Protein is a hot topic in Finland. Finland is a net importer of protein and our food system is dependent on imported protein. The situation is similar in many countries: Europe consumes more protein than it produces.
Last year I participated in a roadmap project which aimed at finding ways to increase protein self-sufficiency in Finland. Our analysis showed that about 25–30 per cent of animal protein consumed in Finland is imported. However, about a similar amount of protein is exported in animal products. In cereals Finland exports more protein than it imports, and foreign trade of grass-based protein is negligible. Hence, the situation in these products is quite balanced.
What struck us most were the figures of other vegetative proteins (other than cereals or grasses). In our analysis, more than 80 per cent of other vegetative protein in Finland originated from imported goods. This includes soybean meal, rapeseed meal and some other crop-based products. A lot of these imports are meant for livestock feed.
Probably the main reason for imports is that livestock, especially granivores (i.e. pigs and poultry), are commonly fed with soybean-based feeds. Soybean has a favorable nutrient composition and it can provide good value for money. It is mainly imported from South and North America which produce about 80 per cent of soybean in the world. Another important source of vegetative protein used in feeds in Finland is rapeseed meal.
Finding keys to close the gap
The burning question is: how to close the gap between domestic consumption and production, and, how to reduce ecological impacts of food. The roadmap study provided some insights on how to do this. One way is to increase the cultivation of protein-rich crops without decreasing the production of other crops. Because agricultural land is a scarce resource, part of the solution could be to allocate set-aside area to the cultivation of pea, faba bean and rapeseed.
Increasing cereal and grassland protein yields by means of more effective cultivation and crop breeding is also an attractive option. The area used to cultivate cereals and grass is large in Finland and hence even small changes in yields could have a notable effect. Besides practical and technical challenges, the critical question is whether it is profitable to take these actions to increase protein production.
Another approach is to use the protein more efficiently. Improving the efficiency of protein use requires research and development, and bringing new attractive products to the markets. For instance, the use of byproducts as feed and food could be fostered. Moreover, a wider range of protein originating from either animals or vegetative biomass could be used as human food.
The potential of novel sources of protein, such as algae, single-cell proteins and insects, is a very interesting avenue. These sources of protein can gain biomass very effectively and with low-value nutrient resources. Hence, they are an interesting opportunity to foster protein production in the long term. In many countries there are already some products based on these organisms.
Insects are an interesting option
Insects are a very topical issue today. Friday 23 October 2015, was the world edible insects day (WEID). The mission of WEID is to promote insect eating in Europe, North America and Australia, and show the insect-eating regions of the world that insect eating is neither old-fashioned nor reserved for only the poor and needy. To contribute to the discussion, the first seminar in Finland on the use of insects in food and feed is organized. In terms of science, edible insects and insects as feed is a novel research topic. Just recently, research initiatives have been taken in Finland, but otherwise there is very little information about the potential food and feed use of insects. Hence, strong research and development effort is needed to identify the possibilities of using insects as the source of protein.
Well, how to make the change? The critical aspect is to provide people with incentives to change their behaviour. In other words, people need more attractive new products to consume, and more affordable products. Companies need attractive business opportunities to increase their production. All these aspects may require strengthening research and development, fostering knowhow and skills, and collaboration across the value chain. As Finland is unlikely to be able to compete with labor-intensive bulk production, there is a need to invest in new technologies, automation, developing know-how and value-added products related to protein.