Frontiers | Trade-Offs between Economic and Environmental Impacts of Introducing Legumes into Cropping Systems | Crop Science and Horticulture
Europe’s agriculture is highly specialized, dependent on external inputs and responsible for negative environmental impacts. Legume crops are grown on less than 2% of the arable land and more than 70% of the demand for protein feed supplement is imported from overseas. The integration of legumes into cropping systems has the potential to contribute to the transition to a more resource-efficient agriculture and reduce the current protein deficit. Legume crops influence the production of other crops in the rotation making it difficult to evaluate the overall agronomic effects of legumes in cropping systems. A novel assessment framework was developed and applied in five case study regions across Europe with the objective of evaluating trade-offs between economic and environmental effects of integrating legumes into cropping systems. Legumes resulted in positive and negative impacts when integrated into various cropping systems across the case studies. On average, cropping systems with legumes reduced nitrous oxide emissions by 18 and 33% and N fertilizer use by 24 and 38% in arable and forage systems, respectively, compared to systems without legumes. Nitrate leaching was similar with and without legumes in arable systems and reduced by 22% in forage systems. However, grain legumes reduced gross margins in 3 of 5 regions. Forage legumes increased gross margins in 3 of 3 regions. Among the cropping systems with legumes, systems could be identified that had both relatively high economic returns and positive environmental impacts. Thus, increasing the cultivation of legumes could lead to economic competitive cropping systems and positive environmental impacts, but achieving this aim requires the development of novel management strategies informed by the involvement of advisors and farmers.