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Germany, land of soy?

Felix Austen
October 25, 2017

Whether as tofu or through meat, we all eat a lot of soy. To ensure future cultivation of the bean in Germany, scientists are trying to harden it against the cold.

Soy bean
Image: picture-alliance/dpa
Field with soy plants
Over past decades, soy cultivation has exploded, from around 17 million metric tons in 1960 to more than 300 million today.Image: picture-alliance/B.Baldrian
Info graphic Soy Milk Consumption in Germany
Tofu and tomatoes
Soy is more than just tofu - we all consume a lot more of soy, through meat for exampleImage: picture-alliance/dpa
A farmer feeding chicken
For every kilo of chicken over half a kilo of soy has been fedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Schulze

Though the differences between vegans, vegetarians and carnivores might seem extreme, there is something that binds them all — something pale yellow, round and smaller than a marble. The soybean.

And whether it is turned into milk or makes its way onto the table through an egg or a steak, almost everyone of us consumes soya in one way or another.

And there are good reasons for that: "Soybeans contain around 40 percent protein — of a very high quality. That's why it is used to feed animals," says Volker Hahn, who researches the beans at the University of Hohenheim. They contain almost all the amino acids, or proteins, essential to our diet.

"In combination with certain grains, such as wheat, it is almost as nutritious as meat — if not more so," Hahn continued.

With some substances, such as isoflavones, there is debate about whether large quantities could be damaging. But Hahn argues that nothing has been proven — unlike the link, for example, between too much meat and high cholesterol.

In the shadows of soy

But examining the cultivation of soy reveals the darker side to the bean, which is linked to deforestation, climate change, genetic engineering and child labor.

Over past decades, soy cultivation has exploded, from around 17 million metric tons in 1960 to more than 300 million today. Much of that is grown in sprawling monocultures, for which vast areas of rainforest continue to be deforested. 

WWF claims that large quantities of genetically engineered soy, which has to be clearly marked as such in Germany and the European Union, makes its way unmarked onto our supermarket shelves via the food trough.

Yet we import such soy in large quantities to Germany and Europe — only some 25 percent comes from domestic production. Volker Hahn is keen to change the dynamic.

"Here, we can cultivate soy under relatively environmentally friendly conditions — without external monocultures or child labor; free from genetic engineering and long journeys," he said. "And if production was in Europe, we would be independent of crises."

A bean for all weathers?

His plan is to prep the bean for German fields — and the prevailing weather there. Soybeans like warmer climes, which is why they do so well in Brazil.

And even in the sunnier parts of southern Germany and Austria, farmers get a good yield.

In the rest of the country, however, the plant still has two significant hurdles to clear.

In spring, after the seeds are sown, the shoots require significant warmth to grow big enough to allow them to reach their full yield potential.

The second issue relates to their June and July blossom.

"When temperatures fall below 10 degrees Celsius [50 degrees Fahrenheit], a lot of plants drop their blossoms. And it often gets that cold at night in northern Germany during the summer."

To ensure soya can surmount those obstacles, Hahn and his colleagues are planning to cultivate a cold-proof bean.

"When and whether we succeed depends on the level of research. And there is room for more," Hahn told DW.

A thousand gardens project

Anyone with a garden can help Hahn. Last year in conjunction with Taifun, a tofu producer based in the southern German city of Freiburg, he sent soy seeds to hundreds of gardeners as part of a project called "1,000 Gärten" (1,000 gardens).

The idea is that those involved document the weather, growth and yield of their plants, and then send that information back to the research institute.

"It lets people see what a soy bean looks like, and we get results we wouldn't otherwise have had. Now we can see clearly where the beans grow, and where they don't."

In connecting the information they receive, scientists can make more targeted efforts to cultivate species that can weather the cold.

Apart from its nutritious value, Hahn says soy has other characteristics that makes it particularly interesting for farmers.

"Soy is a normally cultivated crop that farmers can sow and harvest using existing technology."

And because soy can draw nitrogen out of the air to deposit in the soil, artificial nitrogen fertilizers aren't necessary. Hahn also points out how soy disease and pests are uncommon in Germany, rendering obsolete the need for fungicides and insecticides.

"I'm convinced that the crop rotation we have at the moment could be expanded to include more legumes," Stephan Arens, director of the Union for the Promotion of Oil and Protein Plants, told DW.

"If soy were introduced into crop rotation every four or five years, it would be a logical expansion for certain regions where growing peas, for example, doesn't work."

Those factors combined could make soy the new darling of the agricultural world — that is, as long as the plants reach their maximum potential yield. Only then are farmers likely to sow the beans in large quantities.

Even now though, there is a clear upward trend. "We've already reached a scale of around 20,000 hectares," Stephan Arens said. "And there are plans from several quarters to expand to 100,000 hectares in the coming years."

Not everybody's darling

But there are also voices of dissent around this budding crop. The German Farmers' Association, for example, highlights how on domestic ground, wheat generates eight times the yield of soy. To compare with Brazil, wheat and soy yields would be on the same level.

The association advocates sticking to native plants with a high protein content such as broad beans or lupines. But their protein concentration is not as high, and they are susceptible to disease.

Arens says it hard to compare. "We're not talking about the same kind of protein, so it's not an accurate comparison," he said.

Even if Hahn manages to help soy onto a par with wheat and canola, growing the wonderbean in monocultures would reduce the availability of food for insects, birds and other wild animals, whose numbers in Germany are already in decline.

Ultimately, we are the ones who can solve that problem. Given that the majority of soy produced goes into animal feed, the less meat we eat, the less land we lose to intensive farming.

The WHO estimates that by 2050, global demand for soy will have reached 500 million tons. Making all the more relevant the question of whether we can succeed in growing the beans in cooler regions such as northern Germany — with less impact on the environment.

This is the 3rd report in a series that looks at the constructive steps Germany is taking to combat climate change. Global Ideas and the Grimme-nominated online medium Perspective Daily will bring you in-depth stories each week in the run up to 23rd Climate Conference taking place in November 2017 in Bonn.

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