The protein crop strategy: an overview
Climate change and societal demands are constantly posing new challenges for the agricultural sector. Fertilizer restrictions in particular can lead to problems. At the same time, it has become clear that strong dependencies on other countries should be avoided as far as possible. One of the ways to tackle this is to further promote the cultivation of legumes. At present, most of these have to be imported. In addition, legumes are becoming more and more popular as an alternative source of protein to meat. At the same time, they offer a wide variety of environmental benefits.
The Protein Crop Strategy (EPS) is a plan by the BMEL (Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture) to increase the production of German- and EU-grown legumes. This will increase domestic protein supply, whilst improving environmental protection, climate change mitigation and soil fertility. It is an agri-food system which aims to deliver on food security and nutrition without compromising on the environment or economy.
Currently, the EU imports most of their plant-based protein from Argentina, Brazil and the US. They need to reduce their dependency on imports and through increasing their own production of plant protein, in particular grain legumes, they can ensure the EU’s food security and reduce its food prices. This is also true of Germany, which in 2021 became the 10th largest importer of soybeans in the world, importing $1.35 billion worth.
Why are protein crops important?
Protein crops are invaluable for both human consumption and as animal feed. There is a growing demand for sustainable protein worldwide to meet the demands of an ever-increasing population. But growing protein crops, particularly legume cultivation, has other benefits as well.
Thanks to their symbiosis with nodule bacteria, legumes are able to bind atmospheric nitrogen. This means that, when grown as a suitable preceding crop in the crop rotation, they can reduce the need for fertilisers. In addition, they improve soil quality by increasing soil structure and fertility. They can also help with pest control. By being mostly flowering plants, they are important for pollinators and increasing biodiversity on agricultural land.
Whilst cultivating protein crops is popular in other parts of the world, European farming is more geared towards grain production. Over the past century, protein crops have been replaced by animal protein in European diets. European adults consume twice the global average of animal protein. Now, with an emphasis on sustainable agriculture, leaders in Germany and across the EU are pushing to develop the cultivation of plant protein.
How will Germany push protein crop production?
Searching for new solutions: The Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE) is responsible for coordinating and implementing research and development activities for the Protein Crop Strategy. They also focus on knowledge transfer and provide advisory services. The aim is to cover all aspects of protein crop production all the way along the supply chain. This includes building infrastructure to store and transport these products, as well as the breeding of new, adapted varieties, for example for soy.
Model demonstration networks for cultivating soybean and lupins were set up in 2013 and 2014. More than 100 farmers across Germany were involved and since then more networks have been implemented. The aims have been mostly on the transfer of knowledge to improve the cultivation, utilisation and marketing of legumes.
Networks focusing on coarse-grained legumes such as soy, lupins and peas received five to six years of funding, which has now expired. In contrast, the networks focusing on small-grain legumes such as clover and lucerne are still ongoing and show their potential as domestic protein sources for feed.
One such network called LeguNet showcases the practicalities of legume cultivation. It promotes the marketing of protein crop production and shares knowledge across the production line.
What benefits are there to farmers for switching to protein crops?
There are a multitude of benefits to farmers for growing protein crops. These include enhanced soil fertility, as well as ecosystem services such as an increase in crop pollinators, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, financial savings can be made through reduced fertiliser usage.
EU-grown crop protein is currently not competitive and therefore lacks the interest of farmers. But with funding, research into better cultivation techniques, breeding programmes and optimal crop varieties, this can change. Improvements across the whole supply chain have been identified as ways to overcome barriers to the EU becoming self-sufficient in protein crops. Germany has an annual budget of 3-4 million Euros to fund the EPS and are focusing on the whole value chain.
There are incentives and financial support to encourage farmers to produce protein crops in Germany and throughout the EU. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) offers funding for farmers who improve their land management to become more environmentally friendly. In Germany, BMEL is the funding body for the EPS, helping farmers to make the switch to protein crops. In addition to research and development, advice for practitioners is another building block of the protein crop strategy, which has led overall to an enormous expansion of the area under legume cultivation.
How can LEGUGUARD support legume production?
It is not uncommon for the conditions for legumes to be less than optimal at the beginning. For the establishment of a uniform and solid plant stand, seed quality plays an important role on the one hand, but also the prevailing site conditions such as soil moisture and temperature. Both the field bean and the pea require a sufficient supply of water. The field bean in particular only shows peak yields in particularly wet years. Its location requirements are similar to those of wheat.
Although peas tend to grow in moderately moist locations, they require a sufficient water supply for germination due to their grain size. LEGUGUARD promotes the legume crop right from the start. The seed treatment is specifically adapted to the needs of peas and field beans. The more than 20 natural active ingredients and nutrients provide interlocking effects based on the patented seedFX®-technology.
The hygroscopic substances and surfactants contained increase the attraction and binding of water molecules. At the same time, natural secondary plant substances in combination with the micronutrients manganese and zinc influence the germination process.
The performance of LEGUGUARD was confirmed in 10 plot trials in 2020 - 2021. Due to the increased vigour (+6 % on average) and reliable germination, the vegetation period can be used optimally. In addition, the amino acids contained in LEGUGUARD act as signals and attract the rhizobia in the soil. As a result, nodules form faster and the nitrogen fixation process is more effective, making nitrogen available to the plant earlier and promoting faster growth. Resources such as water and nutrients can be absorbed more efficiently due to the increased root mass (+20 % on average) and surface area - the best prerequisites for assured yield stability (+5 % additional yield on average)!