Suddenly, everyone is interested in the crops we grow and import in Europe. The war in Ukraine has really focused our minds on feeding people – or is that feeding animals?
Agriculture in Europe is highly dependent on animal feed inputs – and now, the huge risks and wrongs of this have been exposed. In particular, Europe lacks independence in protein crop and legume production, and this comes with a raft of environmental and food security problems.
Now is the time when we must readdress the core questions of who eats what, what is the place of plants in European agriculture, and how do we amplify their diversity and availability for people – here in Europe and beyond.
In the recent context of the drop in animal feed imports due to the war in Ukraine, the Austrian delegation supported by some twenty Member States, has presented a proposal to the EU Commission, defending the implementation of a European plan to increase the production of legumes and protein crops within the EU.
Austrian Agriculture Minister Elisabeth Köstinger pointed out that “there is no area of agriculture where we are so obviously dependent on imports”. And indeed, the EU currently imports around 90% of its plant protein needs.
However, leguminous production in the EU has increased by 70% over the last 5 years. And in a recent publication analysing 19 Member States’ draft strategic plans, roadmaps for the implementation of their national agricultural policies, the European Commission has highlighted the fact that coupled support for protein crops and legumes could be increased by 35% compared to the previous programming period.
There is an awareness on the ground regarding the need to promote legume cultivation then, most certainly correlated with an increase in demand and supported by a political will. But one problem remains: the increase in European protein crops and leguminous production would be primarily intended to make the livestock sector less dependent on imports.
So, what we have is crop production for animal feed, not for human food. We are now seeing emergency bailouts and monies being made available for growing animal feeds all over Europe, to the detriment of crucial ecological commitments – and while global food security is more at threat than at any time in recent years.
Then what to do? Well, first, let’s call out this unacceptable situation and get more beany!
We know there is a need to transition diets, especially in our resource-heavy European ways. Although legumes – chickpeas, soyabeans, broad beans, lentils, favabeans, kidney beans and so many more – are still little known to many, they are well worth appreciating. For their nutritional properties and ecological benefits are quite remarkable.
Middle photo © Gabriel Hess, IG: Sortenerhalter
Protein powerhouses, they are also rich in iron, magnesium, calcium, and fibre. They are low in fat and cholesterol. And compared to animal proteins, they are also much cheaper.
On the ecological level, pulses and protein crops require much less water to thrive than many other crops. Attracting bees at times when few other crops are in flower, they are good for biodiversity. Thanks to a particular bacterium found in their roots, they have the great property of fixing nitrogen in the soil and thus require less fertiliser, major source of GHGs, to be grown. Finally, the nutrients they produce as they grow benefit the micro-organisms present in the soil, contributing to its good health.
All this information and more was presented at the first public information session of the Global Beans Project, a network which was born from the desire to give pulses and protein crops a prominent place in our diet.
Initiated by the Foundation on Future Farming (FFF; DE) this network is bringing together around 80 European and international organisations to exchange knowledge, share research, collaborate, and build awareness on the joy and importance of growing and eating plant proteins.
A bold but essential goal: in the European Union, a person consumes an average of 7kg of legumes per year, compared to 70kg of meat.
Conducted by Adèle Pautrat in May 2022
In May 2022, we met Romain Elleboudt, an agricultural facilitator of the 2000m2 project (also run by the Foundation on Future Farming) who, along with others, runs the online sessions for the Global Beans Project. He told us more about the ambition and structure of the network, as well as its positions regarding recent European declarations.
Seeds4All. What's behind the Global Beans Project?
Romain. Primarily the desire to get consumers to seriously consider legumes as an alternative to meat, and thus contribute to the increase of legume production for human consumption. This is for two reasons: firstly, to bring about a change in dietary behaviour that is genuinely capable of reducing our GHG emissions; and secondly, to promote a better distribution and healthier use of the “earth resource”, and particularly European arable lands.
NB: The European Union is a major producer of livestock products on the international market. Between 2010 and 2020, livestock production accounted for around 45% of its final agricultural output. And this is very concretely reflected in our territories.
According to a study published by the European unit of Greenpeace in February 2019, 71% of the continent’s agricultural land is devoted to livestock farming, while half of it is arable land which could therefore be cultivated for the benefit of human food. And in total, 63% of European arable land is actually used for livestock feed.
