Shoring up U.S., Europe soymeal business
SCHALLER – The U.S. soybean industry has a public relations issue in Europe.
And this issue creates a problem in U.S. relations with the second biggest importer of soybean meal.
Laura Foell, a soybean grower in Schaller, and a member of the United Soybean Board, visited four European countries in early October to address the problem.
According to Foell, the issue is European perceptions that U.S. agriculture’s food-producing methods are endangering the environment and threatening native animal species.
Foell said her trip was to assure European soybean importers that U.S. agriculture is farming in more responsible and sustainable ways, is producing since 1980 higher yields with less energy consumption and impact on the environment; and doing it in a more economical way.
Her primary message, she said, was informing European soybean importers, seed manufacturers and food processors about the new Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol.
This program, Foell said, will include documentation to export customers of soy products, especially in Europe, certifying that each batch of soy products was grown “responsibly, environmentally, socially and economically.”
The new protocol, announced in March, will not require the nation’s 297,000-plus soybean growers to do anything beyond their current farming practices, Foell said.
Foell said she told U.S. soybean customers in The Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany that U.S. growers have been subject to conservation rules and regulations through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Natural Resources and Conservation Service for decades.
She said European perspectives are that U.S. farmers are careless in growing their farm products in respect to the environment.
“We wanted to show them that we have been audited by NRCS for years,” Foell said.
European clients wanted assurance that every farmer was audited, which included their own third-party auditors coming the U.S. to assure sustainable farming methods were being used.
Brent Babb, regional director for accessing markets in Europe and the Middle East for the U.S. Soybean Export Council, based in St. Louis, said Foell’s trip was important for U.S. soybean growers, and that her message was well received.
“Several European commodity organizations put themselves on the spot,” Babb said, “that they would certify that by 2015, all the soybeans they supply would be sustainably grown.”
He said U.S. farmers take their conservation efforts, which are generally tied to federal farm programs, for granted.
“Globally,” Babb said, “there is no other program like this, and Europe didn’t know this.”
He said this program will not necessarily lead to skyrocketing exports of U.S. beans. The U.S. sends about 5 percent of its total production to Europe, where countries get the bulk of their soybeans from South America.
But South America’s soybean industry, Babb said, is still developing and cannot offer the sustainability guarantees.
This is not an aggressive move against South America, he said, but rather giving Europe “another reason to look at the U.S.”
“If they need sustainably grown soybeans, we have them and can certify it.”
Foell said she told her European listeners the protocol is based on a national scale, rather than a farm-by-farm basis, since soybeans for export are commingled from across the U.S.
She said the protocol documentation is confirmation that soybean meal shipped to Europe was grown in compliance with Federal regulations.
She said the NRCS inspected 24,000 farmers last year and found 96 percent were in compliance with USDA conservation farming methods, as required if they are enrolled in farm support programs.
Keeping market open
Dealing with the industry’s public relations image in Europe is necessary, Foell said.
“We want to make sure we keep that market open,” Foell said. “We want a diversity of markets and not be dependent on a few markets.
“Because anything can happen.”
She said the U.S. wants to keep domestic demand for soybean products as high as possible, but wants open access to many markets as possible for surplus soybeans.
She said an essential part of the new protocol is to assure no genetically modified beans are commingled with shipments to Europe, which is sensitive about GMOs.
European soybean meal sales are for primarily poultry and pork feed, with some diverted to beef and dairy cattle.
Foell said she thinks her message was received well by U.S. soybean meal purchasers.
She said Europe is under political pressure to grow it own feed. After trying to grow a variety of legumes for feed, but found essential amino acids are lacking.
ASA’s new protocol, Foell said, will make it easier, politically, for importers to purchase U.S. soymeal, if each shipment carries documentation that the beans were grown sustainably, in compliance with Federal regulations.
This same protocol can be added to other overseas export customers if they request it, Foell said.