MEPs want to end ‘protein deficit’ for EU livestock

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The European Parliament has called for current trade agreements on oilseed and protein crops to be reassessed in a drive to put to an end the EU's dependency on imports for feeding its livestock.

The European Parliament adopted yesterday (8 March) an own-initiative resolution on "the EU's protein deficit," putting forward a series of measures to draw to a close Europe's long-standing dependency on imports for 80% of protein crops for animal feed, primarily from the US, Argentina and Brazil.

Such massive dependency on imports and rising feed prices make the EU livestock sector extremely vulnerable to price volatility and trade distortions, with feed price rises increasing farmers' production costs and squeezing the sector's profitability.

The House notes that the deficit in EU's domestic protein crop production dates back to previously established international trade agreements, in particular the 1992 Blair House Agreement between the EU and the US – which allowed the EU to protect its cereal production and in return allowed duty-free imports of oilseed and protein crops to enter the Union.

Following the 1992 agreement, EU protein crop producers experienced severe competitive disadvantages and production fell sharply, with European farmers and local processing business losing interest in, and, as a consequence, practical knowledge of cultivating them, notes the resolution, setting out the historical reasons behind the current situation.

Due to low demand for seeds and technical support, breeders and researchers also turned their backs on the crops, further adding to the decline of European know-how on protein crops.

Among potential measures to boost the bloc's domestic protein crop production, the Parliament calls on the European Commission to carry out "an appraisal evaluating the effects of current import tariffs and trade agreements on the various oilseed and protein crops" and produce a "detailed legal study on the current scope of the Blair House agreements on the production of protein crops in Europe".

CAP reform

Lawmakers also expect legislative proposals on reforming the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, due in autumn, to include protein crops in new policy measures and instruments to support farmers in improving crop rotation systems.

The Commission's November 2010 communication on the future of CAP highlighted the need to enhance protein crop production within a more integrated crop rotation system.

The Parliament's resolution cites studies showing that "improved use of protein crops in EU agriculture has the potential to make the supply of animal feed more reliable by making use of agro-environmental measures".

Agri-environment measures are currently at the centre of debates on the future of EU farm policy and are seen as a key tool to integrate environmental concerns into the future CAP, primarily by paying farmers to provide environmental services.

To examine the sustainability of farming practices in the country of origin of imported supplies, the EU executive is asked to establish "a monitoring mechanism on the origin of protein crops imported into the EU". 

Lawmakers also urged the establishment of a framework for rural development measures in support of protein crop production and suggest offering incentives to cultivate fallow land for this purpose. Total EU protein crop production currently occupies only 3% of the bloc's arable land.

Lastly, the House called on the EU to fund research into breeding and supplying protein crop seeds in the Union.

EU Maritime Affairs Commissioner Maria Damanaki welcomed the Parliament's report on behalf the European Commission. She noted that "domestic production of protein has increased with a rise in by-products from biofuel production. Production of rapeseed meal and ethanol co-products has risen sharply. They now represent 22% of the EU's consumption of protein-rich feed ingredients compared to 12% five years ago".

She indicated that "crop rotation is one of the elements under consideration for greening direct payments" in the CAP post-2013. But, striking a rather pessimistic tone, she insisted that while crop rotation or incentives through research and rural development policy can help, "the EU will remain dependent on imported protein".

Copa-Cogeca, the voice of European farmers and agri-cooperatives, noted that increased production of biofuels in Europe is one way to enable the bloc to reduce its heavy dependence on feed imports, as only part of the grain of a crop is used to produce biofuels. "The remainder of the grain, the major share, is used to produce protein-rich animal feed required to produce meat and dairy products," it said.

German Green MEP Martin Häusling, who drafted the Parliament's report, said that "farmers suffer from increasing prices for feed because of speculation in agricultural markets. Production of more feed locally would lead to more independence and higher income for farmers as well as better animal health and meat and milk quality".

French MEP Michel Dantin (European People's Party) stressed the strategic dimension of the Parliament report. As the resolution argues that the emergence of new customers for South American suppliers, notably China, may in the long run weaken the stability of the markets and the EU supply chain, Dantin noted that already in 2010 China bought 49% of all soy cakes on the world market, while the 2011 forecast is at 57%.

Total EU protein crop production (dried pulses, soybeans, etc.) currently occupies only 3% of the EU's arable land.

Despite extensive public support for the sector since 1978, production of dried pulses, which temporarily increased during the 1980s, had fallen to roughly one million ha by 2008.

More than 40 million tonnes of crop proteins, mainly soy beans and corn gluten feed, are imported into the European Union each year, representing 80% of the bloc's crop protein consumption.

In terms of land use abroad, EU protein crop imports represents 10% of the EU's arable land, or 20 million ha.

  • Autumn 2011: Commission to submit legal proposals on CAP reform.

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