Danish scientists turn to ancient crops to save planet

At the University of Copenhagen, scientists have developed an experimental project called Protein2Food with the mission to replace meat with protein-rich crops.

Danish scientists turn to ancient crops to save planet
Sven-Erik Jacobsen. Photo: Johanne Kusnitzoff/
Researcher Sven-Erik Jacobsen thinks that the future of food might be found in our ancient past.
In an interview with Science Nordic, Jacobsen said that old varieties of crops could potentially revolutionize our diet and help provide solutions to climate change and a limited global food supply. 
At the heart of his plan is reducing meat consumption and replacing it with vegetable protein. 
“Meat production in the world right now is unsustainable because the process produces too much methane and CO2, yields too little in relation to the amount of energy it takes to produce one kilogramme of meat, and large areas of cultivation are used to produce animal feed instead of producing food for us,” Jacobsen told Science Nordic. 

Jacobsen and his team are currently growing ancient crops like amaranth, the favoured crop of the Mayans, and quinoa, which was first cultivated by Incas some 7,000 years ago.
As part of a three-year field experiment, scientists are investigating the plants' properties to find out which seeds produce the highest protein content and the best quality protein, as well as observing how the crops develop in the Danish climate.
In addition to the ancient crops, the groups is also experimenting with legumes like broad beans, lentils and chickpeas.
Quinoa has so far performed the best in the Danish tests. The crop’s resistance allows it to adapt to almost all conditions, so the chances of wider use in large-scale agriculture are good. Jacobsen and the other researchers have introduced quinoa into their breakfasts and bake their own quinoa bread on the field, which Jacobsen describes as “a big hit”.
Gabriela Robles of the university's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences is growing the crops in a number of greenhouses and exposing them to different air, light and water conditions in order to determine which 'super crops' can be grown on a large scale in different climates. 
Jacobsen said that in order to deal with the challenges of climate change and an ever-growing global population, “we should eat as we once did”.
“In general we need to change our eating habits and include much more crops, both protein rich crops and other valuable crops, if we're to have enough food in the future,” he told Science Nordic.


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Will Denmark see the return of mink farms in 2022?

After all mink breeders were last year forced by the government to close down their farms, discussions are beginning on whether the industry could return in 2022.

Will Denmark see the return of mink farms in 2022?
A mink at a North Jutland fur farm in August 2020. Photo: Henning Bagger/BAG/Ritzau Scanpix

All fur farm minks in Denmark were culled late last year and the practice banned until 2022 after an outbreak of Covid-19 in the animals at several farms led to concerns over mutations of the virus.

The mink industry was subsequently given a gigantic compensation package worth up to 18.8 billion kroner.

Parliament’s environment and food committee will meet on Tuesday to discuss whether to extend the current ban or allow the industry to return. Political negotiations were scheduled to take place following an orientation published the same day by the State Serum Institute (SSI), Denmark’s national infectious disease agency.

In a statement released on Tuesday morning, SSI maintained an earlier risk assessment that mink breeding constitutes an health risk of “unknown proportions” for humans in Denmark.

READ ALSO: Danish PM Frederiksen to be questioned over Covid-19 mink culls

The assessment, made by the agency in June, remains the position held by SSI, the infectious disease agency said.

“It is the general assessment of the State Serum Institute that breeding of mink in Denmark after 2021 could constitute a health risk for humans of unknown proportions,” the June assessment stated.

Three key risk factors were identified by SSI in June:

  • Breakthrough Covid-19 infections in vaccinated mink breeders and skinners
  • The potential of mink farms to act as an “infection reservoir” where the virus can continue to survive
  • Emergence of new Covid-19 mutations in the animals and their spread to humans

The SSI assessment was solely concern with potential risk to humans, and did not have the task of considering safety measures for reopening farms.

Prior to the release of SSI’s statement on Tuesday, the interest organisation for the mink fur breeding industry, Danske Mink, criticised the appraisal made by the agency in June.

The formulation of the assessment was imprecise and “quite erroneous”, Danske Mink chairperson Louise Simonsen said.

The earlier orientation did not give an accurate representation “both with the number of animals and with the vaccination situation,” Simonsen argued.

Around 1,000 mink farms operated in Denmark at the time the industry was shut down.

Simonsen, in comments prior to Tuesday’s SSI statement, said she was uncertain how many were likely to restart their shuttered breeding grounds.

“We’ve had several messages from breeders who want to start up. But that number won’t stabilise until we know what we’re looking forward to,” she said.

The Conservative Party said through its spokesperson Per Larsen that SSI should have conducted a “risk assessment using groups of, for example, 50,000 or 100,000 minks” to see how “vaccinated mink, vaccinated staff and weekly testing could work”.

“Saying there’s a risk of unknown proportions is of no use whatsoever. It could mean nothing or many things,”” Larsen said.