Import animal feed or cultivate Germany’s forests?

Trade and the consumer
Published on 09-04-2015
Gerd Spelsberg, journalist, i-bio - Information Biosciences

Let’s have no more soya bean imports, but instead cultivate our own feed supplies in Germany. To achieve this we must ask where the extra agricultural land necessary will come from?

European agriculture depends on the import of large amounts of soya animal feed. Without this, meat production at the present level would no longer be possible.

There is a great deal of criticism of this dependence on soya imports from North and South America. Many people are therefore promoting national protein strategies in European agricultural policy. In Germany, for example, there are ambitious programmes in almost every state promoting the domestic cultivation of protein-rich fodder crops, such as soya beans, lupins, field beans or field peas. Politicians give the impression that it is possible to become independent of soya imports.

But is this possible?  Is there enough additional space in Europe to replace the import of soya by the production of our own fodder? Within the framework of the Plants.Research.Ethics project, we have calculated various scenarios for this using the example of Germany - not as exact calculations, but in order to show the orders of magnitude and the relationships.

Every year, Germany imports of between around three to four million tons of soya beans and around two million tons of soya meal, mainly from Brazil. There, an area of around 2.3 million hectares of cultivated land is needed for this.

Soya beans need a warm, humid climate, such as that on the Upper Rhine or the Danube region. Under optimal conditions, yields could be achieved there that are slightly higher than those in South America. Most of the other regions in Germany are hardly suitable for the cultivation of soya beans, however. Although there are breeding programmes - mostly with public funding - to adapt soya beans for regions with colder climates, field trials in Northern Germany produced yields that were 30 to 50 percent lower than in the south.

However, in calculating our land-requirement estimate, we have optimistically assumed surface yields for Germany that are similar to those actually achieved in Brazil. This means: in order to replace the soya imports by cultivation in Germany, an additional area of 2.3 million hectares will be required. Leaving aside for a moment the challenge of finding suitable climatic conditions in Germany, where can an area of land this big be found in our densely populated country? Should we clear the forests, or create new soya fields in protected natural areas?  By comparison: the total agricultural area in Germany is currently 16.7 million hectares, of which 4.6 million hectares are permanent pasture [1].

Even more additional area would be required if the imported protein fodder was to be replaced by sweet lupins. Sweet lupins can also be cultivated in the cooler northern parts of Germany, but provide considerably lower yields than soya beans. An additional 5 million hectares would have to be cleared for lupins [2]. 

It has not been taken into account here that the protein quantity is higher for soya, and that the protein quality is better than for lupins - and also higher than other native protein plants, such as field peas or field beans. And it's no coincidence that areas with legumes, such as lupins or field peas, have been declining steadily for some years. 165,000 hectares of field peas were still being cultivated in 1999, but only 37,000 hectares in 2013. At the moment, lupins are growing on 30,000 hectares, while, in the wake of a massive promotion programme in 2014, the area of soya bean cultivation has risen to nearly 10,000 hectares.

As you see therefore, the sum of all these factors leads to only one logical conclusion: despite all the efforts being made to promote a national protein strategy in Germany - soya bean imports will not be replaced very quickly.


[1] Scenario: No fodder from South America – Replacement by soya cultivation in Germany

[2] Scenario: No fodder from South America – Replacement by lupin cultivation in Germany

About tradetalk

GMOs are already an integral part of our daily lives, as Europe benefits from this key enabling technology mainly indirectly through imports. We wear GM cotton clothes, we pay with GM cotton banknotes, and each year European farmers rely on imports of GM soybeans as a key protein source for their farm animals.


Here’s some good food for thought for all European citizens, experts, journalists and decision makers. Our society needs to address the issue of producing more food with less land, as the world population will reach at least 9 billion people by 2050.


Join the debate on Twitter #TradeTalk.