Protein Crop Strategy

Expanding the crop rotations in Germany and Europe to include more plants, in particular legumes (known botanically as pulses), is an important part of making agriculture more sustainable. In the Coalition Agreement for the 19th legislative term, the coalition parties stated that it would make the cultivation of legumes more appealing by further developing the Protein Crop Strategy.

The BMEL's Protein Crop Strategy is aimed at reducing competitive disadvantages of domestic protein crops (legumes such as broad beans, field peas, lupin species, clover species, alfalfa and vetch), closing gaps in research, and testing and implementing the necessary measures in practice – while taking international conditions into account.
A distinctive characteristic of legumes is that their roots establish a symbiotic relationship with bacteria (rhizobia). These bacteria have the ability to bind nitrogen from the air which can then be used either by the legumes to form proteins or by succeeding crops as a plant nutrient. They have a positive impact on the environment.

Since 2016, the German budget has earmarked EUR 6 million every year for the Protein Crop Strategy.

Aims of the Protein Crop Strategy

The Protein Crop Strategy mainly pursues the following objectives:

  • improving ecosystem services and resource conservation (improving environmental protection and climate change mitigation, improving biodiversity in agricultural landscapes, reducing mineral nitrogen fertilisation, improving soil fertility);
  • strengthening regional value chains;
  • increasing the protein supply from domestic products and improving the protein supply through non-GMO protein carriers (the cultivation of genetically modified legume varieties is not permitted in Germany).

The strategy contains a raft of measures to encourage farmers to cultivate and use legumes in addition to cereals and oilseeds. The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2013 introduced new and more favourable conditions for the cultivation of legumes. A number of other European and national instruments are also being used, such as the provision of support funds to promote suitable research projects. A central role is played by:

  • research into legumes;
  • projects focusing on demonstrating opportunities along the entire value chain from cultivation to use; and
  • CAP measures, in particular for land-management methods conducive to climate stewardship and environmental protection from the 1st pillar and agri-environment-climate measures from the 2nd pillar.

The focus is on both conventional and organic farming.

Legumes play a key role in organic farming as protein feed. The sixth package of measures in the Strategy for the Future of Organic Farming therefore established a pilot demonstration network on expanding and improving the cultivation and use of fine-seeded legumes for feeding ruminants and monogastrics.

Environmental impact of legumes

Increasing the quantity of legumes cultivated makes an important contribution to the protection, conservation and sustainable use of biological and genetic diversity and consequently to the diversity of agricultural ecosystems. By reducing the use of mineral nitrogen fertilisers, the cultivation of legumes can also contribute to reducing the CO2 emissions arising from the production of these fertilisers.

Increased cultivation of legumes extends the range of crop species and breaks up tight crop rotations. This can reduce the occurrence of harmful organisms and improve the efficiency of weed control measures through alternating between first-season and secondary-season crops and between leaf and cereal crops. Extended crop rotations contribute to integrated plant protection and a reduced risk of the development of resistance to pesticides. This can result in the reduced application of plant protection products and, consequently, reduce the negative impact of these products on biological diversity. In addition, flowering legumes offer an excellent source of food for nectar-collecting, pollinating insects.

Agricultural policy measures: EU support

The reform of the CAP, adopted at the end of 2013, means on the one hand that agriculture in Europe has a reliable and stable framework for the coming years and on the other that it is becoming more ecological and more sustainable. Overall, approximately 6.2 billion Euros of EU funds are available each year for agricultural support in Germany from 2014 until 2020, with these funds being used to support both farmers and rural regions.

EU support is divided across two pillars:

  • The first pillar consists of the direct payments to farmers. They are a core element of the CAP and, with the introduction of so-called Greening, are linked to a greater extent than previously to environmental measures.
  • The second pillar comprises specific aid programmes for sustainable and environmentally sound farming and rural development.

Greening - ecological focus areas (1st pillar)

One core element of the CAP reform is Greening. This includes diversifying cultivation (diversity in the cultivation of crops on arable land), conserving permanent grassland (meadows and pastures) and declaring at least 5 percent of arable land as ecological focus areas (EFAs). The EFAs must be used for the benefit of the environment, although it does remain possible, under certain conditions, to use the EFAs in an agriculturally productive manner.

