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Animals need both energy and proteins in their food. BSE or mad cow disease, which led to the removal of animal-derived protein from livestock feed, has highlighted the shortfall in vegetable protein sources. Europe imports 75% of its plant-derived protein, mostly as soyabean meal. For this reason, the European Union wants to encourage farmers to grow protein-rich legume crops like peas and faba beans for animal feeds. Such plants are currently under-used in European agriculture, despite having the advantage of reducing fertiliser and pesticide inputs, which is better for the environment. A large Integrated Project called "Grain Legumes" is combining the efforts of scientists from 18 countries in order to make legume crops more competitive for European agriculture, using the latest progress in genomics and ranging from plant improvement and crop management to feed processing.


Peas, faba beans, chickpeas, lupins, common beans and lentils are the main legume crops most suited to European agriculture. They offer farmers several environmental benefits. First, by fixing nitrogen due to natural symbiosis they reduce the need for industrial fertilisers. They increase the diversity in crop rotations, breaking the annual cycle of cereals and reducing the build-up of cereal weeds and pests and the corresponding need for pesticides.
With all these benefits, why are farmers reluctant to grow them? Currently, they represent just 5% of Europe's arable land, compared with 15 to 30% elsewhere. Farmers complain that their yield is lower than that of other crops and is variable. Foliar diseases and root rots are largely to blame and pea-like plants tend to collapse under their own weight, making harvesting more difficult.
The overriding aim of the Grain Legumes project is to provide tools to facilitate genetics and to develop new varieties of legumes alongside new ways of growing, treating, processing and using them. The strategy is to accelerate plant breeding by harnessing the progress in the description of legume genes and their genome organisation.


Progress towards understanding the genetic code of legume crops lags behind other crops such as cereals. A species adopted as a genetic model for legumes, the barrel medick, is about to have its gene content fully sequenced and the partners in Grain Legumes will contribute to these international efforts. This will provide the gene order of this model species, which will in turn provide a blueprint to analyse the genetic organisation of legume crops. The project will also create a library of pea genes and mutants and will develop microarray methods to tell which genes are active in key cell pathways. These genomic tools will pave the way to identifying genes, or sets of genes responsible for important attributes such as plant shape, disease resistance, and content of protein or other constituents in seeds. This information will enable the monitoring of plant breeding and the identification of genetic diversity for breeders to work with.
Meanwhile, agronomists and agro-ecologists will measure the impact of legume crops, in terms of agronomic and economic criteria, cost and energy use. Animal nutritionists will study their potential to improve animal feed and will test feed, that is processed using novel methods, on pigs and salmon to establish whether or not animal health can be improved, and to provide new sources of protein so urgently needed for fish farming.
The project will develop links with other international programmes on legume genomics, to avoid duplicating effort. European plant breeding, food and animal feed companies will be kept informed of results and have access to these publicly funded activities through an interactive Technology Transfer Platform so that the results can be developed into real products. The predicted outcome should be legume crops that are more attractive for European agriculture and industry so that, in future, Europe's citizens and animals can look forward to eating more locallygrown grain legumes with the benefits of enhanced traceability and health.

List of Partners

  • John Innes Centre (UK)
  • Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (France)
  • Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France)
  • Wageningen University (The Netherlands)
  • University of Bielefeld (Germany)
  • European Association for Grain Legumes Research (France)
  • Max-Planck Institut, Golm (Germany)
  • Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (Spain)
  • Génoscope (France)
  • Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (Denmark)
  • Genome Research, Sanger Centre (UK)
  • University of Frankfurt Biocentre (Germany)
  • University of Dundee (UK)
  • Institute of Genetics, BRC, Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Hungary)
  • Institute of Plant Genetics, Polish Academy of Sciences (Poland)
  • ITA of University of Vallalolid and University of León (Spain)
  • Central Science Laboratory, York (UK)
  • University of Sevilla (Spain)
  • Instituto de Biologia Molecular e Celular, Porto (Portugal)
  • Centre d'Etudes et de Recherche sur l'Economie et l'Organisation (France)
  • National Institute of Agricultural Botany, Cambridge (UK)
  • Universidad Pública de Navarra (Spain)
  • Confederation Espanola de Fabricantes de Alimentos Compuestos (Spain)
  • Ceska Zemedelska Universita (Czech Republic)
  • University of Reading (UK)
  • Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (UK)
  • ID Lelystad (The Netherlands)
  • University of Córdoba (Spain)
  • Technische Universität München (Germany)
  • De Schothorst Institute of Animal Nutrition (Germany)
  • University of Aarhus (Denmark)
  • Swiss Federal Research Station Agroecology and Agriculture (Switzerland)
  • Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (Belgium)
  • IPK, Gatersleben (Germany)
  • RISØ National Laboratory (Denmark)
  • IVV, Fraunhofer Gesellschaft (Germany)
  • Nutreco Aquaculture Research Centre (Norway)
  • Ecole Supérieure d'Agriculture (France)
  • Plant Research International (The Netherlands)
  • University of Hannover (Germany)
  • SIK, Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (Sweden)
  • UNIP Paris (France)
  • Plant Breeding and Acclimatization Institute (Poland)
  • Agricultural Research Organisation (Israel)
  • AgroBioInstitute (Bulgaria)
  • AEL, Associación Española de Leguminosas (Spain)
  • University of York (UK)
  • Murdoch University (Australia)
  • Institute of Genetics, ABC, Gödöllõ (Hungary)
  • CNR, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (Italy)
  • IPBO, Institute for Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (Belgium)
  • Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organisation, Division of Plant Industry (Australia)
  • GenXPro (Germany)
  • Grain Legumes Technology Transfer Platform (to be created)
  • AlI Russia Research Institute for Agricultural Microbiology (Russian Federation)
  • Kafr EI-Sheikh University, Faculty of Agriculture (Egypt)
  • An-Najah National University, (Occupied Palestinian Territory)
  • Institute Agronomique et Veterinaire Hassan II (Morocco)
  • Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique de Tunisie (Tunisie)
  • EMBRAPA - CENARGEN, (Brazil)
  • UCB - Catholic University of Brasilia, (Brazil)
  • SIPPE- Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences (People's Republic of China)
  • Centre de Biotechnologie, Borj Cedria (Tunisia)
  • University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)
  • Instituto de Tecnologia Quimica e Biologica (Portugal)
Full title:
New strategies to improve grain legumes for food and feed
Contract n°:
Project co-ordinator:
Noel Ellis, John Innes Centre,
EC Scientific Officer:
Jean-François Maljean,
EU contribution:
€ 14.7M
Integrated Project

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Last update: 06 December 2007 | Top