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Food protein: three big challenges of today

Is protein independence a necessary solution?

On March 8th, 2022 |
4 min reading time
David Gouache
David Gouache
Research Director at Terres Inovia
Matthieu Brun
Matthieu Brun
Scientific Director of the FARM Foundation and Associate Researcher at SciencesPo Bordeaux
Key takeaways
  • The 1973 drought, which reduced US soybean production by 30%, led to a US embargo on this resource. Following this, Europe’s protein dependency became apparent.
  • Today in France, 1.5 million tonnes of soya are imported each year, 58% of which comes from Brazil, mainly to supply animal feed.
  • An unprecedented recovery plan has been decided upon, both in terms of finance and the commitment of the State. This plan seems more ambitious than the previous ones because it seems to have the will to focus on and develop the sectoral aspect.
  • The success of the 1973 recovery plan, in response to the embargo, lies in the fact that we relied on long-term investment subsidies to develop the oilseed sector.
  • Based on this observation, the current challenge is to lock in the protein crop sector within the French and, more broadly, the European agriculture and economy.

The covid-19 pan­dem­ic has once again high­light­ed our depen­dence on imports in the strate­gic pro­tein sec­tor. For exam­ple, in France, we import more than 1.5 mil­lion tonnes of soya per year, main­ly for ani­mal feed. 58% of this soya comes from Brazil1. To solve the prob­lems caused by this depen­dence, the gov­ern­ment has launched yet anoth­er in the long line of pro­tein strate­gies, which is nonethe­less unprece­dent­ed in terms of the scale of its fund­ing and the com­mit­ment of the State. Pro­tein inde­pen­dence involves sev­er­al major issues such as lim­it­ing defor­esta­tion in South Amer­i­can coun­tries and green­house gas emis­sions from our region, devel­op­ing new vari­eties and enabling France and Europe to posi­tion them­selves on world mar­kets. Before delv­ing into the way in which the play­ers in the sec­tor are coor­di­nat­ing to meet the gov­ern­men­t’s demand, it is impor­tant to look back at the geopo­lit­i­cal his­to­ry of this sec­tor to bet­ter under­stand how and why we got here.

In 1960, Europe accept­ed a cer­tain lev­el of pro­tein depen­den­cy via the Dil­lon Round agree­ment with­in the frame­work of the Gen­er­al Agree­ment on Tar­iffs and Trade. How can such a deci­sion be explained for such a strate­gic sector?

Math­ieu Brun. It is worth recall­ing this fact: the pro­tein depen­den­cy we are expe­ri­enc­ing today is the result of polit­i­cal choic­es. At the end of the Sec­ond World War, the free mar­ket began to be estab­lished and Europe decid­ed to pro­tect some of these prod­ucts: cere­als, sug­ar, and milk, by impos­ing sub­stan­tial tax­es on the export of these prod­ucts to Europe. In return, the Euro­pean Com­mu­ni­ty under­took not to put up tar­iff bar­ri­ers on soy­beans from the Unit­ed States. This was the gen­e­sis of the polit­i­cal­ly decid­ed pro­tein depen­den­cy, which led to a loss of research and pro­duc­tion capac­i­ty. For a decade, Europe relied sole­ly on imports. Then some­thing hap­pened to remind us of the strate­gic impor­tance of this sector.

This event was of course the Amer­i­can embar­go on soya in 1973, when Europe became aware of the strate­gic aspect of this sec­tor and invest­ed mas­sive­ly in its devel­op­ment. How­ev­er, this dynam­ic is still altered because imports are not decreas­ing. What fac­tors explain this new lais­sez faire atti­tude?

At that time, it should be remem­bered that the Unit­ed States was almost the only exporter of pro­tein-rich prod­ucts. The 30% reduc­tion in pro­duc­tion due to drought and the result­ing embar­go are nat­u­ral­ly wor­ry­ing. Dur­ing this cri­sis, oth­er future major play­ers enter the mar­ket, such as Argenti­na and Brazil. France and Europe mas­sive­ly rein­vest in research and in the pro­duc­tion of pro­tein and oilseed crops, as we can see by the rape­seed and sun­flower crops today. How­ev­er, dur­ing this time of demo­graph­ic expan­sion, is is also nec­es­sary to meet the needs population’s needs in terms of food (cook­ing prod­ucts, cheap meat, etc.), which explains in part why we have remained fair­ly depen­dent on Amer­i­can soya.

Let us now jump to the present: we are wit­ness­ing a recov­ery plan that is unprece­dent­ed in terms of finan­cial resources and state com­mit­ment. The objec­tives are to reduce our depen­dence on import­ed pro­tein and increase our com­pet­i­tive­ness on the inter­na­tion­al mar­ket. In addi­tion to the finan­cial means, how can we remove the strate­gic obsta­cles (poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion, research, risk of grow­ing these pro­tein crops, low yields, and low con­sumer appeal, etc.) that pre­vent these objec­tives from being achieved?

