Did you price soya bean meal lately? How much were you quoted? Maybe €430/t, maybe more? Between December 2011 and April this year, at a time when other commodity prices were falling, the global price of soya jumped by almost one quarter. And when soya jumps it pulls up the prices of other proteins along with it.
We are told that the spike in price is due to droughts in South America, or even North America. The very latest on this is that future soya prices have eased a little with rain in the 2012 US soya fields.
But the bottom line remains. Ireland and the EU are both woefully deficient in protein feeds and especially in soya. Right across the globe, soya is the Rolls Royce of proteins for both livestock and human nutrition, but the EU is almost totally dependent on imports. Of late, competition for stocks has intensified with China muscling in to gobble up the world's scarce supplies.
The European Parliament recently addressed the issue of the EU protein deficit. A special report was issued following the debate.
This report concluded that the EU has to import 70pc of its feed protein and that the deficit is growing. Only 3pc of the EU's arable ground is used for growing protein crops. In particular, only 2pc of the EU's soya consumption is grown within the EU.
The report attributed the lack of protein crops in the EU to the Common Agricultural Policy of former decades which allowed tariff-free protein imports, while other EU-grown grains were protected.
Other interests, too, are focusing on the EU protein deficit. In April, a report from a French study (which included farmer groups) concluded that the EU should step up research on protein crops and incentivise local protein crop production with a coupled payment.
In January, the Green Party in Germany linked soya imports with deforestation and "land grabbing across the globe with our knives and forks". In addition to incentivising home production of alternative proteins the Greens want a tax on soya imports.
EU policy is exacerbating the protein deficit on a number of fronts. Take its negative stance to the growing of genetically modified (GM) soya beans.
Prior to joining the EU, Romania was a significant grower of GM soya beans. Romania was told that to gain entry into the EU it would have to cease. The Romanians duly stopped and their soya production collapsed.
As a result of the BSE crisis, meat and bone meal (MBM) has been excluded from all livestock rations since 1996. This took 2.5m tonnes of high quality protein off the market. Rather than continue to incinerate a high quality protein, tentative noises have been made to reintroduce MBM into the system. MBM from non-ruminants could be used first and then MBM from cattle and sheep could be incorporated.
This is a sensible option. Surely, if it's okay for humans to eat the meat off safe bovine carcasses then any MBM arising from the same carcasses can be fed to poultry and pigs. Remember pigs/poultry never suffered from BSE.
Another waste of a potentially high quality protein is the over-quota dead fish, which are thrown back into the ocean. This should at least be processed into fishmeal.
Between soya beans and soya bean meal, more than 40m tonnes a year are imported into the EU. Of Ireland's total feed ingredient imports of 2.5m tonnes last year, about 372,000t was soya bean/soya meal, plus another 240,000t of soya hulls.
Up till 2009 there was an EU ban on the importation of GM soya. This has been replaced with an authorisation procedure based on soya variety. Anything with more than 0.9pc GM content must be labelled as GM soya.
Across the EU the main home-grown proteins are sunflowers and oilseed rape where the community is about 90pc self-sufficient.
In Ireland, the jump in prices for proteins and oilseeds has sparked a new interest in the growing of crops such as oilseed rape, peas and beans. Ireland is simply too cold to grow soya beans.
Of the three crops, rape, peas and beans, the rape has grown the fastest. Yields of up to 2t/ac and prices in excess of €400/t made rape an attractive crop in the 2011 harvest. Beans and peas are low-input legume crops needing no nitrogen fertiliser. Growers are looking to get 2-3t of beans per acre at more than €200/t ex field. Price expectation with peas is higher at €250/t plus, but yields may be lower.
The high cost of soya protein is forcing Irish farmers to look at alternatives. Feeding trials at UCD carried out by Dr John O'Doherty, showed rapeseed meal, fortified with amino acids, can be an adequate substitute for soya in pig rations.
Ruminants can synthesise their own protein from non-protein nitrogen sources such as urea. However, the dose rate is very sensitive as even a small shot of urea will kill an animal.
In practice, commercial companies are incorporating non-protein nitrogen into safer feeding options. Optigen from Alltech can be used as a replacement protein. A Teagasc trial on this product would be of interest.
Alkaline-treated grain products have been successfully used on harvested grain both to preserve the grain and to lift protein. Reports are positive.
Nitrogen is a key constituent of protein and, ironically, the air around us is 78pc nitrogen. Our clover traps this and converts it into high quality protein for our cattle and sheep (and horses). Clover is a potent saver on imported protein.
Our grasses and other crops too, can help cut down on the overall protein deficit. Now there is more awareness of the protein deficit we can expect that plant breeders will keep this in mind.