Christmas dinner across Europe is traditionally a meaty affair. But with veganism more popular than ever, this year many people will be tucking into plant-based alternatives.

In response to changing diets, the European Commission is mooting the idea of increasing EU plant protein production, including soy and oilseed crops.

Environmental campaigners warn this strategy fails to recognise that it is the industrial production of animal feed and biofuel industries, and not veganism, that is driving demand for protein crops.

The Commission’s proposals could mean agribusinesses are set to profit from cheaper soy and oilseed crops used in feedstock and biofuels.

Bérénice Dupeux, Agriculture Policy Officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said:

The agriculture sector, and more specifically the animal production industry, is emitting huge amounts of greenhouse gases. To stop this climate catastrophe, we need to reduce our production and move away from EU policies built on exporting animal products to other parts of the world.”

Dupeux continued: “We can’t have a situation where political leaders funnel support to intensive soy production here in Europe on the basis that it is a protein crop that has an environmental benefit due to its nitrogen-fixing properties. In fact, when soy is grown intensively it is for biofuels or to prop up the intensive animal production sector that is damaging our health, nature and climate.

Nitrogen-fixing crops help fertilise soil due to the nitrogen compounds they produce.

Currently, the European Commission’s definition of protein plants includes non-nitrogen fixing crops such as rapeseed and sunflower seed.

Dupeux told META that only nitrogen-fixing crops farmed in an environmentally friendly way should be included in the EU protein strategy. She added: “While soy is a nitrogen-fixing crop and can be farmed in a way where crops are rotated to ensure soil health, in its strategy the Commission is leaving the door open for public money to prop up soy monocultures to serve the intensive animal production and biofuels industries“.

Eight NGOs wrote to Agriculture ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday to discuss the Commission’s protein market report to urge them to support policies that “promote balanced, sustainable and mainly plant-based diets” and inform them about the “health benefits of reduced meat consumption”.

The group — made up of the European Environmental Bureau, Fern, Greenpeace, Compassion in World Farming, Humane Society Europe / International, Arche Noah, Slow Food Europe, and BirdLife Europe and Central Asia — also called for an Action Plan to halt deforestation and forest degradation, which is often associated with imported animal feed.

European Agriculture ministers are also currently debating how to reform the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In June the European Commission published its CAP reform proposal which environmental groups warn sets the stage for a ‘race to the bottom’ on ecological farm standards. Under the plan, countries would have little incentive to link farm subsidy payments to environmental protection. Those that go the extra mile by championing environmental protection would effectively be putting their farmers in at a negative competitive advantage in Europe. The policy recommendations made by the Commission in its protein market report suggest that CAP payments for intensive soy production in Europe could be considered as funds for helping the EU meet environmental and climate goals.

In their letter, the eight NGOs recommend removing CAP subsidies for intensive animal production, excluding monoculture soy production from any CAP support, and focusing policy measures on leguminous crops.

Writing in Euractiv, Stanka Becheva, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “Copying the current environmentally-damaging production of soy and intensive arable farming for European proteins, as well as using areas reserved for nature for growing protein crops” would “contribute to further destruction of nature, the climate and farmers’ livelihoods“.