EU protein plan: will the cure be worse than the disease?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Agriculture ministers have an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that the development of protein crops is used to increase the sustainability and viability of farming in the EU, especially for peasant and family farms. [Shutterstock]

On 17 December, EU agriculture ministers will discuss ideas published by the European Commission to reduce the amount of unsustainable overseas soy imported into the EU – by growing more here, writes Stanka Becheva.

But unless it also recommends serious cuts to the factory farms that need this protein for feed, it risks simply moving many of the problems to Europe, she adds.

Stanka Becheva is a food and farming campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

Europe is increasingly dependent on imported plant protein to satisfy our craving for meat, dairy and eggs. Meat consumption in the EU has increased by 60% since the 1960s, in particular, pig and poultry meat. The animals are largely raised in factory farms and almost wholly reliant on feed composed of cereal and plant proteins such as soy.

This intensive animal agriculture model creates serious problems: from water, soil and air pollution to biodiversity loss and, as a major greenhouse gas emitter, it contributes more than the transport sector to the global climate crisis. High consumption of animal products also clashes with global health guidelines and the farm animal sector’s overuse of antibiotics threatens another global catastrophe.

Over 90% of the soy needed for EU animal feed is imported, in the last decade mainly from South America, and more recently from the US. Its production has been driving disastrous environmental and social impacts such as large-scale deforestation in recent years.

In order to reduce protein crop demand for animal feed the EU urgently needs measures to reduce production and consumption of animal products. Unfortunately, it missed the opportunity to address this in the European Commission’s new report on the development of plant proteins in the EU, launched in Vienna on 22 November.

This initiative, following a similar report by the European Parliament earlier this year, advocates the production of European protein crops as a contribution to reducing the EU’s dependency on plant protein imports, as well as contributing to solving economic and environmental problems in European agriculture.

But is this really the case?

On the positive side, the Commission highlights the substantial environmental benefits from creating a sustainable plant protein supply by including leguminous crops in crop rotations and mentions the need to develop and support non-genetically modified, organic and healthier feed chains.

Likewise, it recognises the importance of regional pulses for human consumption and the role of meat and dairy alternatives, which could help change consumer behaviour towards a more plant-based diet.

The reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is also mentioned as a key opportunity to increase the potential of protein plant production. The Commission report notably cites the funding mechanisms available, such as the current greening, newly proposed eco-schemes and agri-environment-climate measures, as well as coupled support to assist plant protein production.

However welcome some of these ideas are, they are insufficient to solve the core problems of our protein dependency and the problems related to industrial animal production.

Firstly, we cannot substitute the level of current feed imports with production in Europe. Agriculture policy must instead reduce the number of industrially-reared animals in the EU.

Secondly, we will only achieve the environmental benefits of growing more plant proteins in Europe if there are strict conditions on their production. Preference should be given to the development of pulses and fodder legumes as part of encouraging farmers to return to long-term crop rotations. This would help ensure better soil fertility, increase resilience to pests as well as yields and biodiversity, and reduce chemical inputs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Copying the current environmentally-damaging production of soy and intensive arable farming for European proteins, as well as using areas reserved for nature for growing protein crops, would undermine the whole initiative and contribute to further destruction of nature, the climate and farmers’ livelihoods.

It was no surprise to see the industrial vegetable oil and protein meal lobby applauding the new report from the Commission. Unless we introduce strict conditions, they will push for more subsidies for growing protein crops in monocultures in the EU, at the same time as pushing to undo safety legislation to allow ‘GMO 2.0’ crops onto the market. Global traders like Cargill and Bunge are already targeting Eastern European countries as the new frontier of soy production, taking away the land and bread of thousands of small-scale farmers. The threat from agribusiness is very real.

Agriculture ministers have an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that the development of protein crops is used to increase the sustainability and viability of farming in the EU, especially for peasant and family farms. This will mean pushing back on agribusiness and ensuring that reforms of the CAP are used to support a real change in the livestock sector and a transition to sustainable food systems in the EU.

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