Protein crop production at the northern margin of farming: to boost or not to boost
Global changes in food demand resulting from population growth and more meat-intensive diets require an increase in global protein crop production, not least as climate change and increasing scarcity of fresh water could restrict future production. In contrast to many other regions, in Finland climate change could open new opportunities through enabling more diverse cropping systems. It is justified to re-enquire whether the extent and intensity of protein crop production are optimized, resources are used efficiently and sustainably, cropping systems are built to be resilient and whether ecological services that protein crops provide are utilized appropriately. This paper aims to analyze in a descriptive manner the biological grounds for sustainable intensification of protein crop production in Finland. Production security is considered by evaluating the effects of and likelihood for constraints typical for northern conditions, examining historical and recent crop failures and estimating ecosystem services that more extensive introduction of protein crops potentially provide for northern cropping systems now and in a changing climate. There is an evident potential to expand protein crop production sustainably to a couple of times its current area. In general, variability in protein yields tends to be higher for protein crops than spring cereals. Nevertheless, protein yield variability was not necessarily systematically higher for Finland, when compared with other European regions, as it was for cereals. Protein crops provide significant ecological services that further support their expanded production. By this means protein self-sufficiency remains unrealistic, but increased production of protein crops can be achieved. The expansion of rapeseed and legumes areas also seems to be economically feasible. From the economic viewpoint, an increase in domestic protein supply requires that farmers have economic incentives to a) cultivate protein-rich crops instead of cereals, and b) use them as animal feed instead of imported sources of protein. Environmental sustainability is an argument to justify economic support for protein-rich crops and thus increase their cultivation.