Fires that consume the Amazon rainforest are often started by farmers who are attempting to meet the growing demand for soybeans. Now, France wants to convince its European partners of the EU’s potential role as a leader on the plant protein market. EURACTIV France reports.
Fires in the Amazon rainforest have put a spotlight on South American agricultural production practices. The agricultural sector has been accused of deliberately starting fires in the Cerrado, Brazil’s tropical savanna, and then exploiting the land.
The land is then used to produce soya, cotton and even corn, which EU member states are happy to buy because of competitive prices.
The catastrophic environmental consequences have prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to propose establishing “European ‘sovereignty’ on protein”, as well as to suspend his support of the EU-Mercosur trade agreement.
In its “hooked on meat” report published last June, Greenpeace stated that “Europe is fuelling the climate crisis with its soya addiction”.
Indeed, while the EU imports the majority of its gas and oil, it is also totally dependent on imports of animal protein. European hens, cows and pigs consume no less than 37 million tonnes of imported plant-based protein.
Aware of the problem, Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission has begun to address the issue.
His Commission has not proposed to reduce meat consumption, as it remains a taboo subject despite being at the root of the problem. Instead, it has identified that “soya is a particular problem because the EU can only cover 5% of its need for soya.” This was pointed out last year by European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan.
European soybeans and rapeseed meals as alternatives
GMO soybeans planted in the tropics have a far higher productivity rate than the non-GMO soybeans that some farmers are trying to grow in Europe.
“We need more work on seeds to be able to grow them in Europe,” said Arnaud Rousseau, president of the agro-industrial group Avril, which also has a soybean farm in the Ile-de-France region.
In three years, the area cultivated in France for soybeans has increased tenfold to reach 160,000 hectares. That represents a drop in the ocean compared to the 29 million hectares of land cultivated in France.
As the head of Europe’s largest biodiesel group, Rousseau is calling on farmers to feed their livestock and other farmyard animals with rapeseed meals rather than soybean meals.
“There is a little less protein, and farmers are not used to it. However, it is quite possible to develop this sector,” asserted the farmer, an activist for plant-based proteins, which he considers to be nutritional and a way of conquering the market.
France imports only 45% of its plant-based proteins while the rest of Europe imports two-thirds. If France attempts to change things, mainly because of its predominant role on the biodiesel market, covering Europe’s need for animal feed (i.e. 43 million tonnes per year, including 12 million tonnes of Brazilian soya), is not technically feasible.
And France’s sudden ambition in terms of food independence and the environment is also facing political challenges.
Agriculture is not a priority and is no longer a trading currency, as the question of the crisis surrounding the EU-Mercosur agreement shows. France and Luxembourg want to freeze the trade agreement, while Spain and Germany, concerned about the fragility of their growth and exports, want to keep it.
The issue will have to be decided by the new European Commission, alongside the European Parliament, in which leftist parties are very concerned about the environment, while the right is more concerned about growth.
Concerned about preserving forests, the European Parliament, which is already working on the issue, will have to deal with a divided right-wing majority on the subject.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]