Alternatives for South American soya beans

08-12-2015 | |
Photo: Mark Pasveer
Photo: Mark Pasveer

Fly larvae, duckweed or soya from European soil. Perhaps not the first things you think of as protein sources for animal feed. A new report takes the Dutch livestock sector as a starting point for ascertaining what sustainable alternatives there are to South American soya.

Protein is an essential component of animal feed that the industry cannot do without. At present, we use 3% of European agricultural land to grow soya beans and other legumes for use as a protein source. Soya comes mainly from South America. Unfortunately, it is still not possible to import sufficient soya that is certified under the principles of the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS). For Dutch produce sold in Dutch retail, this is more or less sufficient. Yet not so for the re-exported soya or for soya required for animal products that are exported. Fortunately, new certification is in view. In 2016, FEFAC will introduce the FEFAC Soy Sourcing Guidelines, which include a sustainability entry level. Yet it is necessary to search for alternatives to South American soya import. An important step in this process is to place the largest part of the protein sources in Europe itself.

To replace the need for South American soya with alternatives, we can look at four different solutions: 1) Increasing the protein content in existing crops that are widely used in feed; 2) improving protein extraction from sunflower seeds, rapeseed, wheat and maize; 3) cultivating soya, peas, beans, lupins and grass in European fields and 4) cultivating duckweed, algae, seaweed and insects outside regular crops. Although sometimes economically interesting, other alternatives such as bone meal or blood plasma are (for now) prohibited or lack social support, such as in the case of fishmeal and milk powder. Due to nutritional constraints, at times in combination with economic constraints, none of the above alternatives separately meets all of the demand for protein. A combination of them seems to be the best solution. Table 1 lists possible alternatives to the import of (South) American soya. The alternatives are scored on the following features: application within the bounds of current legislation, public support, change of the carbon footprint of the feed compared with the use of South American soya beans, availability after 2020 and economic substitutability.

Alternative 1: Increase protein in energy rich material

The most widely grown crop in the EU is wheat. Its high level of availability makes it sensible to investigate the possibilities of increasing its protein content. Whereas the protein content is now about 9%, experts indicate that by breeding wheat varieties an increase of between 1% and 3% is possible. Though these changes are small, the scale involved would translate to a large impact on the need for additional sources of protein in animal feed. The agriculture sector should immediately get to work on this. Yet there are also disadvantages: it will take several years before the effect is visible and ennoblement comes at the expense of other feature enhancements. In short, it’s about the direction taken by an interesting solution that, in some five years, may affect the need for protein-rich raw materials such as soya.

Alternative 2: Improved protein extraction

Sunflower seeds and wheat, for example, are products that are now mainly used for the production of oil (rape, sunflower) and ethanol (wheat and maize). The residual product is high in protein and is already being used in the animal feed for most animal categories.

Sunflower seed and rapeseed meal

Sunflower seeds can be used for the extraction of sunflower oil. What remains is sunflower meal, which is very rich in protein. In the production of protein-rich rapeseed oil, rapeseed meal is left over. Though both products are economically interesting, due to their negative effect on the digestive tract they are of limited use in animal feed; i.e. they have an inhibitory effect on the digestion. Especially young animals like chicks and piglets are very sensitive to this. These protein sources are therefore mainly used in feed for dairy cows, sows and laying hens, resulting in a limited share for these products in each animal category. Sunflower meal is too high in crude fibre and rapeseed meal contains substances that inhibit digestion. But with limited adjustments, such as the addition of enzymes, these processes may possibly result in a product with a higher protein content and/or better digestibility. Rapeseed meal can be processed even further. A significant part of the carbohydrates can be removed, resulting in a concentrate of rapeseed with higher protein content. This is particularly interesting for younger animal categories. The scrap of rapeseed and sun-flower seeds are already being used as protein-rich raw material in animal feed. This share can be increased with limited modifications. This makes it an interesting alternative to the soya we use today.

DDGS maize and wheat

The desire to achieve greater levels of energy production from biofuels has led to the advent of bio-ethanol plants that run on maize or wheat. The by-product of these processes are Dried Distillers Grains with Solubles (DDGS) from maize and wheat. DDGS are useful as animal feed and are particularly interesting because they advantageously contain the amino acid lysine. Due to the different uses of heat in the production process, there are big differences in quality of DDGS. Standardisation of these processes and the reduction of the heat applied can make the use of DDGS in animal feed more interesting.

Alternative 3: EU-grown protein crops

In addition to the enlargement of existing flows, it is possible to grow alternative crops in the EU. The most promising of these are soya, peas, beans and lupines. Grass is an interesting alternative as well; we will give it brief consideration.