In Germany, it is basically possible to use all the types of EFAs listed in EU legislation; these include land with nitrogen-fixing plants (legumes). Weighting factors are used to take account of the different ecological benefit provided by the various types of EFAs. The weighting factor for legumes is 1.0. Since 1 January 2018, plant protection products may no longer be used on EFAs.
In 2018, applications were submitted for almost 84,395 hectares under nitrogen-fixing crops. Nitrogen-fixing crops represent the third largest group of EFAs following intercrops/undersowing and fallow land.

Agri-environment-climate measures (2nd pillar)

Agri-environment-climate measures (AECMs) are an important instrument for achieving the CAP's environmental goals. AECMs are supported in Germany via financial contributions from the EU, the Federal Government and the Laender. The EU's legal basis for support during the programming period 2014-2020 is the EAFRD Regulation.

The AECMs supported under the Joint Task for the Improvement of Agricultural Structures and Coastal Protection (GAK) (support area 4) include the support scheme entitled "Diverse crops in arable farming". The main support requirement in this regard is the annual cultivation of at least five different main crops in combination with having at least 10 percent of the farm's arable land under legumes.

The Planning Committee for Agricultural Structures and Coastal Protection (PLANAK) has decided on the following payments for the "Diverse crops in arable farming" AECM in the 2019 GAK framework plan:

  • Cultivation of legumes or mixed crops including legumes on at least 10 percent of the arable land
  • 90 Euros per hectare (€/ha) arable land; if an EFA: 70 € / ha
  • 55 €/ha arable land for organic farms
  • Cultivation of legumes or mixed crops including legumes on at least 10 percent of the arable land, if at least 5 percent of these crops are large-grain legumes
  • 100 €/ha arable land; if an EFA: 80 € / ha
  • 65 €/ha arable land for organic farms
  • Cultivation of large-grain legumes on at least 10 percent of the arable land
  • 110 €/ha arable land; if an EFA: 90 € / ha
  • 75 €/ha arable land for organic farms

The Laender may raise or reduce these amounts by up to 30 %.

A large number of Laender (Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hamburg, Hesse, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Schleswig-Holstein, Thuringia) offer the "Diverse crops" AECM. Bavaria offers this measure outside the GAK. Supplementing CAP Greening, this support scheme provides further impetus for the cultivation of grain legumes in Germany, particularly as the Laender can, under the GAK, and in addition to the EU co-financing rate (up to 75 percent), claim back 60 percent of the national funds from the federal budget.

Promotion of research and development projects

The funding of projects aims to promote the cultivation and use of legumes on the basis of existing research results. To this end, model demonstration networks will be established to improve extension services and knowledge transfer. This will be accompanied by research and development projects initiated to improve existing methods, generate innovation and, above all, promote the breeding of high-yield varieties. In addition to this, support will also be provided for the organisation and coordination of a Forum on Sustainable Protein Feed.

This forum will be aimed at establishing and implementing a dialogue platform and the related communication processes with key stakeholders and at discussing the possibilities and objectives of using sustainably produced protein feed.

The responsibility for delivering the project, i.e. for implementing and coordinating the measures, has been transferred to the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food. An office has been set up at the Federal Office for this purpose.

Cultivation of legumes in Germany

Due to its low competitiveness, the cultivation of legumes dropped continuously in the period up until 2013. There were many reasons for this, ranging from competing crops such as grains, maize, sugar-beet and rapeseed having greater physical and monetary yields, the cultivation of legumes being more complex, the yield being subject to greater fluctuation and there being a lack of marketing and processing opportunities to the specific parameters of the agricultural policy framework. As a result, knowledge of production techniques was lost, progress in breeding new varieties was slow and the range of suitable and effective plant protection measures and specific preparation and processing methods that were available dropped. This resulted in a negative spiral that saw domestic protein crops becoming less and less competitive.

In view of this, the BMEL's Protein Crop Strategy aims to help crop rotations with legumes perform just as well monetarily in the medium term as crop rotations without legumes where only grains, maize, sugar-beet or rapeseed are cultivated. In addition to the economic instruments for determining the intra-farm competitiveness of individual crops (the performance without direct costs or labour costs, contribution margin), this must for example also take into account the effects legumes have on follower crops (e.g. reducing the use of mineral nitrogen fertilisers) or the phytosanitary effects (e.g. reduction of plant protection products).

The increase in cultivating legumes on arable land confirms the BMEL in its assessment that in particular CAP reform measures (cultivation possible as EFAs, AECM support scheme) and the measures to promote research and development projects have succeeded in making arable farming in Germany more sustainable.

