European livestock production imports large quantities of feed protein from overseas. The geographical distance is too far so that nutrients are not returned as fertilizer to soya crop cultivation. Thus, nutrient cycles are open leading to accumulation of nutrients in livestock regions. The resulting eutrophication of soil and water resources is an environmental problem of major importance.

Currently, EU produced grain legumes for animal feed purposes cannot compete with imported soya. Also, farmers perceive animal manure rather as waste than a valuable fertilizer compared to mineral rock phosphate. Both markets, for EU grain legumes as well as for manure-derived fertilizer products, need development.

 witte klaver

Let’s imagine a cross-border deal between a Dutch poultry or pig farmer and a German arable farmer:

The Dutch farmer purchases grain feed protein from the German farmer instead of American soya. The German farmer in exchange agrees to take nutrients back. In particular, they are interested in a high-in-Phosphate fertilizer product derived from manure to replace mined rock phosphate.

This creates mutual benefit: the Dutch farmer is sure that their nutrient surplus is taken up by the German farmer who in exchange has a secured pathway for their crop product. The key for success is the built-up of transnational trust-based collaboration. From an environmental point of view, this deal is interesting because it closes nutrient cycles at a transnational level within the EU. Additionally, legumes can support several ecological features: the biological fixation of Nitrogen saves energy and thus climate gas emissions compared to mineral N fertilizers, crop biodiversity increases and, depending on the crop management, soil humus content can be increased. Integrating legumes in crop rotations represents a smart innovation towards sustainable agriculture. With arable farmers taking up more phosphate originating from animal manure phosphate recycling rates will increase thereby reducing the dependency on rock phosphate imports from outside EU.

The agro-environmental subsidy scheme of the EU CAP supports the suggested task-sharing between Dutch and German farmers. Even though the cultivation of N-fixing plants is an option in both countries to fulfil Greening requirements, there are differences: In Germany, all main grain legume species (pea, faba bean, lupine, soya) are accepted whereas in the Netherlands, besides forage legumes, lupine and field bean are the only grain legumes allowed. To fully replace imported soya in Dutch livestock production, the entire arable surface area of the Netherlands would need to be cultivated with soya (Raad voor Regionaal Veevoer, 2016).

Several future trends are likely to improve the economic strength of the suggested deal: 1. climate change and a need for savings in carbon emissions, 2. drying-up of rock phosphate mines and 3. consumer demand for sustainably produced meat and plant-based protein food products for vegetarians (as also recognized by the EIP AGRI focus group on protein crops (Schreuder & Visser, 2014)).

The suggested deal will not solve all (environmental) problems related to current agricultural practice. However, re-introducing grain legumes into European crop rotations and nutrient exchange at transnational, neighbouring country level has the potential to take a step in the right direction towards a circular Economy and towards sustainable food production.

Raad voor Regionaal Veevoer, 2016. Naar 100% regionaal eiwit: Kansen en knelpuntenvoor eiwitrijke veevoergrondstoffen, / Accessed 7/26/2016.

Schreuder, R., Visser, C. de, 2014. Report EIP-AGRI Focus Group: Protein Crops, Accessed 7/26/2016.

Geschreven door Imke Harms