Playing it safe with soya

The protein-rich soyabean has become increas­ingly impor­tant for both animal feed and food produc­tion with the lion’s share imported from South and North America. But the number of soya growers in Europe is rising with produc­tion better placed to secure food supply and provide economic prospects in a more sustain­able way.

On a September morning in the Serbian province of Vojvo­dina, one of the most fertile regions in Europe, signs of autumn are already in the air. The night’s accu­mu­lated mois­ture on the fields slowly evap­o­rates away as workers get busy. Horse-drawn carts pass by piled high with stacks of onions and red peppers, while old Soviet-designed trac­tors and combines continue to be used in the field along­side more modern models imported from the West.

Vlada Vukice­vich intends to harvest today, and the combine is ready and waiting in the shed next to his house. But the ever-alert 45-year-old farmer still takes time to treat himself to a quick mocha before renowned agri­cul­tural adviser, Bane Jevremov stops by. And while sipping his mocha, Valda says he has a lot to thank Bane for. “I had grown soya before,” – but never in such a sustain­able way.”

Vlada Vukice­vich sustain­ably grows soya in Serbia.

Bane Jevremov is a larger-than-life man who knows virtu­ally every farmer, agri­cul­tural trader, and processor in Voijvo­dina. He works for Donau Soja [trans­la­tion: “Danube Soya”], a Vienna-based non-govern­mental organ­i­sa­tion with a goal to trans­form Europe’s protein supply by means of GMO-free and sustain­able soya produc­tion.

“Our farmers are already achieving very good results in soyabean cultivation, even without genetic engi­neering,” says Bane, nodding appre­cia­tively to Vlada.

Up-and-coming soya

One ton of soya from Brazil grown on defor­ested land causes 5.6 tons of climate gas, while one ton from Europe produces an average of 0.82 tons.

Soya is quite the up-and-coming crop and the last 50 years has seen more than tenfold increase in annual produc­tion. The Inter­na­tional Grains Council in London esti­mates the global supply of soya at 387 million tonnes for 2022/23, and four-fifths of this will be processed into animal feed.

More than 80% of the world’s soy comes from Brazil, the USA, and Argentina, all three coun­tries relying predom­i­nantly on genet­i­cally modi­fied seeds. In South America, much of the cultivation takes place on cleared rain­forest land, often causing displace­ment and conflicts over the land’s use. On top of this, there are the conse­quences of long trans­port routes around the globe.

The world’s main consumer of soyabean is China, to the tune of over 96 million tonnes. This is followed by the Euro­pean Union, whose consump­tion totals 35 million tonnes, most of which is from Brazil. Germany imported around 3.6 million tonnes of soyabeans in 2021, of which 1.6 million tonnes also came from Brazil.

In Brazil, one tonne of soya grown on defor­ested land produces 5.6 metric tonnes of green­house gasses, compared to an average of 0.82 metric tonnes in Europe. And when the beans are grown in Serbia, due to the short trans­port distances in the country, according to Donau Soja, it drops even lower – to only 0.28 tonnes.

Even though last year’s harvest was disap­pointing due to drought, more and more Serbian farmers are turning to soya.

Local cultivation for more sustain­ability

In addi­tion to the short distances, the region’s climate is balanced more favourably for soya, which enables methods for sustain­able cultivation. Vlada has tested several local vari­eties devel­oped specif­i­cally for cultivation in Serbia, which are a good match for the local climate and soils. and he was able to increase his yields while using the same amount of arable land, water, and fertiliser. As a legume, soya also bene­fits soil fertility.

Out in the field, Bane pulls out a plant and points to tiny, whitish-grey balls on the roots – nitrogen – captured from the air and stored in the soil. This improves the yield of following crops like the wheat and maize which Vlada grows in rota­tion with his soyabeans to help reduce pest and disease burden. Nitrogen fixa­tion means he’s able to save on mineral fertiliser, to the tune of 100kg/ha per year – partic­u­larly helpful with the war in Ukraine skyrock­eting fertiliser prices – as well as reducing his green­house gas emis­sions on farm.

Vlada has been proac­tive in using mechan­ical methods to reduce his use of pesti­cides. But what excites this farmer the most is that Donau Soja connects him with the right buyers. “Demand is on the rise and the price is right too,” Vlada exclaims. In Serbia, soya is a driving force for devel­op­ment, explains Jovana Djisalov, in charge of external rela­tions at Donau Soja in Novi Sad.

