The direction of travel is changing on protein.

The EU has big plans to reduce its dependency on imports and ensure that any imports entering the EU-27 are produced to similar standards to the EU and are in line with policies to reduce the impact of food production on global warming.

As a result, there is a focus on producing more protein locally.

In Ireland, the Government’s target for the next decade is to reach an area of 40,000ha of beans, while the industry is looking at an increase in area from the approximately 10,000ha grown at present to 20,000ha in the next number of years, provided that funding for the Protein Aid Scheme increases under the new CAP in 2023.

Soya beans being cut in Brazil.

This increase should be the objective. However, due to yields, returns, access to land and suitability of these crops in Irish conditions, it is unlikely that we will reach a stage where we can produce all of our protein requirements at an average yield of 5.1t/ha, on an area of 20,000ha that is just over 100,000t of protein (<30% protein content).

In 2020, over 700,000t of high-protein soya bean meal were imported into the Republic of Ireland, along with large amounts of low-value protein feeds.

Protein deficit

The protein deficit for high-protein products will prove particularly hard to fill.

As of June of this year, the EU was 78% self-sufficient in protein. According to the balance sheet, it is 97% self-sufficient in low-protein sources (<15% protein content), but is in severe deficit of high-protein sources (30-50% protein content) at just 28% self-sufficiency. High-protein sources include crops like soya beans.

Filling the protein deficit

In Ireland, the main protein source imported into this country is in the form of soya bean meal. The majority of soya bean meal comes from Argentina, the United States and Paraguay.

The importation of this protein is often seen as negative and has been associated with the destruction of rainforests and therefore climate change and global warming. However, this is changing.

Sustainable soya

In May of this year, the first shipment of what is referred to as “sustainable soya” landed in Ireland, or to give it its full title, RTRS (Roundtable on Responsible Soy) Chain of Custody certified sustainable soymeal. The RTRS product is the industry benchmark for sustainable soya.

Speaking to Philip Lynch (right), the senior trader responsible for trading soya bean meal at feed importers R&H Hall who organised the shipment, he noted that in the past two years there has been increased demand for sustainably sourced soya. This increase, he notes, is coming from the retailers and is being passed down to the feed mills.

He explains that supermarkets are now seeing more consumers in their who that are conscious of such issues and soya has been regularly associated with deforestation.

Philip adds that those consumers are linking deforestation to their dinner plate and supermarkets are aiming to supply more sustainable food chains as a result.

At present, the main demand is coming from the monogastric sectors – pigs and poultry – but beef, dairy and lamb will not be far behind.

While the percentage of sustainable soya is relatively small at present, Philip expects trends to change and in five to 10 years’ time, it is likely that 100% of soya imported to Ireland will be sustainably sourced.

“Retailers understand the importance of soymeal [soya bean meal] as a feed ingredient and the significance of its role in the soya supply chain. Through collaboration with all players in the chain, we can play our part to ensure the soymeal that is consumed in our market is not contributing to deforestation or impacting negatively on local environments.”

Certification and traceability

R&H Hall is part of the Roundtable on Responsible Soy, which is responsible for a certification scheme that not only ensures deforestation isn’t carried out to produce their soya, but also ensures suppliers adhere to legal compliance, have good business practices, responsible labour conditions, develop community relations and uphold their environmental responsibility while carrying out good agricultural practices.

If all requirements are met, then that soya is certified sustainable and commands a premium of $4-5/t.

As well as certification, there is also a chain of custody which ensures traceability. Requirements along the chain are audited by a third party.

It is a great example of how demand in this market has definitely impacted what is happening at the point of origin

“Basically, it means that you have a more direct link to the farm where the material comes from,” Philip notes. The farm, assembler, crusher, importer and feed mill are all audited along the supply chain.

The R&H Hall trader says decisions taken in Ireland are having positive effects on a wider scale.

“In order to cater for the evolving demand of the market here, it was necessary to have lots of dialogue and collaboration with our key supply partners at its point of origin in Argentina.

“This took time and required all parties to make appropriate investments in order to receive this certification. It is a great example of how demand in this market has definitely impacted what is happening at the point of origin, right back to the grower.”

Positive for Irish protein

The change in direction and push from retailers for more sustainable animal feed ingredients is a positive, which could also benefit Irish farmers.

As consumers become more aware of where their food comes from, there may also be demand for more locally sourced protein and Irish farmers need to make the most of this opportunity.