, and even so this approach is reliant upon government subsidies.

“The other big focus nowadays is looking at alternative protein sources for the human food chain, particularly in Western markets. It is not being considered as an option merely for the relatively small number of vegetarians or vegans, but rather they see it as addressing the much larger ‘flexitarian’ market.

“There are a number of new start-ups, often California based ‘Bay Area’ style businesses, who are really focussed on plant-based meals and ingredients.

“For the growers, that is an opportunity for the future. If companies offering these alternative ‘centre-of-plate’ items take a significant proportion of the market, there will be a requirement for new types of ingredients in the supply chain – and that might be millions of tonnes.

“Farmers, producers and processors need to expect and prepare for a change in demand, as new plant-based food options are identified and new sources of animal feed protein are established.”

The free Agri-TechE webinar ‘Novel and Alternative Crops – Improving rotation and the bottom line’ is to be held from 3-5pm on June 17th - more information:


Image: Mint grown in Norwich by J Bond & Son (credit: J Bond & Son)


Agri-TechE is a business focused membership organisation, supporting the growth of a world-leading network of innovative farmers, producers, scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs who share a vision of increasing the productivity, profitability and sustainability of agriculture.
Together we aim to help turn challenges into business opportunities and facilitate mutually beneficial collaboration.