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Halting European Union soybean feed imports favours ruminants over pigs and poultry


The European Union (EU) livestock sector relies on imported soybean as a feed source, but feeding soybean to animals leads to a loss of macronutrients compared to direct human consumption, and soybean production is associated with deforestation. Here we show that 75–82% of current EU animal fat and protein production could be sustained without soybean imports while avoiding increased use of cropland for feed production within the EU. Reduced soybean feed exports, mainly from South America, would free up 11–14 million hectares outside the EU, but indirect land-use changes would increase demand for palm oil produced in southeast Asia. Avoiding imported soybean feeds would result in reduced EU pork and poultry production; increased plant-based food consumption would be required to maintain the supply of essential nutrients for human diets. Optimizing livestock production to overcome dependency on imported soybean feed can reduce cropland demand in deforestation-prone areas while supporting the nutritional requirements of EU diets—but will require progressive policies targeting all aspects of the food system.

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Fig. 1: Current (2014–2016) use of feeds, cropland and soybean meal in the EU livestock sector.
Fig. 2: A schematic illustration of scenarios for EU livestock production that avoid imported soybean feed and do not increase land use in the EU.
Fig. 3: Sankey networks showing cropland use for feed and supplementary plant-source foods as well as supply of edible protein and fat from different foods.
Fig. 4: EU production of meat, milk and eggs in the baseline and in scenarios S1–S3.
Fig. 5: Nutrient content of EU-produced animal-source foods and plant-source protein and fat replacements.

Data availability

Data supporting the findings of this work are available in the Supplementary Data.

Code availability

All computer code needed to run the optimization model and generate data presented here is available from the corresponding author upon request.


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We thank L. Höglind and T. Jansson for assistance with accessing CAPRI model data and M. Lindberg and E. Ivarsson for their expertise in animal diets and nutrition.

Author information




J.O.K., E.R. and P.-A.H. conceptualized the work. J.O.K. led the work, collected data and programmed the main model. A.P. programmed the sub-model calculating the nutritional composition of different food items. All authors contributed to analysing and interpreting results and writing the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Johan O. Karlsson.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Food thanks Alexander Gocht and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–5, Discussion and Tables 1–6.

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Supplementary Data

Model output data and calculations made to produce figures and in-text results.

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Karlsson, J.O., Parodi, A., van Zanten, H.H.E. et al. Halting European Union soybean feed imports favours ruminants over pigs and poultry. Nat Food 2, 38–46 (2021).

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