Pro­tein strate­gies have been com­ing and going for a long time. This one does indeed seem to have unprece­dent­ed resources behind it. It seems more ambi­tious than the pre­vi­ous strate­gies, espe­cial­ly because it seems to focus on and devel­op the sec­toral aspect and is there­fore part of a more com­pre­hen­sive approach, which will encour­age dia­logue with­in the inter-pro­fes­sion and, will hope­ful­ly make it pos­si­ble to respond to the var­i­ous issues con­cern­ing the cli­mate, the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of our pro­duc­tion and con­sumer expectations.

David Gouache. The strength of this pro­tein plan is that the State’s com­mit­ment has received strong sup­port from the agri­cul­tur­al inter-pro­fes­sions. The heads of the inter-pro­fes­sion­al organ­i­sa­tions sug­gest­ed to the elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives that the plan should not focus sole­ly on the pro­fes­sions pro­duc­ing plant pro­teins but that it should encom­pass all French agri­cul­ture by involv­ing all the inter-pro­fes­sion­al organ­i­sa­tions in dia­logue. Then, to get into the specifics of the plan and its imple­men­ta­tion, the play­ers in the inter-pro­fes­sion, of which I am a mem­ber, asked them­selves what had made the first pro­tein plan suc­cess­ful after the 1973 embar­go in the oilseed sec­tor (rape­seed and sun­flower) and the fail­ure of the pro­tein sector.

The answer most cer­tain­ly lies in the fact that to devel­op the oilseed sec­tor, we have relied on long-term invest­ment sub­si­dies. The cur­rent chal­lenge is to lock in the pro­tein indus­try with­in the French and, more broad­ly, the Euro­pean agri­cul­ture and economy.

Can you briefly explain how the plant pro­tein sec­tor is organ­ised in France?

The basic link in any agri­cul­tur­al sec­tor is obvi­ous­ly the farmer-breed­er who pro­duces the pro­tein-rich mate­r­i­al. What is dif­fer­ent about the organ­i­sa­tion of the pro­tein and oil sec­tors is that they are part of a cul­ti­va­tion sys­tem that is dom­i­nat­ed by cere­als or maize. This is con­sis­tent with the his­tor­i­cal aspect and with the fact that it is much more dif­fi­cult to grow oilseeds and (espe­cial­ly) pro­tein crops than cereals.

As a result, inno­va­tions in seeds, agro­chem­i­cals, machin­ery, dig­i­tal offers, etc. are pri­mar­i­ly allo­cat­ed to cere­al pro­duc­tion, and it is this vicious cir­cle that must be bro­ken. In the ear­li­er stages the process is clos­er to the clas­sic mod­el of oth­er agri­cul­tur­al sec­tors with the pres­ence of coop­er­a­tives or agri­cul­tur­al traders who are gen­er­al­ly respon­si­ble for dis­trib­ut­ing the raw mate­ri­als essen­tial for production.

How can we cope with the grow­ing demand from emerg­ing mar­kets for meat and there­fore to pro­duce pro­tein-rich mate­r­i­al for animals?

MB. Emerg­ing mar­kets do need to be tak­en into account, because if we con­sid­er the future, we can see that there is a risk of short­ages. Chi­na imports a lot of soya; food economies are chang­ing in sub-Saha­ran Africa and South-East Asia with the democ­ra­ti­sa­tion of cook­ing oils and an increase in the con­sump­tion of meat prod­ucts. Mar­kets at the inter­na­tion­al lev­el could well become strained if we fail to meet demand. At the same time, we must also con­sid­er the change in diets with­in the Euro­pean Union, which will lead to a change in agri­cul­tur­al crops. For these changes to be sus­tain­able, strong eco­nom­ic sup­port from the state is need­ed, oth­er­wise we will prob­a­bly find our­selves in a new form of dependency.

Interview by Julien Hernandez
1Sta­tis­tique des oléagineux et plantes rich­es en pro­téines 2018, Ter­res Uni­via. https://​www​.ter​re​suni​via​.fr/​s​i​t​e​s​/​d​e​f​a​u​l​t​/​f​i​l​e​s​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​m​a​r​c​h​e​s​/​s​t​a​t​i​s​t​i​q​u​e​s​-​2​0​1​8​-​o​l​e​a​g​i​n​e​u​x​-​p​l​a​n​t​e​s​-​r​i​c​h​e​s​-​p​r​o​t​e​i​n​e​s​-​p​r​o​t​e​g​e.pdf

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