Pro­tein in Europe: is it enough?

Mak­ing Europe less depen­dent on imports of pro­tein raw mate­ri­als is a chal­lenge for the future. We meet two pro­duc­ers who are doing their bit to improve Europe’s pro­tein pro­duc­tion.

Suèvres, Loir-et-Cher: The crops alter­nate in a gen­tly undu­lat­ing land­scape, punc­tu­at­ed with hedges which pro­tect the fau­na. Jean-Michel Ombredane stands under a bright sun in the mid­dle of his soy­abean field. He shows the roots of a fresh­ly dug up plant and the rhi­zo­bi­um nod­ules which cling to it. “Soy­abeans inte­grate well into rota­tions,” he says. Not far from there, gar­den peas are also stand­ing tall. Mr Ombredane, pres­i­dent of the depart­men­tal union of seed grow­ers, SAMS (Syn­di­cat Départe­men­tal des Mul­ti­pli­ca­teurs de Semences), cul­ti­vates 15ha of soy­abeans in a con­ven­tion­al sys­tem on a seed con­tract, along with oth­er legu­mi­nous crops.

The French soy­abean sec­tor is still tak­ing its first steps, pro­duc­ing 420,000t in 2018. Beyond the eco­log­i­cal inter­est, the chal­lenge is to reduce the 45% deficit in pro­tein-rich feed for the live­stock sec­tor. Some 3.5m tonnes of soy­abean meal is import­ed annu­al­ly into France. This is a com­mend­able degree of inde­pen­dence com­pared to the whole of Europe, where pro­tein imports cov­er 70% of the needs. This well-known Euro­pean pro­tein deficit has been around for at least 50 years, but the issue has become more polit­i­cal in recent years. Still, the sit­u­a­tion will only improve if it makes eco­nom­ic sense for farm­ers to pro­duce their own pro­tein.

Soy cultivation com­pa­ra­ble to beans

Mr Ombredane has run the 350ha farm over three loca­tions since 1994, togeth­er with his par­ents and his broth­ers François and Damien. Seed grow­ing takes about 30% of the cul­ti­vat­ed land, with a dozen species, includ­ing peas, onions, spinach, radish­es and sug­ar beet, as well as wheat and bar­ley, providing var­ied crop rota­tions.

“The cultivation of soy­abeans is sim­i­lar to that of beans, but with some extra pre­cau­tions,” says the farmer, who is pas­sion­ate when it comes to his crops. First­ly, with the inoc­u­lat­ed seeds, you need to make sure that the rhi­zo­bia are well con­served. This year, the farmer used a seed drill with a row spac­ing three times wider than for small grain seeds. As for weed con­trol: “It is more effec­tive look­ing at the weeds’ stage of devel­op­ment than the soy­abean stage.”

Soy­abeans inte­grate well into rota­tions, but there is a down­side: Care is need­ed with field beans, as both species are sen­si­tive to scle­ro­tinia. So leave at least four years between crops, so as not to increase the inocu­lum. “On the oth­er hand, there are no oth­er dis­eases, and there are few­er pests,” says Mr Ombredane. Here, at the bor­der of the Loire Val­ley and the Beauce, soils vary. The rendz­i­nas are on slight slopes of lime­stone: The bedrock is at 30cm, with­out cap­il­lary rise of water. The organ­ic mat­ter con­tents range from 2.5 to 3.5% and the pH fig­ure can rise to 8. The water reten­tion capac­i­ty is low. For­tu­nate­ly, all plots can be irri­gat­ed, a neces­si­ty for sweet­corn and soy­abeans.

Cau­tious opti­mism about the pro­tein gap

“Soy­abeans need water, but less than maize,” says Mr Ombredane. With this year’s drought, he irri­gat­ed his fields twice by mid July with 30mm each time. Should the lack of rain con­tin­ue, he would need to repeat this anoth­er five to six times. Usu­al­ly, har­vest takes place in Sep­tem­ber and the seeds are quite robust. Year-on-year, yields range from 3-4t/ha and the price for seed can be €100/t (£90/t) high­er than that of import­ed soy­abeans.

Soy­abeans inte­grate well into rota­tions.

Jean-Michel Ombredane

When it comes to increas­ing the soy­abean area and reduc­ing the pro­tein gap in Europe, Mr Ombredane is cau­tious­ly opti­mistic: “The polit­i­cal will has been shown, but the eco­nom­ic con­di­tions may have dif­fi­cul­ty keep­ing up. In France, costs and charges are very high, and stan­dards and oblig­a­tions are very strict.” And there are still the mar­ket con­di­tions: The feed indus­try is struc­tured for using import­ed soya, and restruc­tur­ing the sec­tor is com­plex. But the com­pe­ten­cy of farm­ers to pro­duce high-end non-GM soy­abeans is in place, points out Mr Ombredane. “Tech­ni­cal­ly, we are up to speed.” Increas­ing the acreage will be done lit­tle by lit­tle; the ambi­tion of stake­hold­ers in the French soy­abean sec­tor is to increase pro­duc­tion to 650,000t in 2025.

Main­te­nance breed­ing

Ger­man farmer Uwe Brede pro­duces seed and feed crops in a no-till sys­tem. In addi­tion to cere­als (win­ter wheat, spring and win­ter bar­ley, win­ter trit­i­cale, win­ter rye, and oats), he grows var­i­ous legumes includ­ing peas, red clover and field beans.

