The EU Protein Plan: a chance to close the loop and have more localised food production?

Plant proteins are an important part of human and animal nutrition, but recently soybeans and other important sources of plant proteins have found their place at the centre of discussion in Brussels.  With two European parliament reports and 14 Member States signing the ‘European Soya Declaration’, why is the EU suddenly talking about soybeans and lentils?

Protein crops are crops that are rich in the protein, a macro-nutrient important for both human and animal development and growth.  Protein crops can include a vast number of crops, from soybeans to legumes and oilseeds. The EU currently dedicates around 3% of its arable land towards these crops. At present, the EU imports around 75% of its plant protein supply from a small number of countries, primarily Brazil, United States and Argentina.  A great deal of this is soybean or soybean product and in 2013 the EU has a net import of 27 million tonnes of soybean or soybean meals. Most of this is used in the livestock sector as animal feed, meaning that the sector is highly dependent on imports from a small number of countries.  The European Environment Agency estimates that this takes about 8.8 million hectares of land in South America.

The EU’s so-called ‘protein dependency’ has been the main driver behind a proposed ‘Protein Plan for Europe’ which aims to reduce the dependence of the EU on imports of plant proteins.  By increasing domestic production of plant proteins, the EU wishes to reduce the livestock sector’s exposure to price volatility and improve the economic position of producers of food and feed. However, the EU wishes to pursue other social and environmental benefits besides feed security and EU competitiveness. For one, the EU Commission estimates that around 85% of the soybean import (around 30 million tonnes) is genetically modified (GM). As the European demand for non-GM food and feed remains high, the EU is keen to move away from the dependence on GM feeds. Finally, the EU envisions environmental benefits such as encouraging the cropping of leguminous crops, which can help fix Nitrogen from the atmosphere, thereby avoiding the need for artificial fertilisers, which are energy-intensive to produce and are dependent on fossil fuels.  The EU also considers the demand for soy as primarily responsible for land-use change and deforestation in South America, which can greatly increase the greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. Studies systematically show the farming of commercial crops such as soybean and the expansion of pasture are primarily responsible for land-use change in South America.  

Despite the envisioned benefits, there are multiple challenges to developing plant proteins within the EU, such as limitations posed by the European climate, the inability of EU crops to compete with imported ones and the competition for arable land with other uses (such as other food and energy crops). However, the biggest challenge the EU faces may be in balancing different stakeholder opinions of what an EU protein plan should look like.  For example, farmer’s groups consider the competitiveness and growth of the agricultural sector as important and encouraging further growth in production of protein crops as what the Protein Plan should aim for. Trade groups desire to unlock the potential of domestically-grown crops through animal nutrition science.

Different stakeholder opinions and the relatively open-ended nature of the Protein Plan can be seen as an opportunity. Could this be the EU’s chance to have more localised food production? The current aims of the Protein Plan provide multiple opportunities. For one, it can provide the opportunity for better synergies between feed producers and livestock farmers. Synergies can be encouraged between crop farmers, food processors and livestock farmers to make the best use not just of feed crops but of co-products/by-products of agriculture and the food industry as well as wastes. This can encourage a more circular food system that recycles nutrients and bringing with it shorter supply chains. The focus should, therefore, be shifted to how animals can best make use of alternative feed sources such as by-products, crop residues, and food wastage rather than (only) boosting protein crop production. This could provide an opportunity for the EU to increase coherence between the Protein Plan and the Circular Economy Package.

It is likely that both strategies, increasing protein crop production or increasing use of alternative sources of animal feed will be limited and that the EU will likely continue to depend on imports if it is to meet the demand for animal-source food. This begs the question of whether the goal to have more domestic sources of feed for livestock needs to also come with a reduction in consumption of animal-source food. Research shows that this combination of approaches can reduce the land needed for feeding animals, leaving space for other uses, such as for food, bioenergy and nature. It can also provide important health benefits for consumers in countries where consumption of animal-source food is very high. The current focus on plant proteins, therefore, provides a unique opportunity for the EU to change its policies towards a more food-systems approach that benefits farmers, consumers and nature.