Seeds4All. What the Global Beans Community looks like?
Romain. To date, the network has just over 50 partner organisations. Mostly European, but also based in India, the United States and Kenya. These are NGOs, agricultural research centres, agricultural cooperatives, universities… very diverse stakeholders, who all have an interest in collaborating to advance knowledge related to legumes, on a research level, in the field or regarding consumers.
Seeds4All. What kind of actions does the network implement?
Romain. All activities are organised online and explore many areas related to pulses. We have defined several pillars of work: thematic information sessions (on the diversity of beans, their nutritional values, their interest in terms of food security, etc.); discovery of “demonstration gardens”; virtual exchange of seeds; holding of culinary events; and publication of technical fact sheets to disseminate knowledge related to the cultivation of legumes.
Each month, a global meeting is organised, gathering the network’s partners, and leading then an open-to-the-public meeting. For the raison d’être of the Global Beans is twofold: bringing together professional operators to give meaning and dynamism to their desire to promote legumes; and allowing that their exchanges and efforts to raise awareness are brought to the widest audience.
© Christine Scheiner / A picture from the Bean Gallery
Seeds4All. Recently, you organised an online seed exchange festival. A very interesting pioneering initiative given the difficult context of covid. Can you tell us how it went?
Romain. I would say it was a success! The exchanges were unique in a way, because the advantage of the online event is that we were able to bring together and connect people geographically very far apart. To make it relevant, we asked participants to tell us before the event what they were looking for in terms of seeds and what they had to offer. Finally, we chose to form groups based on the type of climate in which each person lived.
I, for example, led a group of 4 people who lived in cold countries and who were able to discuss and advise each other on the best varieties to grow in their climate. They exchanged addresses and then sent beans from one country to another! All this was done very freely, we let the participants organise themselves and manage their exchanges. So we have no idea how many seeds were exchanged but the feedback was positive. A new festival of this type will be organised next year.
Seeds4All. In this article, we address the recent proposal made by Austria to implement a Protein Plan for the European Union. What is the reaction of the Global Beans to such an announcement and how could you envisage the implementation of a European Protein Plan?
Romain. Of course, we support the fact that European institutions are taking up these issues and undertaking to translate them into an ambitious policy for the EU’s protein independence.
But we were struck by the fact that the Commission – which had initially rejected the idea of a common strategy recommending instead that Member States should develop their protein independence via the CAP’s strategic plans – is now reversing its position in reaction to the start of a war. Thinking about sustainable agriculture and acting to make our production systems resilient should be a constant motivation, and not only a reaction to emergency situations.
© Carla / A picture from the Bean Gallery
Especially since the question of the EU’s protein strategy is very complex. Austria’s proposal and the position of many member states in the current crisis situation essentially prioritises finding an alternative to the EU’s dependence on animal feed. In our opinion, the urgency is to rely on legumes to feed the population as a priority. This obviously implies, and this is one of the objectives, to reduce our livestock and our meat consumption.
It is therefore a question of supporting the restructuring of the entire agricultural market: investing to support the production of legumes, promoting vegetarian diets, encouraging everyone to use short circuits… The ambition of a Protein Plan would be immense and should, in my opinion, be monitored so that pulses are the big winners of the potential reform.
Seeds4All. What role could the Global Beans play in this context?
Romain. As a large group of partners with potentially varied positions, the Global Beans cannot envisage the implementation of lobbying activities as such. But our mission already tends to support the emergence of a new European ambition in terms of access to proteins.
We would like to invest more, in the months to come, with pioneer farmers capable of participating in the increase of pulses’ sustainable production: by relaying their experiences, promoting their commitments to grow sustainable legumes, connecting them to networks…
Then of course, our desire to help people learn about these issues aims to reverse things from the bottom. And it’s already happening: meat consumption is decreasing, and vegetarian diets are on the rise. The objective now is to contribute to improving the quality, diversity and availability of pulses made in the EU, which we believe can only be accelerated through collaboration and exchange. We are therefore very grateful to the organisations that have joined us in this endeavour and of course, to the public already engaged with us!