Soybean Production: A Climate Compatible with Self-Sufficiency in EuropeApril 08 2022
The amount of farmland devoted to soybean crops in Europe has been on the rise for the last 20 years, but imports still account for the vast majority of the continent’s consumption. AgroParisTech and INRAE decided to take an interest in Europe’s capacity to become self-sufficient in soybean growing, in light of increasing concern over climate change.
To this end, their scientists developed projection models based on global agronomic and climate databases. Their results, published on April 7 in Nature Food, show that Europe can achieve 50% to 100% self-sufficiency if 4% to 11% of European cropland is devoted to soybeans. Such an expansion would have significant economic and environmental benefits and would reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizers.
Europe currently imports nearly 90% of the soybeans it consumes, mostly from the United States and Brazil—most of which is used for animal feed. While the amount of farmland devoted to soybeans quadrupled on the continent in 12 years, increasing from 1.2 million hectares in 2004 to 5 million hectares in 2016, they still accounted for only 1.7% of Europe’s total cropland in 2016.
This is unfortunate, as growing soybeans locally offers numerous economic and ecological advantages. As with other legumes, soybeans regulate nitrogen in the soil through symbiotic bacteria that live in their roots, which is beneficial for the next crop and reduces the use of nitrogen fertilizers—and therefore environmental impact. In addition, reducing imports would reduce the cost and pollution that they entail. This is why researchers at AgroParisTech and INRAE were interested in whether Europe could become self-sufficient in soybean growing and whether climate change might prove favorable—or unfavorable—to increased soybean growth in Europe over the coming decades.
To do so, they developed a modeling approach jointly based on global agronomic and climate databases and machine learning algorithms. This enabled them to make continent-wide soybean yield projections directly from the available data, under different crop-growing scenarios, using projections of present and future climate conditions.
Self-Sufficiency Achievable by Devoting 11% of European Cropland to Soybeans
The results show that the European agricultural area suitable for soybean cultivation is much higher than the area currently being harvested. Projections indicate an average harvest of 2 tons per hectare under current climate conditions—even without irrigation or fertilizer—and warmer climatic conditions in the future might increase this yield by +0.4 to +0.6 tons per hectare in 2050 and 2090. The projections also show a shift in the most productive areas from southern Europe to the north and east, due to climate change.
If demand for soybeans remains constant, the results suggest that soybean self-sufficiency of 50-100% is achievable in Europe, in both current and future climates, if 4-11% of cropland is devoted to soybean growing. Achieving this would require increasing the farmland devoted to soybean crops by a factor of 2 to 3 for 50% self-sufficiency and by a factor of 5 to 6 for 100% self-sufficiency. Assuming that these soybeans would not require fertilization, this increase could enable a 4-17% reduction in nitrogen fertilizer use in Europe.
Guilpart, N., Iizumi, T. & Makowski, D. Data-driven projections suggest large opportunities to improve Europe’s soybean self-sufficiency under climate change. Nat Food (2022).
Free access to the paper is available on HAL-AgroParisTech. To access it, connect to HAL and click on “request access to this file.” The public version will be accessible in 6 months.