European Soya Declaration tells only one half of the story
On 17 July 2017, several EU Member States signed the European Soya Declaration. What the declaration rightly points out is the importance of imported soya beans and meal for the European livestock sector, and the environmental benefits of legumes including soya. It does so by telling about developing markets for ‘sustainably cultivated non GMO soybeans’. But what it neglects to mention, is that there are equally important environmental and economic benefits of growing and importing genetically modified crops. In fact, by the same reasoning contained in the declaration, such crops could rightly be called ‘sustainably cultivated GM soybeans’.
For example, calculations show that for the EU to become self-sufficient in protein using non-GMO soybeans, it would have to become one of the world’s biggest importers of wheat, as the European land currently given over to wheat cultivation would need to switch to soya production. Furthermore, due to less favourable wheat-growing conditions outside of Europe, the land area required to supply the EU’s wheat import requirements would have to be twice as large as the area currently used to produce the EU’s soybean imports. This is hardly a sustainable result.
Indeed, it is remarkable that while the text signed by 14 EU member countries aims at sustainable solutions to the EU protein deficit, it totally ignores the sustainable tools that farmers globally and in Europe need, and that they already safely use in some European countries: efficient, cost-effective and sustainable production based on the cultivation of GM crop varieties.
The facts show that GM soybeans contribute to economic and environmental sustainability. Several studies in Spain, Germany and Romania, among others, already show that GM soya is an irreplaceable raw material in the EU. A recent PG Economics study measuring socio-economic impacts of GM crops like herbicide tolerant soybeans, demonstrates that GM technology helps farmers adopt more sustainable practices such as reduced tillage, which prevented 26.7 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere in 2015 alone, equivalent to removing 11.9 million cars off the roads, whilst retaining more carbon in the soil. And yet the declaration tries to position GM-free as the more sustainable option when compared to GM soya.
According to the latest Commission protein balance sheet, the production of soya in Europe only covers 6% of the EU’s need. As a result, the EU is heavily reliant on imported soya beans (and soya meal) from abroad, most of which are GM. Even if the EU were to double its production of soya in the next 10 years, a scenario which is seen as highly improbable (and would have to go along with reduced EU production of other crops), the EU will undoubtedly remain reliant on imports of soya from abroad.
The EU and its Common Agriculture Policy have the right to develop a plan to increase local production of protein crops, but it is untenable to ignore that most of the protein gap is and will continue to be filled with the help of sustainable GM technology. Just as the Roundtable on Responsible Soy production in South America is technology neutral, any European initiative to increase soy production should also be neutral. Because in the end, it does not matter if a product is organic, conventional or GM, it just needs to be sustainably grown.
- Imported soya (which amounts to approximately 35 mio tonnes per year – more than any other agricultural commodity) is primarily used to feed pigs, chickens and cows and to produce high quality milk, eggs and meat in the EU.
- It is time to face the facts, and start supporting agricultural biotechnology in Europe in recognition of its many benefits.
- Banning the import and use of GM crops, including GM soy, would be unnecessarily costly and even counterproductive.
- For more on a sustainable European agricultural policy and plant biotechnology, see this publication and learn more in our guide to GM crops & policies in the EU.