The forgotten pollinators

A new source of protein thanks to natural pollinators

Photography: Shutterstock

Protein is a key component of a healthy diet. The increase in the world population will result in rising needs for protein which cannot be met solely through meat or soybean products. Professor David Kleijn from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) sees lupins as a possible solution – if they can be made into a crop that can be profitably grown by farmers. The key to this may lie in a virtually extinct species of bumblebee.

WHY THIS RESEARCH?

Existing sources of protein such as meat and soybean cannot fulfil the needs of a growing global population without devastating effects on the environment. Alternatives are urgently needed.

IMPACT

Make lupins (potentially the single most protein-rich crop) an attractive and profitable alternative to soybeans in food products, with a forgotten pollinating species as the key to success.

“Lupins potentially have the highest protein yield of any crop,” says professor Kleijn. “But there are two challenges: this is a crop with low productivity and rather variable protein content. As a result, lupins are not profitable enough for normal arable farming, and little energy has been put into developing processing methods for using protein from lupins in food production. We want to see if we can change this with a clever combination of breeding, the use of pollinators other than the honeybee and research into using lupin proteins in meat substitutes. My ambition is to stop people from seeing lupins simply as a niche product and to develop them into a fully-fledged European alternative for soybean. This may seem ambitious, but I really believe it is possible.”

‘Lupins can become a fully-fledged European alternative for soybean’

Because lupins are a relatively young crop in terms of crop development and breeding for human consumption, Kleijn sees opportunities to stabilise the protein content of the seeds via breeding. “We can achieve a lot this way, especially if we take the role of wild pollinators into account in the breeding programmes. The lupin flower has a tripping mechanism that requires a fairly heavy insect to effectively transfer pollen from one plant to the next. The honeybees used by most farmers are too light and too small for this, which may partially explain the low productivity. The bigger and heavier bumblebee seems more suitable for this task. In earlier times, when lupins were part of the crop rotation in the Netherlands, it was bumblebees that collected pollen from them. In the project we want to start now, we are going to study the added value of bumblebees. We might even succeed in bringing back the nearly extinct ruderal bumblebee back in the landscape, in which case this project will truly be more than the sum of its parts.”

Duration

5 years

Partners

Food sector (especially Vegetarische slager, Vivera), Agricultural sector (participating farmers, LTO), Volunteer organisations (e.g. KNNV – national association for field biology)

Where

the Netherlands

Funds needed

€1,470,000

The bumblebee seems a very promising lupin pollinator. Photo: Shutterstock

Kleijn and his WUR colleagues will study how natural pollinators like the ruderal bumblebee can help increase profits from the crop. But there is more. “In the lab, we also want to examine how to improve the value of lupins for use in food products such as meat substitutes. The food industry currently usually uses soybeans for this purpose and we aim to show that lupins are a good alternative.”

A pilot study on pollination of lupin has already been funded through crowdfunding. In the video above you can find more information on this pilot study.

“Our project focuses on the cumulative effects of breeding, pollination and processing. We think this is what it takes to have lupins recognised as a crop that is good for farmers, the environment and food producers. Basically, we want to improve the entire production chain. All of the necessary ingredients are present: lupins are a lovely crop to have in the landscape, they are good for the soil and environment, they can easily be grown in the Netherlands and they have a high protein content. Our task is to make this potential visible so that lupins can compete with the well-developed soybean production chain. That would be a breakthrough that could have a global impact. And it would have the added benefit of helping the ruderal bumblebee and biodiversity in our country.”

PROF. DAVID KLEIJN

Position

Chair holder Plant Ecology and Nature Conservation, Wageningen University & Research

Expertise

Biodiversity, Agro-ecology, Pollinators, Insects, Climate change

Photo: Gea Hogeveen

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