As the most fertile continent in the world, Europe is almost self-sufficient in all major food crops. Almost. We produce more than enough grains, corn and vegetables to feed the continent’s population. But there is only one crop category where Europe is almost completely relying on imports: proteins. Within the EU, we produce only 20% of the total amount of protein crops we consume. Or, to be more precise, that our livestock consumes. That is where the crops are mostly going.
In Europe, we like to eat a lot of meat and eggs. And we absolutely love to eat dairy. To produce all this meaty and milky goodness, we own a huge amount of livestock. The Netherlands (good for 4 million cows, 12 million pigs and 100 million chickens) has the highest concentration of livestock in the EU: 6.44 animals per hectare of arable land, where the EU’s average is only 1.85. These animals need a lot of proteins to produce more milk, lay more eggs and to grow faster and fatter. The main source of protein in animal feed is soy. This soy is not grown in the EU but is largely imported. That is where the 80-20 balance comes from.
Is this bad? That depends on the perspective. European livestock farmers thrive on the availability of low-cost proteins from Latin America. But at the root of the production chain, things do not look so bright. In Latin America, where we get our soy from nowadays, the scale of soy production has blown off the human scale.
The expansion of soy production leads to widespread deforestation, land conflicts and pollution through the misuse of pesticides. Small farmers in soy-producing countries in Latin America are marginalized. They lose their lands and livelihoods to the corporations that either legally or illegally remove them from their land.
The social and ecological payoff for the European meat and dairy production is huge. But this does not need to be as dramatic as it is now. The EU does not have to rely on soy imports from Latin America for the continent’s protein consumption. After all, we have more fertile arable land than any other continent, and due to restructuring more land will become available. We can grow our own proteins.
The EU needs to bridge the gap and start producing protein crops again. The knowledge of protein crop production in the EU has not developed since the 70s, so there is a lot to be gained from research and refinement. Feed producers are experimenting with soy production in Europe, and the crop yields already match those of Argentina and Brazil. They expect to double the yield within a few years. In The Netherlands, a farmer participating in a trial project sold his entire batch of 6,000 kilos of soy to an Austrian dairy producer before he even harvested the crop.
Producing protein crops within the EU instead of importing them also brings other benefits. Most protein crops like soy and lupine are so called ‘nitrogen fixers’. They fix nitrogen to the soil, improving soil fertility and decreasing the need for fertilizers. Fertilizers have an enormous carbon footprint through their dependency on fossil fuels and mined phosphorus. Decreasing the use of fertilizers is very good news, both economically and ecologically.
The demand for soy is rising. But in the foreseeable future, Latin American soy will remain cheaper, and this is an aspect that research and refinement can only partly solve. Unless the EU-28 decide to improve the ability of European farmers to make a living growing protein crops and simultaneously stimulate the livestock to use ‘home grown’ feed, we will remain dependent on imported soy from Latin America. And we will also continue to compromise the position of small farmers and the food security of the continent’s urban and rural population.
Hugo Hooijer is campaigner on sustainable food at Milieudefensie, the Dutch environmental NGO.
This article first appeared in The Broker.