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Faba beans may become the major protein crop of the future

Legumes can make agriculture greener, both by carbon fixing, but more specifically because they do not need artificial fertilizers supplying nitrogen, and because their seeds have an advantageous composition of amino acids. A large, European research project focuses on faba beans, which have the potential to become an important part of Danish agriculture.

Faba beans
Faba beans (photo: Stig Uggerhøj Andersen)

They are able to fix carbon, they do not need any fertilizer, and they are bursting with amino acids. There are many reasons to take an interest in legumes, and researchers at Aarhus University have been doing so for a long time.

Stig Uggerhøj Andersen, Associate Professor at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, explains:

- Legumes are capable of fixing nitrogen in symbiosis with soil bacteria. This means that in addition to being able to fix carbon, which all plants can by means of photosynthesis, they also have access to the virtually unlimited amounts of nitrogen that are in the atmosphere - and therefore it is not necessary to add nitrogen fertilizer to legumes.

In addition, legumes can produce very protein-rich seeds that have a different composition of amino acids than the compositions found in cereal:

- We believe that legume protein will play a major role in the transition to a plant-based diet, because their composition of amino acids complement the composition in cereals. So you can actually get your nutritional needs fully covered without meat, Stig Uggerhøj Andersen continues.

Faba beans can be produced locally

At present, the large imports of plant protein, especially soy, are a challenge, and it will be a great advantage to be able to replace some of the imports with locally grown legumes.

Therefore, researchers are specifically interested in faba beans:

- Faba beans have a great yield potential in wet and cool climates, such as the Danish, so we hope that they will take up more of the landscape. Their flowers attract bees and other insects, so it would also benefit biodiversity, Stig Uggerhøj Andersen says.

Faba beans can already be found in the supermarkets in the form of meat substitute products, but the researchers hope that in the future, the beans will also become popular as vegetables for direct consumption, once their taste and consistency have been improved.

Plant breeding is a complex and lengthy process

However, before the faba beans can play an important role on the Danish fields, there is a need for plant breeding, the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics contributes to in collaboration with plant breeders:

- At Aarhus University, we work to understand how genes and the overall genome can affect various important properties in the legumes, for example disease resistance, stress tolerance and climate adaptation, in order to take advantage of the natural differences, Stig Uggerhøj Andersen says:

- Plant breeding is a long and complex process that requires a genetic understanding of the various traits that one would like to improve, and we therefore have a good collaboration with both plant breeders and plant physiologists.

Great European interest

It is not only in Denmark that there is interest in breeding faba beans, but all over Europe.

Stig Uggerhøj Andersen coordinates a large research project, ProFaba, which works to promote protein production in Europe by improving the faba bean as a European crop.

The project brings together partners with expertise in genomes, bioinformatics, quantitative genetics, insect resistance, disease resistance, abiotic stress tolerance, nitrogen fixation, field phenotypes, breeding, climate and phenological modeling to address the biggest obstacles to a breakthrough for the faba bean as a protein crop.

- We have a large group of partners all over Europe, and this means that we have the opportunity to grow the same set of faba bean lines in many different places. It gives us knowledge about which genotypes are suitable for specific climate areas now - and with the help of modeling also in the future, says Stig Uggerhøj Andersen:

- At Aarhus University, we focus on nitrogen fixation, where we test the interactions between many different nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria on different faba bean lines to find optimal combinations - and what is genetically behind the good combinations.

 Stig Uggerhøj Andersen talks about faba beans and the ProFaba project in this podcast Stig Uggerhøj Andersen or the fascination with legumes”, which is available in both English and Danish

Additional information

We strive to ensure that all our articles live up to the Danish universities' principles for good research communication (scroll down to find the English version on the web-site). Because of this the article will be supplemented with the following information:

Study type Eksperimenter og internationalt netværk

The ProFaba project is funded within the framework of the European research collaboration SusCrop ERA-NET. ProFaba is funded with € 1,901,000 from SusCrop with a total budget of € 2,351,000.

Read more about SuSCrop ERA-NET on this website

Collaboration partners Aarhus University, Danmark
Agriculture and Food Development Authority (Teagasc), Ireland
Agrovegetal, Spain
French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE), France
Groupement des Sélectionneurs de Protéagineux (GSP), Frankrig
Instituto Andaluz de Investigación y Formación Agraria, Pesquera, Alimentaria y de la Producción Ecológica (IFAPA), Spain
Norddeutsche Pflanzenzucht Hans-Georg Lembke KG (NPZ), Germany
Sejet Planteforædling, Denmark
University of Göttingen, Germany
University of Helsinki (UHE), Finland
University of Reading, UK
Conflicts of interest Sejet Plant Breeding, NPZ, Teagasc, GSP, and Agrovegetal breed and market faba beans
Read more

Read more about ProFaba on the project website here

You may also want to read this news article about the research project IMFABA, which is also about the potential of faba beans, and to which researchers from Aarhus University are contributing:

Local and sustainable production of faba beans will strengthen green transition

Contact Associate Professor Stig Uggerhøj Andersen
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
Aarhus University, Denmark