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Meet the Global Bean partners: Donal Murphy-Bokern

My name is Donal Murphy-Bokern

I am an independent agricultural scientist with a particular interest in how agri-food systems produce and use protein.

The protein choices we make determine so much of how the food system impacts on our health and the planet. At the moment, I am the scientific coordinator of the EU-funded Legumes Translated consortium. I am also a member of the EcoXtract consortium that is developing a new plant-based solvent for the food industry.

The development of legumes lies at the heart of the sustainable development of our food systems.  Legumes provide farmers with an alternative to synthetic fertiliser nitrogen, and grain legumes in particular are important for healthy, sustainable diets. We need more legumes on our farms and on our plates.

Q. You have been involved in a number of projects involving legumes. To cite a few: Leader of the work package legume futures for the EU Commission, Scientific advisor to the Chinese European Legume Improvement Alliance, Scientific Advisor for Donau Soja and Scientific Coordinator for Legumes Translated. Would you like to share with us some of your biggest challenges or accomplishments? 

All projects have challenges if they are to run well for all concerned and deliver benefits for those who invested in them, in this case the European taxpayers. The general theme of my work is improving the connection between public agricultural research and its use by farmers, other businesses, and policy makers.

Different approaches to investing in agri-food research and its exploitation have evolved across Europe. Agricultural research is applied but it is important that researchers remain independent of the commercial and political interests in its application. If researchers are not independent, we risk using research to merely reinforce current ways of thinking and working. One of the greatest challenges is an excessive focus on academic publication within the scientific community. Researchers are increasingly being driven only by academic impact and this is distorting how agricultural researchers develop their careers and how research is conducted and reported. Rightly, researchers are trained to report their work independent of the interests of industry and policy using peer review. Research must be quality assured, but delivering impact must be more than journal publications. There is a lot to do in the safe articulation of research results into new technologies, guidance that empowers farmers, and options for policy. There is a similar task in the other direction: turning policy and commercial aspirations into coherent research investment. 

On the accomplishments side, I hope I have helped my researching colleagues deliver their research and to interact with farmers and other decision makers. I hope too that I contributed to the increasing interest in legumes and protein in policy communities. I am particularly pleased with the impact of work I did in stimulating interest in applying life-cycle assessment to agriculture about 20 years ago. LCA has become instrumental in supporting the current public debate about diet and climate protection.      

Q. Following your involvement at the European Commission, could you tell us more about the place of legumes within EU programmes and what future you see for them?

I am independent of the European Commission but I know the European system well having been involved in several ex-post reviews of Framework Programme agri-food research. The European Commission has invested steadily in relevant research over the last thirty years and so it is legitimate to ask about the long-term impact.  I think these investments have helped maintain a critical mass of researchers and innovators across Europe who now support the increased use of legumes in our food systems. The European Commission was far-sighted in funding these projects when legumes, protein, and sustainable diets had much less public attention than they do now. But in the end, increasing legume use depends on farmers integrating them profitably into their businesses.

We have seen a lot of research in recent years about  developing niche value chains that use legumes, but relatively little about improving their on-farm performance. So current plans in the European Commission to invest in genetic improvement and breeding of legumes are very welcome.

Beyond that, legumes are part of wider system changes, for example efforts to diversify cropping and to improve high-protein plant-based foods. All this requires investment in innovation which the European Commission is already committed to doing. But we must be clear what innovation is and invest in activities led by innovators. Public investment in research-based innovation must be about reducing innovators’ risks in projects that are inspired by their needs and ambitions.       

Q. What fact(s) about legumes do you find most compelling for their promotion? Which are the biggest challenges a) for producers and b) for consumers?

Because legumes have a combination of system effects, it does not make much sense to identify one compelling feature. In any case, ‘promotion’ of a particular type of crop or technology is not my role as a scientist. I strongly believe that farmers and other decisions makers should be empowered with options and understanding rather than told what to do through ‘promotion’ or ‘persuasion’.

The big challenge for commercial farmers is producing legume crops that compete economically on-farm with the other crops they grow. The current high prices for nitrogen fertiliser support the increased use of legumes, including forage legumes such as white clover. Nevertheless, particularly in central Europe, it is difficult for farmers to change their cropping systems and so we need more competitive legume crops. Consumers increasingly understand that their choices can make a difference.

There is a risk I think that the development of plant-based ‘meat’ supports a false dichotomy between ‘vegan’ and ‘meat-eating’ and just reinforces existing meat-oriented food culture. This misses the opportunity of tapping into the richness of tradition cuisines such as tradition Mediterranean cooking that uses pulses so that meat is treated as special and precious to be used sparingly.   

Q. You coordinated the creation of the Global Bean Legume Manifesto. What was the idea behind this publication?

The idea of the manifesto is to lay out the scientific facts about legumes in an accessible way without campaigning or preaching. I hope the text is understandable but is not dumbed-down. All too often, public debate about agriculture and food get dragged down by fixed positions rooted in belief systems rather than in facts. And in this age of social media, where reliable knowledge is easily drowned out by pseudo-science and humbug, it is very important that we turn to the scientific method of controlled observation and logical thinking. Some might say science is not perfect in this regard, but it is the only option if we are to understand our world and address its challenges. Many gardeners and consumers are vaguely aware that legumes, particularly the pulses, have special properties. It was important for me that we made the connection between legumes, diet, and the nitrogen cycle. So the nitrogen cycle provides the unifying theme. Most of us have some understanding of the carbon cycle and how it impacts on climate change. There is much less public awareness of the nitrogen cycle even though it affects air, water, and climate. It is the most exceeded planetary boundary. Legumes play an important role in how farmers and consumers can reduce the damage we are doing to the nitrogen cycle.

Q. Donau Soja will join our next Global Bean monthly meeting on the 19th of May about “Legumes and Hunger” to report about their second headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine, where soybean cultivation seems to be an alternative to more complex and fertiliser demanding wheat and sunflowers, while the fields and warehouses are under fire and export routes are being blocked and mined. Do you have some insights that you would like to share with us for a short sneak peek? 

I have collaborated closely with Donau Soja since about 2014, particularly within the Legumes Translated project. The staff from the Kiev office has worked on even while their city was literally under artillery fire. I would not dare pre-empt their story.

Q. Would you like to share a specific information with the Global Bean club?

Of course I have to use this occasion to advertise the European Legume Hub:

The Legume Hub is a community governed knowledge centre for all who are interested in developing legume production and use. The purpose is to empower by providing access to validated knowledge. It is a platform dedicated to sharing knowledge and successful practices across value chains, from plant breeding, on-farm activities, through to processing and consumption. It was developed within the Legumes Translated project which has just ended but we hope our commitment to empowerment and community ownership means it will be supported in the future. The Legume Hub is now maintained by Donau Soja on behalf of the European Legume Hub Association.  

Q. How did you fall in love with legumes? Do you have a favourite legume and why? Tell us about your personal experiences with legumes.

Strange as it may sound, I don’t have a particularly loyalty or commitment to legumes per se. One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather growing broad beans. That was a tradition for him, at least in the part of Ulster where he came from. Broad beans (faba beans) grow through the winter in Ireland, and are one of the first signs of summer at the kitchen table. I remember being told that they were good for the garden and good for me. I suspect the variety or population he used had a stronger taste than the broad beans I can find in the local garden centre now.

I was drawn to agriculture because of the fascinating combination of science, economics and policy that is applied to an activity that is essentially regenerative and about how people manage land. I got to know legumes better in that context: they are part of good farming.