How China's growing appetite for meat is driving demand for more Norfolk soya beans
PUBLISHED: 07:51 09 August 2019 | UPDATED: 07:51 09 August 2019
Norfolk farmers are being urged to cash in on rocketing global demand for soya beans, driven by China's growing appetite for meat. CHRIS HILL reports.
Despite being one of the world's fastest-growing agricultural markets, it is hard to find soya beans in Norfolk's arable fields.
But as demand and prices continue to soar, more of the county's farmers have been challenged to take advantage of the crop's meteoric growth.
Although soya beans are often associated with vegan foods and plant-based diets, their main market is as high-protein animal feed for the livestock industry - and the expanding appetite for meat in China is driving a huge upsurge in consumption.
The rapid increase in demand has fuelled a global rise in prices, which have more than doubled since 2008, and the acreage grown for UK marketers Soya UK has risen from 20 acres in 2014 to 8,000 acres last year - and it is expected to be between 10 and 15,000 acres next year.
Yet only a handful of Norfolk growers are contributing so far, despite the low-lying county's suitability for the crop.
During a field meeting at a farm in Walsingham, Soya UK directors David and Jacqui McNaughton said they need more farmers to satisfy the demand.
Mr McNaughton said: "We have got 30 growers in Essex, but until last year we only had one grower in Norfolk which is frustrating for me because if there is one county that would suit soya beans, it is Norfolk.
"Soya beans like light land and there is plenty of light land here and it is quite dry, so geographically it works.
"The varieties we have now are an incredible innovation. The breeders have done us a favour by forcing up the yield, giving us an early harvest and a plant with a thick independent stem so we now have a self-supporting canopy that we can manage.
"Jacqui has got demand for 25,000 acres and last year we only did 8,000. This coming year we think we are going to be well over 10,000 acres. People ask if this is a flash in the pan but we have got the varieties, we have got the agronomy, we have got the price and we have got the market.
"We are here to stay and we want you boys in Norfolk to get into it."
Mr McNaughton said his first crop of soya in 1998 was a "dead duck" but there were many reasons why it was now a viable proposition for East Anglian growers - and the most compelling was the price.
"For years, up to 2008, a tonne of soya beans in the UK was around £170 per tonne, but then the Chinese entered the market and we have seen this inexorable increase in the Chinese buying more and more of the world's soya, and an inexorable rise in the price as well.
"A UK grower can now get £375 for a tonne of soya beans coming off the farm. It is the only commodity that has doubled in value in real terms in the last 10 years. The price of wheat goes up and down but what we have seen with soya is a steady increase - and we expect that to continue."
Mr McNaughton said a yield of one tonne per acre was now readily achievable, and the top prices included a premium for "hard IP (identity preserved)" beans which are quality-assured and certified as non-GM (genetically modified), differentiating them from the huge quantities of GM soya imported from North and South America.
Those hard IP beans are finding favour in a demanding markets such as full-fat soya meal for racehorses and pet foods, and some human consumption markets, where it is used to make vegan foods like tofu and as a flour improver in many bread products.
The meeting was hosted by James Woodhouse of R and J Woodhouse at Hill House Farm in Walsingham, one of only seven Norfolk soya growers.
He is growing his first soya beans this summer, as he is seeking a viable break crop to combat the low prices of sugar beet, and the pest risks threatening oilseed rape.
He said other factors were the valuable legacy of nitrogen it leaves in the soil for the following wheat crop, and the combination of a May drilling date and a September harvest.
"I was looking at alternatives that were less risky to grow," he said. "It is relatively low pesticide input and late drilling is important for me.
"It is drilled in May, which is a window when we are less busy and the seed drill is doing nothing.
"My concern is harvest date. It should be mid to end of September, which is fine. But if it is October then it could affect the next wheat crop.
"We'll know whether it has worked this time next year when we combine the following wheat crop.
"I like to think outside the box and I am keen to try new things. I have tried and failed with small crops like linseed in the past, but I am hoping this will be a more beneficial crop for the future. It is a market that is in need of supply in this country, so we have not got to worry about Brexit."