The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, today announced funding for a new initiative that will take a food-systems approach to enhancing the sustainability of protein production across the island of Ireland. Led by the UCD Institute of Food and Health’s Prof Lorraine Brennan and Prof Fiona Doohan, the Protein-I project will focus on plant production through to human health, while paying particular attention to the development of Ireland’s rural bio-economy.
“We need to transform our current food system if we are to feed the rapidly expanding global population whilst maintaining the health of the planet,” said Prof Brennan. “In Ireland specifically, there is an urgent need to diversify the foods that currently contribute to our protein intake. Protein-I will enable us to combine leading expertise to maximise benefits across the food system. Our project will be a key step towards future-proofing our food system on the island of Ireland in a way that helps protect our health and that of the planet.”
Protein-I aims to co-design pathways to support sustainable value chains that also benefit rural communities. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, “Protein-I will develop and evaluate crop-based value chains to ensure that rural communities in Ireland benefit in terms of on-farm diversification, employment and inclusivity,” said Prof Doohan. “We will develop strategies to maximise sustainable plant protein production in a traceable and transparent way, and promote the uptake of such strategies in rural communities.”
The five-year project will see the co-design of consumer-led approaches to diversify plant protein intake, model the impact among the population, and perform human interventions to demonstrate efficacy in terms of achieving adequate nutrition and improved health. It will also test emerging sensor technologies for their potential to aid delivery of personalised nutrition.
Other aims of the initiative include establishing a smart supply-chain-technology solution tailored to the needs of the agri-food industry, gathering an evidence base for future policies throughout the food system, and engaging the general public to ensure safe uptake of sustainable diets supporting the use of locally grown plant products. “Covid19 and Brexit, amongst other factors, have highlighted the vulnerability of supply chains on the island of Ireland in recent times,” according to Dr Maeve Henchion at Teagasc. “Teagasc is delighted to be a partner in Protein-I, and to build on and connect it to other work we are doing in this area.”
“Cereals are the major tillage crops in Ireland,” said Dr Susanne Barth at Teagasc. “Protein-I, from an agronomy and plant breeding angle, will look at production of cereals under low-input and sustainable fertilizer regimes to maximise the potential of available varieties. In addition to our expertise on crop breeding and agronomy, we will bring research from the lab into the field and have a particular role in co-designing, co-creating and co-implementing new value chains in rural communities.”
Protein-I will bring together six research organisations – UCD, Teagasc, NUI Galway, UCC, Ulster University and Queen's University Belfast – and 17 principal investigators. At UCD, it will involve researchers from the School of Biology and Environmental Science, School of Agriculture and Food Science, and the School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science. As well as Prof Brennan and Prof Doohan, this includes Dr Breige McNulty, Dr Martina Wallace, Prof Helen Roche and Dr Angela Feechan.
Protein-I is to receive €2.2m from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and €900,000 from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland. UCD is to be awarded €1.2m.