Beans, flakes, chips, and flour. Various prod­ucts for the food and feed industry are manu­fac­tured in the soya mill.

Soya situ­a­tion in Europe

This year 300,000ha of soyabeans were grown in Serbia, compared to around 250,000 in previous years. Soyabean cultivation is also increasing in other Euro­pean coun­tries, 10 years ago, 17% of the soya consumed in Europe was grown in Serbia – these days the figure has reached 22%. The majority is sourced from non-EU coun­tries, espe­cially from the south-eastern coun­tries in and around the Balkans. However, new vari­eties and changes in climate have led farmers in Austria and Germany to discover the crop for them­selves too. Never­the­less, Ukraine bears the title of the main producer in Europe, and despite the war, Ukrainian farmers were able to harvest 3.6 million tonnes in 2022.

And most of its soya exports are trans­ported over­land, for example, via Poland into the EU. “The demand for soya from Europe is seeing an enor­mous increase,” says Jovana. “It’s driven mainly by the large retail chains offering more vege­tarian foods in response to consumers’ increased aware­ness of feed and food produc­tion.”

In Austria, all laying hen farms have been using Donau Soja soya in their feed for 10 years, according to the organ­i­sa­tion. And so far, they have saved one million tonnes of green­house gasses as a result; some­thing that a large city in Europe with 100,000 inhab­i­tants emits per year. In the mean­time, German retailers are offering meat or eggs produced with certi­fied soya from Europe.

Farmers, traders, agri­cul­tural coop­er­a­tives, trans­port and logis­tics compa­nies, and proces­sors have been bene­fiting from the boom in demand – some even plan­ning to double their capac­i­ties, according to Donau Soja.

Delivery on a grand scale. One truck after the other arrives to unload.

In September, the soyabean mill stores are filled for the whole year.

Random samples ensure quality.

Certi­fied premium product

Certi­fi­ca­tion from Donau Soja helps growers to develop and market a premium product and as a result, increases their income The certi­fi­ca­tion also demon­strates compli­ance to sustain­ability criteria along the supply chain. “Three hundred of our 400 farmers are now certi­fied in growing according to the organisation’s criteria,” says Marko Nenadić, logis­tics manager at the coop­er­a­tive processor Uljarice-Bačka, – which has been working with Donau Soja for three years.

To meet the stan­dards for certi­fi­ca­tion, the coop­er­a­tive must main­tain close contact with farmers to provide them with knowl­edge and further educa­tion as well as ensure good record keeping. “This helps improve quality, all the way down to the strict hygiene require­ments for trans­porting the beans,” Marko adds.

Customers throughout Europe

On average, Uljarice-Bačka has produced 10,000 tonnes of certi­fied beans per year. The coop­er­a­tive exports one-third of that to Austria and 10% to Germany, but Denmark and Norway are also among the buyers. “Access to these markets is signif­i­cantly easier through certi­fi­ca­tion – and some­times we get a better price,” says Marko.

Another thing that helps is the very strict cont­a­m­i­na­tion stan­dards for genet­i­cally modi­fied (GM) soya in Serbia, which are higher than the usual stan­dards in Europe.

Soyabean cultivation as animal feed has been promoted in Serbia since the 1970s and the days of the former Yugoslavia. “Only in the past 15 years has interest in domestic soyabean increased in the rest of Europe,” says Vuk Dorđević, an expert in variety devel­op­ment at the Insti­tute of Field Crops and Vegeta­bles in Novi Sad. “Since then, we have been working contin­u­ously on the devel­op­ment of suit­able vari­eties.”

176 vari­eties have been devel­oped in Serbia, including the multiple award-winning black soyabean.

Vuk Dorđević, variety devel­op­ment expert at the Insti­tute of Crops and Vegeta­bles in Novi Sad.

Local vari­eties have been researched and devel­oped in Novi Sad for many decades.

The seed for the next test and main­te­nance cultivation on the institute’s fields.

The first local variety was devel­oped at the insti­tute in 1979, now there are a total of 176 vari­eties, offering growers a wide range from which to choose the most suit­able variety.

Scien­tists have recently bred an award-winning black bean variety that is partic­u­larly suited for use in the phar­ma­ceu­tical industry, as well as in the field of healthy foods. Over the past decade, however, there has been a focus on devel­oping drought-resis­tant vari­eties.

And it’s no wonder that Vlada is so pleased with his yields in Serbia, too, despite this year’s drought. He looks at his watch, after all he intends to harvest today, before quickly climbing into his machine and driving off.