Project Overview

Despite the nutritional value in terms of protein they furnish for both humans and for livestock, the cultivation of grain legumes in Europe has been constantly decreasing over the last 40 years. It has become urgent to reverse this trend, since legumes play a key role in developing future sustainable farming systems, notably but not exclusively in terms of their potential to mitigate the adverse effects of agricultural production on the environment through: their unique ability to fix atmospheric N2 via a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria (Rhizobium) and therefore to have no requirement for N-fertilizers, their diversifying effect in cereal-rich cropping systems and hereby reducing the requirement for pesticides.

Grain legume seeds are rich in protein (up to 40%) and could improve Europe’s autonomy for this commodity, as it imports ca 70 % of its requirements in protein-rich products used for feeds (20-25 Mt of meals + 15 Mt of soybean seeds). In addition to proteins, legume seeds are rich in slowly digestible starch, soluble sugars, fibre, minerals and vitamins as well as secondary metabolites such as isoflavonoids, and can play a major nutritional role with the further benefit of anticancer and other health-promoting compounds (Smykal et al. 2012). Thus, grain legumes are valuable and health-promoting sources of protein for human consumption, currently underused in Europe, but with an increasing geopolitical importance in view of soaring world protein prices. However, several factors, including less investment in breeding, have combined to result in yields of legumes, and consequently their profitability, being lower and more variable than those of other crops. This reduces their attractiveness to farmers, despite the many services they offer, and has limited their availability for consumers to a level far below its potential.

The overall aim of LEGATO is to contribute to the increased sustainable reintroduction of grain legumes in European cropping systems. Working on the major European grain legumes, pea, faba bean, and with specific objectives on white lupin and grass pea, the project will focus on the identification and testing of novel legume breeding lines possessing valuable characters such as disease and pest resistance and quality for human consumption. The selection of these lines will also be optimized for low-input agriculture and in innovative cropping systems.

LEGATO will exploit comprehensive genomic resources which have recently become available, including mutant populations, mapping populations, molecular markers, and gene expression atlases for identification of gene candidates, to enable a quantum leap in the use of marker-assistedselection in legume plant breeding. The viability of the methods developed will be evaluated in plant breeding operations. LEGATO builds on the knowledge of legume physiology and legumesymbiont interactions acquired in a series of previous EU projects, notably the FP6 Grain Legumes Integrated Project (GLIP).

Despite previous advances, their impact has been limited due to a lack of technology and expertise transfer since the expiry of GLIP and its attendant technology transfer platform (GL-TTP). We intend to take the opportunity to communicate and exploit better the breadth of knowledge obtained. LEGATO is also conceived to profit from the nascent Pea genome sequencing project by assisting in its marker development, whilst not contributing directly to the sequencing effort. We have decided to tackle emerging pests and diseases that pose a threat to legume cultivation in low-input agriculture, some of which have been little studied in the past. The traits chosen for particular focus also complement those studied in depth in parallel national projects.

By these actions, LEGATO will be:

  • Responding to consumer expectations in terms of sustainability, emergence of new food habits and awareness of the nutritional merits of vegetable protein and slowly-digestible starch foodstuffs.
  • Meeting farmers needs in terms of yield and yield stability, as well as adaptation to climate change.
  • Responding to citizens’ concerns regarding food quality and safety: pesticide residues, reliance on global commodity markets, zoonoses due to the use of animal sources of feed proteins, and the impacts of agriculture on the environment.

The materials and know-how generated within LEGATO will be transferred to the gamut of stakeholders by close interactions in the framework of a trials network and a regular end-user’s forum. A wider take-up will be assured by a programme of media-wide dissemination including website, brochures, and workshops.

In order to cover adequately the range of actions defined in the call from research to implementation, a consortium of 29 partners, including 9 SMEs, has been set up, embracing a wide range of disciplines. The association of complementary expertise and resulting synergy afforded by this partnership exceeds by far what could be achieved at the national level.