At the beginning of the new millennium, 4.5 million hectares in the EU were cultivated with rapeseed, sunflowers, and soya beans and, based on the reduction of the aid provided by Agenda 2000 for the sector, the European Commission foresaw a contraction of about 700,000 hectares (in particular, the predicted decreases in production for 2006 were -50% for soya beans, -12% for rapeseed, and -10% for sunflowers).
Starting in 2003, oilseeds in Italy have undergone a significant contraction. For agronomical and environmental reasons, a drastic reduction of area for oil-seeds has resulted in an unacceptable simplification of crop rotations involving serious repercussions on the more typical cropping systems.
On the contrary, for those who care about conserving soil fertility, cultivation rotation is still considered an agronomically valid choice among agri-environmental measures. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that the three oleiferous plants are normally chosen for cultivation even with precise, low-input agronomical processes. For example, soya beans do not need specific nitrogen inputs, while sunflowers tolerate reduced soil preparation, and rapeseed, especially the new fast initial growth hybrids, is able to absorb significant quantities of nitrates preserving the rhizosphere from leaching phenomena.
The historical origin of our trade dependence on the oil- and protein-plant sector started in the 1960s, with ups and downs until around 2005. International prices, particularly for soya beans, shot up, increasing the worries of European farmers who already felt constrained by a market in which they had no say. It is clear that exist a true oligopolistic regime on the part of the United States, Brazil and Argentina, which represented 80% of world production with the USA’s almost absolute predominance in the crushing sector. This unfavorable scenario has always been a serious problem for Europe, a net importer of this product. In such business climate, it almost seemed that Europe’s protein resources were left without a future.
Today it is necessary to reduce this heavy state of dependence not only reacquiring space for protein crop cultivation primarily soybeans, but also through the diversification of plant protein sources.
Entire sectors of the food industry have specialized in the production of foodstuffs containing plant proteins. Progress in the production of soy-based supplements has led to products with varying functions: emulsifiers, binders, and structuring agents. The success of these plant compounds is increased by their relatively low cost.
Soy and other high-quality protein compounds are also being studied for their nutraceutical function, i.e., how they act in the occurrence of some pathologies when they are a regular part of the diet. Nutraceuticals result from the plant’s main metabolism (proteins) or from the secondary metabolism, as in the case of isoflavones and saponins. As this regard, soya beans must be considered a biofactory able to also supply nutraceutical products, alongside the protein of high biological value. Isoflavones have already been studied for their function, determining varieties with high and/or low content of these compounds.