Alternatives to South American soybeans

14-04-2016 | |
A handful of Dutch grown soybeans.<br />[Photo: Henk Riswick]
A handful of Dutch grown soybeans.
[Photo: Henk Riswick]

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 and has viewed which sustainable solutions there are for South American soy.

Protein is an essential component of animal feed the industry cannot do without. At present we use 3% of European agricultural land to grow soybeans and other legumes useable as a protein source. Soy comes mainly from South America. Unfortunately, it is still not possible to import sufficient soy certified to the principles of the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS). That’s why it’s so important to also look at good alternatives. An important step in this process is to place the largest part of the protein sources in Europe itself.

To replace the demand for South American soy with alternatives we can look at four different solutions:

  • Increasing protein content in existing crops that are widely used in feed;
  • Improved protein extraction from sunflower seeds, rapeseed, wheat and corn;
  • Cultivation of soy, peas, beans, lupins, and grass in the European field;
  • Cultivation of duckweed, algae, seaweed and insects outside the regular crops.

Although sometimes economically interesting, other alternatives such as bone meal or blood plasma are (for now) prohibited or lack social support, for example in the case of fish meal, mushrooms and milk powder. Due to nutritional constraints, sometimes in combination with economic constraints, none of the above alternatives separately meets all of the protein demand. A combination of them seems to be the best solution. Table 1 lists possible alternatives to the import of (South-) American soy. 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 to use of South American soybean, availability after 2020 and economic substitutability.

¹) + = legally allowed, – = not legally allowed
²) + = there is social consent, +/- = there is doubt on social consent, – = there is hardly to none social consent
³) – = CFP > 1000 CO2-eq, +/- = CFP 500-1000 CO2-eq, + = CFP 250-500 CO2-eq, +/+ = CFP < 250 CO2-eq
⁴) -/- = not available for compound feed after 2020, – = posssibly available after 2020, +/- = expected to be available after 2020, + = available after 2020
⁵) + = cheaper per kilogram proteni, lysine and/or methionine, – = more expensive per kilogram protein/ lysine and/or methionine, -/- = more than 5 x more expenisive per kilogram protein, lysine and/or methionine.

Alternative 1: Increase protein in energy-rich material

The most widely grown crop in the EU is wheat. The high availability makes it interesting to investigate the possibilities of increasing the protein content. Where the protein content is now about 9%, experts indicate that by breeding wheat varieties, an increase between 1% and 3% is possible. Just small changes, but because of the scale they do have a large impact on the need for additional sources of protein in animal feed. The agriculture industry can immediately get to work on this. But there are also disadvantages: it takes several years before the effect is visible and ennoblement is at the expense of other feature enhancements. In short, the direction of an interesting solution, which in about five years may affect the need of protein-rich raw materials, such as soy.

Alternative 2: Improved protein extraction

These products are now mainly used for the production of oil (rape, sunflower) and ethanol (wheat and corn). The residual product is high in protein and is already used in the animal feed of most of the animal categories.

Sunflower seed and rapeseed meal

The seeds of the sunflower can be used for the extraction of sunflower oil. The remainder here is sunflower meal, which is very rich in protein. In the production of the protein-rich rape oil, the rapeseed meal is left over. Both products are economically interesting, but due to the negative effect on the digestive tract they are of limited use in animal feed. Namely, they have an inhibitory effect on the digestion. Especially young animals like chickens and pigs 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 proportion of these products for each animal category. Sunflower meal is too high in crude fibre and rapeseed meal contains digestive inhibitory substances. But with limited adjustments like the addition of enzymes, these processes may possibly still result in a product with a higher protein content and / or better digestibility. Rapeseed meal can be processed even further. An important part of the carbohydrates can be removed, whereby a concentrate of rapeseed is created with higher protein content. Especially for the younger animal categories, this is interesting. Both the scrap of rapeseed and sunflower 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 soy that we use today.

