Also known as duckweed, the smallest flowering plant on earth grows with 15 times less water than soybeans, doubles in biomass every 24 hours, and can be cultivated on “any type of land”, said Susan Payne, co-founder and chief operating officer of Sustainable Planet.
The UK-based startup is developing an alternative plant protein source from water lentils that can be used in functional foods and supplements.
“We believe that we can heal the planet,” she told an audience at last week’s Future of Protein Production event in Amsterdam.
Water lentils are a ‘climate hero’
The United Nations has advised that, due to population growth, we need to increase food output by 50-70% over the next 25 years.
However, a lack of arable land – not to mention desertification, saline intrusion, drought, and water and food scarcity – all pose challenges for global protein production.
The solution proposed by Sustainable Planet? Take non-arable land, such as salt flats or sandy soil, and use it to grow water lentils.
Due to its high level of protein, the plant is six times more efficient than soy, which causes large-scale deforestation.
“It's a climate hero – it’s actually a carbon sink,” Payne said.
A plant protein to rival soya
Soybeans may be the number one plant protein in the world, but water lentils “can actually match or improve” on “every single item”, she claimed.
They are resource-efficient and highly productive: a hectare of land will produce four tonnes of soybeans per year, whereas a hectare of water lentils will produce 30-40 tonnes per hectare per annum under conservative estimates, up to 100 tonnes per hectare per year.
“Water lentils produce 10-15 times more protein per hectare than soybeans using about 10-15 times, if not more, less water,” said Payne. “It's a quite a dramatic equation.”
If global soy production were converted to water lentils, there would be a one gigaton reduction in the annual CO2 emissions produced by agriculture – about 15 gigatons currently, she added.
Water lentils: A highly versatile superfood
Not only is it sustainable – the water lentil is a “super protein” with a wide range of applications.
It has a perfect amino acid composition; is gluten-free, low-carb, and soy-free; and contains a wide range of micronutrients. What’s more, it has higher levels of calcium, iron, amino acids, fibre and omega-3 than spirulina or chlorella, Payne said.
It can be added to protein shakes, eaten raw in salads, and used as a functional protein booster in breads, pastas, and cereals.
Sustainable Planet has an exclusive global license agreement with Wageningen University and Research (WUR) on its patent to extract a colourless, odourless isolate from water lentils.
The startup, which was founded in 2019, has been trialling its concept for water lentil production in different parts of the world. Its flagship programme is in Mozambique but it has runs trials across eight countries, including Oman, Thailand, and Egypt, with “very good results”, said Payne.
Better for people, better for the planet
Sustainable Planet is “very strongly focused” on sub-Saharan Africa, where as many as 60% of the population work in agriculture, mostly as smallholder farmers. Water lentils offer the opportunity to create “thousands of jobs” in the continent, Payne said.
“We work with those smallholder farmers… and we can pay them three to five times more than they're currently earning on their lands,” she added. “We can give them education and training, we can give them better nutrition, [and] we can further diversify their crops, which is important when they're losing money in maize.”
The company is also producing products within countries that require humanitarian aid, such as Iraq, where farmers can combine local products, such as bananas or dates, with the water lentil to create nutritional bars, for example.
“[I]n the Middle East, [we’re] growing protein on sandy soil, using local dates and creating a date protein bar that can be used for humanitarian purposes,” said Payne.
Ultimately, producing protein from water lentils is a win for people as well as the planet, she claimed.
“It's regenerative,” she said. “We can use brackish water, we can use saline water, we can use grey water to produce this output. It doesn't have to be pure water. It doesn't have to be good land. And we can still produce a very high-quality superfood from those second-grade inputs – and that is really unusual.
“And that is why we believe that we can have quite a strong empowering impact on not only subsistence farmers, but also communities and countries.”