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EU plant protein plans: sustainable for who?

Written by Chris Chancellor

Amid growing evidence of the far-reaching consequences of our global food system, reform of the current global agrifood supply-chain is increasingly being demanded from scholars, activists, farmers, and society at large. Concerns extend beyond the environmentally harmful aspects of food production, but also issues related to food and nutritional security, human health, social justice, and the concentration of control over land and other relevant markets.

Partly in response to these demands, as well as in line with its geopolitical interests, the European Union (EU) has made steps towards a sustainable plant protein strategy. Plant protein supply in the EU is currently heavily reliant on imports of soybean from Latin America’s Southern Cone region. This leaves the European livestock sector, the ultimate destination of almost all of these imports, vulnerable to volatile international markets and shifting geopolitical dynamics such as increasing demand from China for Latin American soy.

It would appear that these plans centre on expanding soybean production within the EU and neighbouring countries. However, the nature of this proposed production seems worryingly vague. In addition, visions of ‘efficiency’ and ‘sustainability’ remain inadequately narrow, as do understandings of food security. Ultimately, these seem to remain centred on yield per hectare valuations, albeit with a ‘sustainable’ veneer. This report calls for a more inclusive understanding of these concepts to form the basis of EU attempts towards food system reform, including explicit considerations of who controls food systems.

In the context of EU protein crop expansion, a control-blind approach to efficiency and sustainability is evident. There is a focus on headline hitting topics such as non-GM produce and reducing deforestation, as well as the fact that soy is a legume. These are not unimportant, and the fact that they receive political attention is in many ways a sign of progress. However, in isolation, they do not equate to environmentally and socially sustainable supply-chains. How this new soy supply is produced, distributed and consumed, as well as who controls the relevant markets and processes, holds the key for inclusively sustainable food systems.

Two useful concepts in pushing more inclusive food systems thinking are agroecology and food sovereignty. Whilst these concepts and related practices offer a promising alternative pathway, they cannot make a meaningful contribution without political support. European agricultural policy must nurture and facilitate a transition away from the concentrated industrial model that currently dominates. In order to do so, EU protein strategies, and wider food system reform in general, must therefore be based on broader, interconnected, and inclusive understandings of efficiency and sustainability.

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