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Importing GM soybeans or expanding European cultivation of grain legumes: which is more sustainable?

The European Union’s high dependence on soy imports as a source of animal protein feed is facing increasing resistance. One aspect of the criticism levelled against soy imports is the negative public attitude towards GM soy beans and meal, which make up over 90 per cent of imported soy. In current political debates there are therefore calls to replace GM soy imports by expanding European cultivation of grain legumes. According to calculations by OVID, the German oil seed processors’ association, this would have disastrous effects: the EU would produce less wheat and take up more agricultural land outside of the EU in order to meet its demands.

Can the domestic production of grain legumes replace soy imports? OVID's calculations say "no".

Photo: Rasbak

The EU does not produce enough agricultural raw materials to meet its demand. Around 70 per cent of the protein required for livestock in Europe comes from the import of soy beans and soy meal from North and South America. More than 30 million tonnes are imported annually from crops that occupy around 18 million hectares. Almost all of these products are genetically modified because 90–99 per cent of the soy cultivated in the main producing countries consists of GM varieties.

Given the difficult global food security situation, “land grabbing” by the EU cannot be considered sustainable. Discussions are therefore taking place in Europe to expand cultivation of protein-rich grain legumes (field peas, field beans or lupins) with the aim of increasing domestic production of protein for animal feed and decreasing soy imports.

However, this strategy seems to hit a brick wall very quickly for both ecological and economic reasons. That is the conclusion of an opinion paper published by OVID, the German oil seed processors’ association. Even in France, where the cultivation of peas increased to more than 800,000 hectares in the mid-90s under the influence of the EU protein bonus, pea cultivation has now stopped, partly because of new subsidy policies, but also for ecological reasons. Even with political and financial support it has not been possible to gain long-term traction among European farmers for the cultivation of protein crops.

In addition, a study conducted on the behalf of the European Parliament (2003–2006) came to the conclusion that the cultivation of grain legumes in the EU is not competitive when compared to the production of grain and oil seeds.
There are various reasons for this: firstly, grain legumes have a significantly lower protein yield and lower quality than soy and rapeseed. Furthermore, they are more susceptible to fungal diseases and pests. In particular, repeated cultivation on the same area can lead to a rapid increase in fungal diseases. The result is a dramatic decline in crop yields and in yield stability. That is why experts recommend leaving a gap of five to seven years before cultivating peas and field beans on the same area.

Closing the protein gap would mean cultivating grain legumes on up to 40 per cent of the EU’s available arable land

These limitations mean that grain legumes can be cultivated sustainably on a maximum of 20 per cent of the arable land. In order to fully replace the quantity of soy imported annually by Germany alone would require between 2.25 and 4.36 million hectares of arable land, depending on the variety of legume grown. This represents between 19 and 37 per cent of Germany’s available arable land, which is why closing the protein gap in Europe can appear unachievable.

Wheat cultivation would be squeezed out, making Europe an importer of wheat, and more land would be used up worldwide

An expansion of grain legume cultivation would have other consequences as well, raising questions about the sustainability of such a strategy. Since the amount of available arable land in Germany and Europe is limited, cultivation of peas and lupins would be made at the expense of established high-yield crops. As well as land used for growing maize, this would mainly affect wheat and oilseed rape varieties.

The unsustainability of this approach can be illustrated perfectly with the example of wheat. Europe is the region with the highest wheat yields worldwide (5.1. tonnes per hectares; in other parts of the world the average yield is 2.5 tonnes per hectares). This production potential makes the EU one of the most important wheat exporters worldwide. Cutting wheat cultivation in favour of grain legumes would lead to an EU output gap for wheat and therefore to a reduction of the EU’s export potential. Wheat production in non-EU countries would need to increase to close this gap. However, the conditions for the cultivation of wheat are less favourable there, so more land would have to be used.

Europe would become a wheat importer, if domestic production of grain legumes will be expanded.