Following the expansion of legume cultivation for grain production (including soy beans) over several years, the area under cultivation declined by 3 % in 2018 to its current level of 191,700 hectares (figures from the Federal Statistical Office); this  is, however, still above the level of 2016. The application ban for plant protection products on ecological focus areas with nitrogen-fixing crops had a lower impact than expected. Maybe the decrease would have been even more pronounced if the farmers had not resorted to legumes as a summer cereal alternative in areas which suffered high precipitation levels in autumn 2017 or due to the required ploughing up of rapeseed fields. While the area of cultivation under broad beans grew by 19 % to 55,300 hectares year on year, the area under peas and lupines slumped by 17 % and almost 20 %, respectively. Soy bean cultivation continues to rise and grew by 25% compared with the previous year; the area under cultivation now amounts to 24,100 hectares.

European Soya Declaration

On 17 July 2017, 14 EU Ministers of Agriculture (Germany, Hungary, Austria, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Croatia, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland, Greece, Luxembourg) signed the European Soya Declaration. They advocate sustainable and certified production, processing and marketing of protein crops in Europe, particularly soya. The Declaration lists measures to reach this objective and thus contribute to more sustainability in European agriculture, especially by promoting the locally adapted cultivation of legumes, fostering optimised feeding, informing consumers about the inclusion of plant-based protein sources in diets, and enhancing support for import certifications. At the fringes of the 2018 International Green Week, the Ministers of Agriculture from four Eastern European states (Moldova, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia) acceded to the Declaration, Switzerland joined in 2019.

Dialogue forum on making protein feed more sustainable

The dialogue forum on making protein feed more sustainable is an established platform, where stakeholders along the value chain consider and discuss solutions for the use of more sustainable protein feed in Germany in an informal setting. The members of this forum comprise 65 companies, associations, scientific institutions and authorities from the areas of agriculture, nature conservation, food and feed production and trade. A steering committee consisting of the most important stakeholder bodies (producers, processors/trade, retail, nature conservation groups) advises and supports the forum.

The consultations resulted in a joint position paper that outlined 8 ideas. In the paper, the forum affirms its commitment to raise the share of legumes in cultivation and feeding and to strengthen the competitiveness of legumes. They also advocate only using certified sustainable soya in the future. In doing so, the dialogue forum and its members send a strong message that the stakeholders in Germany are assuming responsibility in the global supply chains and want to improve social, economic and environmental conditions along the entire value chain.

World Pulses Day on 10 February

On 20 December 2018, the General Assembly of the United Nations agreed that 10 February should become the World Pulses Day. This acknowledges the key role pulses play for a healthy and balanced diet and the environmental benefits for sustainable farming. The World Pulses Day is intended to follow-up on the large amount of attention that was paid to the International Year of Pulses (2016).

You can find the FAO statement here and the corresponding resolution (A/RE/73/251) is accessible under


Released as article

Related articles

#Un­sereErn­te­Un­ser­Essen (topic:arable-farming)

Helfende Hände sind oft unsichtbar – auch in der Landwirtschaft. Volle Regale und ein abwechslungsreicher Speiseplan sind für uns alle selbstverständlich. Wie viel Arbeit in einem Jahr steckt, von der Saat bis zur Ernte, sieht man den Produkten nicht an.


Agrar­poli­tis­ch­er Bericht (topic:arable-farming)

Die Bundesregierung legt gemäß § 4 des Landwirtschaftsgesetzes alle vier Jahre einen "Bericht über die Lage der Landwirtschaft" vor und berichtet u.a. zur Einkommensentwicklung der vergangenen vier Wirtschaftsjahre (2015-2019). Zugleich dient er als Standortbestimmung der Agrarpolitik der Bundesregierung und präsentiert die agrarpolitischen Weichenstellungen, Ziele und Vorhaben.


Acker­baus­trate­gie 2035 (topic:arable-farming)

Der Ackerbau stellt mit Abstand den größten Teil der Grundnahrungs- und Futtermittel bereit. Er ist die Grundlage für unsere Ernährung. In den vergangenen Jahrzehnten wurden enorme Leistungssteigerungen erreicht. Dies ermöglicht eine sichere Versorgung in hoher Qualität.


Use of cookies

Cookies help us to provide our services. By using our website you agree that we can use cookies. Read more on data protection and visit the following link: Data protection