The EU executive said it believes there is growth potential for the cultivation of EU plant proteins arising out of consumer demand for premium feed and food.
The Commission’s study reviewed the supply and demand situation for plant proteins, such as rapeseed, sunflower seeds or lentils, in the EU and explored ways in which to develop their production in an economically and environmentally sound way.
State of play
In 2016/17, the EU demand for plant proteins amounted to around 27 million tons of crude protein. The EU feed production sector is by far the most important outlet - 93 % in volume terms - and mainly supplied by oilseed meals.
However, and the EU's self-sufficiency rate varies substantially depending on the source - 79% for rapeseed and 5% for soy. That protein deficit results in the EU importing annually around 17m of crude protein, said the Commission.
The report noted positive trends in EU domestic protein production, with the soy area in the EU doubling to almost one million hectares since the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform in 2013. Similarly, in the case of pulses - field peas, faba beans, lentils, and chickpeas - production has almost tripled in the EU since 2013, according to the report.
The publication outlined existing policy instruments and new policy proposals that it said might help to realize the economic and environmental potential of protein plants in the EU, including:
- Supporting farmers growing plant proteins via the proposed future CAP, by including them in national CAP strategic plans, in particular through rewarding the benefits of legumes for environment and climate objectives through eco-schemes and environmental/climate management commitments under rural development programs; mobilizing rural development support e.g. to stimulate investments and cooperation along the food chain; coupled income support;
- Boosting competitiveness through research & innovation from EU and Member States' research programs and the doubling of the budget of the Horizon Europe program for 2021-2027;
- Improving market analysis and transparency through better monitoring tools;
- Promoting the benefits of plant protein for nutrition, health, climate and environment with the support of the Commission's promotion program, amounting to close to €200m in 2019;
- Increased sharing of knowledge/best practice in supply chain management and sustainable agronomic practices through a dedicated online platform for example.
Report is just the starting point
EU Commissioner for agriculture and rural development, Phil Hogan, said the Commission's study was just the starting point.
“This report will serve as an important reference point for an EU-wide debate on how to chart a sustainable way forward, which cannot be done by the European Commission alone and requires the active input of all stakeholders."
He outlined how the current CAP provides several instruments that support the production of protein crops in the EU, notably Voluntary Coupled Support and Rural Development Measures. He said such measures, together with a positive market environment, have contributed to a positive trend in recent years and to increasing EU production of protein crops.
However, due to a variety of other market and climatic factors, European protein crop production is not sufficient to cover the growing demand, he added.
Speaking at a conference - Development of Plant Proteins in the European Union - in Vienna this morning, he said:
"We will never ensure self-sufficiency in proteins, but we can achieve a better balance in relation to supply and demand, and help European plant protein growers to benefit from the dynamic growth of premium market segments, boosting our agri-economy and our environment."
In a panel discussion after the opening speeches, Hogan said further debate is required around the appropriate policy measures, and the market and financial incentives needed to ensure growing of more plant proteins in Europe.
“At the end of the day, it is about viability of the crop for the farmer. Farmers cannot be expected to participate in a new project because we say so,” he stressed.
He also noticed the squeeze on the EU budget with the UK leaving the EU and the knock-on effect that may have on EU-wide agricultural developments.
Feed industry weighs in
FEFAC said it welcomes the European Commission report and that it hopes the new political interest at both EU and national level will create the momentum to stimulate the availability, quality and competitiveness of EU plant protein production.
EU compound feed manufacturers are prepared to continue to source more EU grown proteins as a way of participating in the development of economically viable chains, provided such raw materials are a feasible option compared to traditional protein sources, said the trade group.
FEFAC stressed the importance of animal nutrition science and precision livestock feeding as key tools for making the most efficient use of available protein sources, such as matching amino-acid needs to the physiological requirements of farm animals as well as reducing nitrogen emissions and nutrient leakage.
FEFAC president, Nick Major, also spoke at the event in Vienna today.
He said the ambition to stimulate EU protein crop production makes sense given the reduced importance of the EU as an importer on the global market of soybean meal, in combination with the dependency on very few soybean and soybean meal exporting countries.
He noted the report’s finding that the development of premium feed and food markets will be the main driver for the market uptake of vegetable protein grown in Europe, and, in that light, he said he encouraged the EU Commission to harmonize the rules for product claims for food of animal origin fed on non-GM feed in order to guarantee a level playing field and increase market transparency.
Major told the audience that it is unrealistic for the EU to become entirely self-sufficient in terms of its protein needs; he said that facilitating the sourcing of responsibly produced protein-rich feed materials will also continue to be key.
And he said it was important to take into account the contribution of EU produced cereals and forages to the EU protein balance sheet.
Major explained how the adoption of new technology, along with research and breeding, has allowed a much greater quantity of rapeseed, for example, to be used in EU feed formulations in recent years. In that context, he said FEFAC eagerly awaited the views of the EU Commission on the ruling of European Court of Justice’s in July this year that New Plant Breeding Techniques (NPBTs) should be classified as GMOs and legislated for accordingly.
Elisabeth Köstinger, Austria’s federal minister for sustainability and tourism, was also speaking at the event.
She said that Austria has succeeded in the course of the past few years in considerably expanding the cultivation and the use of domestic protein plants for all fields of application.
“Within the framework of our national production we rely completely on GMO-free cultivation. At European level, we are a driving force for the common goal of raising the self-sufficiency with protein plants. The benefits are obvious: an improved self-sufficiency reduces the dependence on imports, strengthens our position on the global markets, reduces the worldwide CO2 emissions due to shorter transport routes, and ensures the compliance with high environmental and quality standards. In this way it is to the benefit of all: environment, consumers, and agriculture.”
'Our insatiable demand for meat and dairy is causing environmental and social collapse in parts of Latin America'
Reacting to the commission's protein report, Adrian Bebb, food and farming campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe said, "Europe has a problem with soy, and it is welcome news that the EU Commission is trying to tackle this. Our insatiable demand for meat and dairy is causing environmental and social collapse in parts of Latin America given over to industrially-produced soy to feed our factory farms."
However, he said the study fails to address the root cause of the high demand for protein crops.
"Supporting farmers in Europe to grow protein crops is a good start but doesn't solve the problem. Nine billion animals are reared every year in the EU - there is simply no sustainable way to feed this many mouths. Without cutting industrial animal production and slashing the number of animals we farm, we will simply move the problems of intensive soy production to the EU."
Friends of the Earth Europe is calling for the current reform of the CAP policy to encourage farmers to grow protein crops as part of crop rotation. Monocultures of soy should not be supported, said the NGO.