Soybean cultivation in the EU

Scientists from Wageningen University see the cultivation of soya in the EU as an interesting alternative. One important drawback is the duration of the growing season, which unfortunately is too short for conventional varieties. The current soya bean crop of 3.5 tonnes per hectare is still too low to serve as a serious alternative to South American soya bean imports. The harvest must be at least 5 tons to change this. Through breeding, this might be possible in five to ten years. The best opportunities for this probably lie south of the line Rennes – Munich – Bratislava.

Pea and bean farming

Growing (chick) peas, (field) beans and lupines is an alternative, but would require some adjustments. Their sensitivity to plant diseases caused by parasites, fungi and viruses, such as the mosaic-virus, still constitutes a limitation. This can be seen in the volatile, low yields. In addition, the protein levels are still on the low side, which is especially true for lupines. Further processing may provide a solution. Peas can be made into a concentrate with a protein content of 57%. This is especially interesting for younger, sensitive animal categories.
Peas are especially interesting because of the good productivity and high protein content. This is why they are already included in animal feed. Their susceptibility to diseases at this time is a significant drawback of pea production. One must consider five to ten years for further breeding of the varieties used.

Grass as a source of protein

There is plenty of grass around. While it contains protein, to use it as raw material in compound feed it requires a processing step. Wageningen University and Grassa are looking at the possibilities for that step and are refining grass by extracting the protein-rich juice from fresh grass. They ultimately aim to use it in animal feed. Yet the (energy) costs are still too high to make it economically interesting. Further research is needed to refine this technology and therefore grass is, as yet, not interesting as a protein replacement on a large scale.

Interesting, but are they profitable?

To cultivate soya, peas and beans in Europe, we need the necessary acreage and the yield must be profitable enough for the farmer. A measure of this is the balance of revenues minus costs allocated to the cultivation of the crop. If this balance is not enough, then there have to be sufficient funds in the not too distant future. In Europe, there appears to be about 2.4 million hectares that are now or soon will be available for growing protein crops. This is derived from an expected 30% decline of sugar beet areas due to the abolition of the sugar quota with a fixed high price. In addition, there are about 1.8 million hectares available in the Danube delta. More acreage will probably become available as balances for these crops become higher than current crops. Farmers make their choice for the crop they grow based on the ability of the soil and the climate. Performance is assessed on the basis of the balance (the difference between revenue and production costs). Taking actual balances as a yardstick, you will see that soya bean cultivation in Romania is already an interesting option. Perhaps the same goes for parts of Hungary, Bulgaria and Italy. For North-West Europe, mainly rapeseed is a good alternative. Central and Southern Europe offer prospects for sunflowers. When yields are stable, we may also see peas in North-West Europe. For soya beans and peas and possibly (field) beans, opportunities exist if the crop is further refined and, as a consequence, yields are higher per hectare. For peas and field beans, there is also a need for resistance to diseases and pests. The development for these crop ennoblements will take at least five years.

Alternative 4: crops in the EU outside the current crop acreage

Alternatives outside agriculture may also be interesting, because they do not use current arable land and cultivation with high productivity can take place. For example, the cultivation of seaweed at sea or insects in industrial halls does not compete with agricultural land. For all these alternatives, the fact remains that they are not economically interesting at this time, but do have the potential to become so in the near future, on a larger scale as well.

Seaweed, algae and duckweed

Some types of seaweed and algae are good prospects because of their high protein content and high yield per hectare. In this case, too, there is great need for improvements to the cultivation process. The greatest challenge is the reduction in drying costs. This also applies to duckweed to a large degree. All of these products have a high water content, which has to be reduced before they can be processed. Alternatively, these products might be used in liquid feeding. Algae are already used on a commercial basis in fish feed, with between 10% and 20% of additions. For use in feed for farm animals, ten to 15 years of research seem to be needed.


In the not too distant future, insects will likely be very interesting for use in animal feed. The main focus is on fly larvae and meal worms. Currently, legislation is still a significant barrier. Whether insects should be considered as farm animals is a particular question that must be answered. Without legal restrictions, this alternative seems to be especially interesting for the poultry industry. Experts expect a rise of insect protein as a possible replacement within two to five years.

Experts expect a rise of insect protein as a possible replacement within two to five years. Photo: Koos Groenewold

Conclusion: can we replace soya entirely?

The import of South American soya cannot be replaced in the coming years through the alternatives that are available. This has to do with the product price, the lack of volume, as well as the influence the have on the feed digestion of the animals in question. Young animals are particularly susceptible. This ensures that the inclusion of many products is limited in animal feed. Otherwise problems may arise for the health of the animals or the quality of the products they make. The alternative protein sources can be made more interesting by: ennobling crops to improve productivity and disease resistance, improving the efficiency of production processes and adapting legislation to give insect breeding a chance. In the past few years, some of the soya import from South America has been replaced. A mixture of alternatives has been used to accomplish this. By cleverly investing in breeding and innovation, we can expand the pallet we can use to replace an increasing share of South American soya bean imports.


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