DDGS corn and wheat

The desire to achieve greater levels of energy production from biofuels led to the advent of bio-ethanol plants that run on corn or wheat. The remainder of these processes are Dried Distillers Grains with Sollubels (DDGS) from corn and wheat. DDGS are useful as an animal feed and particularly interesting because of the advantageous content of the amino acid lysine. Through different uses of heat in the production process, there are big differences in quality DDGS. Standardisation of these processes and the reduction of heat can make the use DDGS in animal feed more interesting.

Alternative 3: EU-grown protein crops

In addition to the enlargement of existing flows, there is the possibility to grow alternative crops in the EU. The most promising of these are soy, peas, beans and lupines. Also, grass is an interesting alternative; here they are given some quick consideration.

Soybean cultivation in the EU

Scientists from Wageningen University see the cultivation of soy in the EU as an interesting alternative. An important limitation is the duration of the growing season, which is unfortunately too short for conventional varieties. The current soybean crop of 3.5 tonnes per hectare is still too low to serve as a serious alternative to the South American soybean imports. For this, the harvest must be at least five tonnes. With breeding this would be possible in five to ten years. The best opportunities for this are probably to the south of the line: Rennes – Munich – Bratislava.

Pea and bean farming

Growing (frog) peas, (field) beans and lupines is an alternative, but requires some adjustments. The sensitivity to plant diseases caused by parasites, fungi and viruses, such as the mosaic-virus, still constitutes a limitation. We see it in the volatile, low yields. In addition, the protein levels are still on the low side, which is especially true for lupines. This further processing may provide a solution. Peas can be made into a concentrate with a protein content of 57%. This is especially interesting here 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. The susceptibility to diseases at this time is an important inhibitor of the pea production. One must take into account five to 10 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 materials in compound feed it requires a processing step. Wageningen University and Grassa are looking at the possibilities of that step and are refining grass by extracting the protein-rich juice from fresh grass, and ultimately aim to use it in animal feed. However, 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.

Soy, peas, beans, lupines: profitable?

To cultivate soy, peas and beans in Europe we need the necessary acreage and the yield must be profitable enough for the farmer. A measure for this is the balance of: revenues minus costs allocated to the cultivation of the crop. If that is not enough, then there has to be sufficient funds in the not too distant future. In Europe there appears to be about 2.4
million hectares which are now, or will soon be available for growing protein crops. This is derived from an expected 30% decline of the sugar beet area, because of 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 determined by the ability of the soil and climate. Performance is assessed on the basis of the balance (the difference between revenue and production costs). Take your actual balances as a yardstick, and you will see that soybean 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 soybeans and peas and possibly (field) beans, there are possibilities if the crop is further refined and therefore yields more per hectare. For peas and field beans there is also the need for resistance to diseases and pests. The development by these ennoblements will take at least 5 years.

Alternative 4: Crops in the EU outside the crop acreage

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

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 as well there is much need for improvements to the cultivation process. The greatest challenge is the reduction in drying costs. This applies also for a large part to duckweed. All of these products have a high water content, which has to be reduced before they can be processed. Algae are already used on a commercial basis in fish feed, with between 10 and 20% of additions. For use in the food of our farm animals it appears that 10 to 15 years of research is needed.


In the not too distant future insects seem to be very interesting for use in animal feed. The main focus is on fly larvae and mealworms. At present, legislation is still a significant limitation. Especially the question whether insects are to be seen as farm animals must be answered. This is still the case now. Without legal restrictions, this alternative seems to be interesting for the poultry industry especially. Experts expect a rise of insect protein as a possible replacement within two to five years.

So, can we replace soy entirely?

Import of South American soy 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, but also with the influence it has on feed digestion of the animals in question. Especially the young animals are susceptible. This ensures that the inclusion of a lot of products is limited in animal feed, as otherwise problems may arise with the health of the animals or the quality of the products they make. The alternative protein sources can be made more interesting by: crop ennobling to improve productivity and disease resistance, improving the efficiency of production processes and to adapt legislation to give insect breeding a chance.
Over the past few years a part of the soy import from South America has already been replaced. A mixture of alternatives has been used for this purpose. By cleverly investing in breeding and innovation, we can expand the range that we can use to replace an increasing share of the South American soybean imports.

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