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17/01/2018

A lot of demand for not a lot of legumes

  • Spain is a net importer of lentils, chickpeas and dried beans due to the lack of domestic demand

Eduardo García. Journalist

Legumes, which are used in many typical Spanish dishes, especially during winter, are an important part of the Mediterranean Diet. Demand for chickpeas, lentils and beans was on the rise in Spain until consumption started to decline in 2013; it has not recovered, due to a change in our habits. Our new, hectic lifestyle has led to a shift from dried legumes to canned ones, and that may be a problem.

Legume production in Spain is lagging domestic demand considerably, largely attributable to the dry conditions during the growing season in June/July 2017/18 and, with the exception of dried beans, most legume production in Spain is under non-irrigated conditions. These conditions have decreased yields and, as a result, increased imports needed to meet domestic demand, opening up opportunities for legume exports from the US, the second-largest supplier of lentils, chickpeas, and dried beans, respectively.

These products are interesting from a crop rotation standpoint, as an alternative to grains and with a view to complying with greening requirements. That being said, legumes are a small crop in Spain, and national production (some of which is backed by geographical indications) is a long way away from meeting demand from Spanish consumers.

Dependent on the climate

In Spain, Castile-La Mancha is the main lentil-producing region, while Andalusia is a leader in chickpea production. Both legumes compete for space with winter grains, and they share the same growing cycle. Lentils and chickpeas are sown in the fall in warmer areas (the south) but also in late winter in colder areas (the north). Between 2004 and 2007, the area sown with legumes and chickpeas was abruptly rejected; however, in the most recent period (2017/18), both crops were grown on a larger area.

According to the crop surface area and yields survey (Esyrce), most lentils and chickpeas (more than 90%) are grown without irrigation. As a result, final yields depend entirely on probability and the amount of precipitation. Unfortunately, high temperatures and the lack of precipitation throughout the entire grain and legume growing cycle have notably reduced yields in 2017/2018.

The majority of dried beans are grown in Castile-León and Galicia, they are generally sown in spring on land that is irrigated with significant amounts of water, as required, and they are highly sensitive to low temperatures. This is good news for this crop, which has remained quite stable over the years due to poor crop margins for irrigating corn and other alternative crops, which may partially explain the continuous increase in dried beans from 2013/14 to date.

Legumes in our diet

Legumes are considered an important part of the traditional Mediterranean diet. After peaking in 2013, total consumption has registered a steady decline; however, a slight improvement is visible according to data for the first half of 2017

With respect to domestic consumption, dried legumes are extremely popular in Spanish households; however, consumption has reached a deadlock and has started to decline, due largely to the fact that lentils are not adapted to modern lifestyles. In contrast, consumption of canned legumes continues to rise, most likely because of the increased popularity of ready-to-eat products. If the current trend continues, consumption of canned legumes may exceed that of dried legumes in 2017, for the first time in history.

According to consumption data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing, Food and the Environment (MAPAMA), chickpeas are our preferred legume, accounting for almost 40% of legume consumption in Spanish households, while lentils and beans represent 30% and 29% of domestic demand, respectively.

A net importer

Spain is a net importer of legumes, chickpeas and dried beans, due to the lack of domestic demand. In this regard, legume exports are clearly insignificant and are aimed at neighbor countries in the European Union. The US is the source of more than 50% of lentils imported by Spain, followed by Canada. Data for 2016/17 reflects an increase in legume exports from the US and the EU to Spain, while exports from Canada have been falling.

Mexico supplies 50% of Spain's chickpea imports , followed again by the US, with 25%. Data for 2016/17 shows a recovery in sales of chickpeas from the US in Spain, while total imports of chickpeas are in decline.

Although imports of dried beans remain high, they have slipped after two years. While import volumes in the US registered notable growth, other importers lowered their percentage. Along these lines, Argentina, which accounts for more than 50% of the import market, is the main exporter of dried beans to Spain, followed by China and the US, both accounting for 10%.

Crop economics

In 2015, the single payment scheme was replaced by the basic payment scheme, i.e. farmers receive payment entitlements. The basic payment takes into consideration the different uses of land at county-level: irrigated vs. non-irrigated; permanent crops vs. grazing areas, etc. This payment depends on the amount of aid received previously by active farmers. Broadly speaking, the amount assigned to each region represents the aid granted for each type of land use.

A large part of agricultural aid is linked to compliance with greening measures. To comply, farmers must diversify their crops. Farms between 10 and 30 hectares must grow at least two different types of crops, and those larger than 30 hectares must grow at least three. Ultimately, this may include an incentive to grow legumes in areas where only one crop is being grown.

As from 2015/16, according to article 52 of Regulation (EC) 1307/2013, one million euros has been assigned to a maximum of 10,000 hectares of legumes with PDO or PGI status and for organic crops to promote quality legume production. The maximum payment is €100 per hectare, capped at €3,000 per farm. In cases where the maximum surface area is exceeded, proportional reductions can be expected.

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