Photo: Jacopo Werther

OVID’s calculations show that each hectare of North and South American soy replaced with domestic grain legume production, would necessitate an additional 2.8 hectares for wheat production outside the EU to cover the increased import needs of the European Union.

As a result, OVID emphasizes that, in a world economy of highly diversified production processes, each country should specialise in its high-yield crop to make efficient use of arable land and ensure sustainable capacity utilisation. Following this logic, Europe should continue to focus on wheat and oilseed rape rather than on grain legumes. A self-sufficient legumes policy in the EU would currently exacerbate the global food supply problem.

At the same time, soy cultivation in the Americas should be further optimised, according to OVID, to ensure responsible use of valuable ecosystems. Certification systems such as ISCC, RTRS, the US Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol and Soja Plus could further promote sustainable production of soy beans.

U.S. Sustainability Assurance Protocol – an example of how to make agriculture environmentally sound

Sustainability certification systems are already very effective in improving the environmental compatibility of soy production. For example, U.S. soybean production is based on a national system of sustainability and conservation laws and regulations. In addition, most of the nearly 300,000 U.S soy producers participate in certified and audited voluntary sustainability and conservation programs. The underlaying Sustainability Assurance Protocol is a certified approach audited by third parties that demonstrates sustainable soybean production at a national scale. The Protocol describes the regulations, processes and management practices that ensure sustainable soybean production.

This approach demonstrates the significant achievements for the environment. For example, the following improvements became apparent since 1980:

  • U.S. soy production increased by 96% using 8% less energy

  • greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 41% per tonne of soy production

  • soil erosion decreased by 66% per tonne of U.S. soy production

U.S. soy production is a part of a diverse crop rotation plan carried out on 23% of the cropland to preserve biodiversity and soil fertility. Additionally, 10% of available U.S. cropland is taken out of production to protect sensitive areas.


Further information:


An EU Research Project

What are the risks of growing GM crops?

What are the benefits?

Numerous studies have addressed the potential impacts of genetically modified (GM) plants. Yet the existing evidence on the effects of GM plants is often contradictory and the quality of scientific research varies widely.

Therefore, the GRACE project will establish new tools for assessing the quality of existing studies and will conduct comprehensive reviews to identify health, environmental and socio-economic impacts of GM plants.

More information


GMO Soybeans & Sustainability

Less soil erosion and fuel consumption: herbicide tolerant soybeans are promoting sustainable cultivation methods.


Glyphosate in European agriculture

Interview with a farmer

Glyphosate containing herbicides are not only used in fields with GM crops. They also allow conventional farmers to sow directly into stubble fields without ploughing. Glyphosate has replaced mechanical weed control in many crops and has had an important impact on agricultural practices and crop yields in Europe over the past few decades.

European Glyphosate Task Force

Animation: The Authorisation Process in Motion!
Applying, consulting, and making a decision: The long and winding road to GMO authorisation in EU
start animation
 Biosafety research:

Impact of Bt maize on
insect communities

Impact of Bt maize on
honey bees

More videos

Jenny asks: How does the PCR method work?

At Germany's Institute for the Chemical and Veterinary Analysis of Food (CVUA) in Freiburg they use the PCR method to test food for traces of GM plants.

Jenny asks: How does Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer work?

Agrobacteria are a naturally occurring species of soil bacteria, which are able to transfer genes to plant cells. But how does this work? Jenny asks Thorsten Manthey of RLP AgroScience.


Promise and Reality

A Nature special issue

"The introduction of the first transgenic plant 30 years ago heralded the start of a second green revolution, providing food to the starving, profits to farmers and environmental benefits to boot. Many GM crops fulfilled the promise. But their success has been mired in controversy with many questioning their safety, their profitability and their green credentials. A polarized debate has left little room for consensus.

In this special issue, Nature explores the hopes, the fears, the reality and the future."

(Source: Nature)

Nature's special issue

May 28, 2014 [nach oben springen]

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