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Why is protein important?

Aktualisiert: 30. Jan. 2020


Why is protein important? This is the question that Donal Murphy-Bokern, scientific coordinator of the Legumes Translated project, addressed in opening his presentation at the protein conference of the Austrian Food Security Network (Protein: the building block of life) on 24 October, 2019.

He made it clear that the public debate about protein is well-justified by the scientific evidence. Protein production and use drives our impact on the nitrogen cycle and much of food-related land-use change (e.g., deforestation).

A protein transition is essential if we are to honestly tackle the climate change and other environmental challenges. Protein is the building block of life and nitrogen is the building block of protein. This fact means that how we obtain and use protein drives mankind’s impact on the nitrogen cycle. We fix nitrogen to supply the reactive nitrogen that plants need to synthesise protein for plant growth and much of this plant protein is then converted inefficiently into animal protein with losses of nitrogen compounds to our air and water. About 11 million tonnes of fertiliser nitrogen and about 2.5 million tonnes of nitrogen mostly in imported soya fuels our agri-food system. The inefficient conversion is the reason why the nitrogen cycle is the most exceeded Planetary Boundary and is why nitrogen as a building block of life can literally be regarded as an essential public enemy.

The vision and mission of Donau Soja is a sustainable, safe and European protein supply, backed by a five-point protein strategy: The European Protein Transition. This combines a switch to sustainable imports, increased European legume production, improved used of existing sources, more precise feeding of livestock, and healthier sustainable diets. Dr Murphy-Bokern highlighted the Donau Soja Protein Partnerships that support European farmers who contribute to a more sustainable European protein supply. There are also farm-level economic reasons to change: “Our current cropping systems are increasingly constrained by diseases, pests and weeds: we need more diverse cropping sequences with more grain legumes such as the soybean”.

The drivers behind the Donau Soja strategy have been reinforced since its launch in mid-2018. “Donau Soja’s call for a European protein strategy was regarded as radical at the time but since then we have seen for example President Macron advocating exactly that. We have a combination of consumer-related and farmer-related drivers reinforcing change.” Citing the American poet Wendell Berry (How we eat determines to a considerable extent how the world is used), Murphy-Bokern confirmed the position of other speakers. The agri-environmental case for bringing animal product consumption in line with existing public health guidelines is absolutely compelling. However this has not yet been unambiguously confirmed by public agencies responsible for public health and the environment. Drawing on modelling of the flows of nitrogen in the European food system, he showed that change could transform European agriculture and eliminate the need to import soy. “We need national-level protein balances to monitor and indicate changes in our agri-food systems. The direction of travel is clear and there will be winners and losers. Resisting change is not going to help anyone and the challenge for all concerned is to prepare the landing ground for a livestock sector that must downsize to respect resource and environmental limits.”

The conference video is published on the website of AGES, Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (See link below).

More information


Dr. Donal Murphy-Bokern,



The picture is from the conference video. Copyright: AGES

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