Increased cultivation of protein crops

© Hollandse Hoogte / Arie Kievit
The agricultural area utilised for the cultivation of protein crops in the Netherlands stood at 9 thousand hectares in 2018, an increase of 38 percent relative to 2008 (5.6 hectares). Cultivation of all protein crops has increased, although the production area of the most cultivated protein crop - alfalfa - has hardly risen in recent years. This is reported by Statistics Netherlands (CBS) on the basis of provisional results of the Agricultural Census.

Protein crops are grown as food for human consumption, as animal feed or as green manure. Crops such as alfalfa, soybeans, (sweet) lupins, field beans and field peas take up approximately 0.5 percent of the Netherlands’ total agricultural area. Of all protein crops, alfalfa is by far the largest. In 2018, the cultivation area covered 7.6 thousand hectares. This is less than one percent up on 2017, when acreage declined by 100 hectares within one year.

Last year, alfalfa was grown at 1,060 farms, 60 more than in the previous year. Alfalfa is grown worldwide as forage and as green manure.

Protein-rich arable crops
JaartalAlfalfa (ha)Field beans (ha)Soybeans (ha)Field peas (ha)Lupins (ha)
*Provisional figures

More cultivation of soybeans and field beans

The crop areas for field beans, soybeans and alfalfa expanded again in 2018. Acreage dedicated to field beans grew by 140 to 710 hectares, i.e. an increase of 19.3 percent within one year. The area used for soybean cultivation expanded from 450 hectares in 2017 to 540 hectares in 2018 (+17.4 percent). In the same period, the area for lupins grew 5 percent in size, while field peas saw a decline (5.8 percent).

Soybeans and lupins are mainly grown as a raw material for animal feed, but also for human consumption. For example, lupins are used as a raw material for meat substitutes. Field beans and field peas are cultivated to be used as forage crops.

Soybean area in EU member states still modest

Acreage dedicated to soybeans in the European Union amounted to 901 hectares in 2018. Compared to large soybean-producing countries, this size is modest. In 2016, the largest cultivation areas for soybeans were found in the United States (33.5 million hectares), Brazil (33.2 million hectares) and Argentina (19.5 million hectares).

Most EU member states currently still have a small growing area. At 258.9 thousand hectares, soybean acreage was largest in Italy, followed by Serbia (196.5 thousand hectares) and Romania (172.8 thousand hectares).

Top 10 soybean cultivation areas, EU member states, 2018
Jaartal Acreage (1,000 ha)
Czech Republic15.23

Rising interest in protein crops

Cultivation of protein crops has gained exposure in recent years. The member states of the European Union rely on imports for three-quarters of their need for vegetable proteins. In the near future, it is expected that the availability of protein crops such as soybeans will come under pressure due to the growing demand from countries like China and India. The EU has therefore launched initiatives to reduce the dependency on soy imports by growing more protein crops themselves.

Protein crops and the Common Agricultural Policy

In addition, greening requirements imposed by the current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU play a role in the growing interest in protein crops. Greening in the current CAP comprises three measures: the preservation of permanent pastures, crop diversification on farmland and the requirement to establish 5 percent of farmland as ecological focus area. For these focus areas, the Netherlands has chosen a strategy which allows the cultivation of nitrogen-fixing crops (protein crops).

Own land used for protein need

For several years now, the Netherlands has been carrying out trials with respect to the cultivation of protein crops such as soybeans and lupins. The Dutch Federation of Agriculture and Horticulture (LTO) and the Dutch Dairy Association (NZO) have advised dairy farms to extract at least 65 percent of protein requirements from own land or land in the vicinity by the year 2025. On a regional scale, this objective is in line with the vision ‘Agriculture, nature and food: valuable and connected’ of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food quality.

As for soybean cultivation, the Green Deal ‘Soy in the Netherlands’ which is in operation in the provinces of Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe envisages a cultivation area of 10 thousand hectares. Provincial authorities in Zeeland are supporting a practical trial for soy cultivation and the province of Noord-Brabant intends to promote soybean cultivation in the short term.