With 2.6m tonnes of soy­abeans pro­duced in Europe each year, the indus­try is still far from meet­ing live­stock pro­duc­ers’ con­cen­trat­ed pro­tein require­ments – unless they bet on future progress in breed­ing. “Reduc­ing this deficit is pos­si­ble thanks to alter­na­tive solu­tions,” says Uwe Brede, an organ­ic egg pro­duc­er in the state of Hes­sen, Ger­many.

On the 180ha Nieder­beisheim estate, pro­tein auton­o­my has been a guid­ing prin­ci­ple since the ear­ly 2000s. “The quan­ti­ty (of home-pro­duced pro­tein) is very lim­it­ed in Ger­many,” says Mr Brede. The farm feeds 10,500 lay­ing hens and 18,000 Lohmann Brown pul­lets.

A two-minute walk from the farm build­ings, a large plot of broad beans stretch­es out. “We have spe­cialised in this prac­tice,” says Mr Brede, who is grow­ing 20ha of broad beans in 2019. This is the Bil­bo vari­ety, which the farmer pro­duces for his ration and con­ser­va­tion pur­pos­es. “It has pur­ple flow­ers and a long stem, a use­ful trait against weeds. It has a very homo­ge­neous matu­ri­ty, which is also impor­tant for us. The pro­tein con­tent, at 27%, is good, and the yield is between 4 and 6t/ha.”

Lay­ing per­for­mance

The vari­ety per­forms well despite the mod­est soil qual­i­ty and high alti­tude of the farm. Thanks to an advan­ta­geous amino acid pro­file, and because the hens do not eat the shell – which con­tains tan­nins – the seeds con­tribute to the pro­tein auton­o­my of the farm with­out penal­is­ing the hens’ lay­ing per­for­mance (about 270 eggs per hen a year). The beans com­prise 12% of the feed ration.

Lay­ing hens have high require­ments for pro­tein-rich feed and Mr Brede must rely on oth­er sources too: Hemp cake, peanuts, saf­flower, flaxseed, pump­kin seeds or hazel­nuts, depend­ing on avail­abil­i­ty, for a fur­ther quar­ter of the ration. “These ole­ic co-prod­ucts allow me to pro­vide oth­er types of amino acids.” In 2019, he cut the share of soy­abeans in the ration to 5% – buy­ing his soy­abeans direct­ly from Ger­man or Euro­pean farm­ers. Cere­als (wheat and bar­ley) account for 37% of the ration, plus sun­flower and rape­seed cake (4% respec­tive­ly), as well as min­er­als and oth­er sup­ple­ments.

The feed require­ment is around 550t per year and the farm owns 28 silos, used to pro­duce its own organ­ic com­pound feed.

Reduc­ing the deficit

Such a sys­tem comes at a cost. Mr Brede opti­mis­es his mar­gins by sell­ing direct to region­al super­mar­kets. With a neigh­bour, he has just invest­ed €230,000 (£207,500) in an egg pack­ing machine. And they can only reach their goal of pro­tein auton­o­my thanks to clien­tele who are will­ing to pay more for a sus­tain­able label. All things con­sid­ered, he reck­ons it is pos­si­ble that organ­ic live­stock farm­ing in Ger­many could achieve inde­pen­dence from pro­tein imports.

But when it comes to con­ven­tion­al pro­duc­tion, talk­ing about auton­o­my is illu­so­ry in the short term. “That said, we could sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce the deficit. It would require a lot more resources for research and breed­ing, and work to opti­mise seed treat­ment, for exam­ple by apply­ing the meth­ods used for soy­abeans.”

Two-thirds of the Nieder­beisheim estate’s turnover is gen­er­at­ed by live­stock pro­duc­tion, com­pris­ing egg sales to region­al super­mar­kets under its own brand and the sale of 17-week-old Lohmann Brown pul­lets to oth­er farms.

Pro­tein demand, a key fac­tor

The real change, accord­ing to Mr Brede, should come from the retail sec­tor. “We cre­ate sup­ply; demand needs to be raised. It would be great to see an adver­tis­ing cam­paign tout­ing a ‘sausage made from (pigs fed with) local plant pro­teins’. If one chain went ahead with it, the oth­ers would fol­low. Of course, com­mit­ting to a guar­an­tee of ori­gin is an obsta­cle for large retail­ers.”

Ide­al­is­tic as it may be, this solu­tion would be more sus­tain­able in his eyes than financ­ing green­ing through sub­si­dies. “Legu­mi­nous crops would be more prof­itable in arable farm­ing, and it would be eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty for live­stock farms.”

We cre­ate sup­ply; demand needs to be raised.

Uwe Brede

Still, com­mu­ni­cat­ing the issue is not easy. “Out­door farm­ing is easy to pro­mote, peo­ple see that the ani­mals have space. But in the con­text of import­ed soy­abeans, nitrates, nitro­gen fix­a­tion, ani­mal pro­duc­tion… it is very com­plex for the con­sumer.” Mr Brede there­fore wants to inform and edu­cate. A leaflet devot­ed to the issue is placed in each box of eggs sold, and the farm web­site is being updat­ed accord­ing­ly. There will also be an open day to cel­e­brate the farm’s 25th anniver­sary this year, to which he expects 2,000 vis­i­tors.

“Start­ing from eggs, my ambi­tion is to pro­vide an overview of the prob­lem, going through the pro­duc­tion of farm food, and up to a vis­it to the breed­ing plots. I hope to make it clear for vis­i­tors to see the link between plant pro­teins and those of ani­mals.”