Organic food and the social question: why Germany could have an agricultural problem

A tractor tills a field in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. It’s dusty because of the severe drought.Image: dpa / Jens Büttner


Rebecca Sawicki

By the year 2030, the traffic light government wants to have achieved 30 percent organic farming in Germany. An agricultural turnaround towards more biodiversity and fewer pesticides. An agricultural turnaround for the climate. At the same time, however, this also means: A turn towards more expensive food.

In order to have converted a total of 30 percent of farms to organic farming by 2030, this must start now at the latest. In 2020, only 13.5 percent of farms operated organically. So there is still a lot to be done in the next eight years. At the same time, food is currently becoming more and more expensive due to inflation, and many people in Germany are on the verge of starvation.

So how realistic is the agricultural turnaround? How useful is it for the environment? And how can all this be shaped socially? Watson spoke to agricultural scientist Stephan Cramon-Taubadel and poverty researcher René Böhme about this.

Haymaking in Baden-Württemberg.

Haymaking in Baden-Württemberg.Image: / imago images

New consumption habits could help

Agricultural scientist Stephan Cramon-Taubadel from the University of Göttingen says that 30 percent organic farming would certainly reduce the intensity of German agricultural production. In other words, less heavy machinery, fertilizers and pesticides would be produced. That would have positive effects on biodiversity in Germany.

However, Cramon-Taubadel has doubts about the implementation of the government’s plan. He says:

“I don’t see any concrete plan as to how appropriate – and probably very expensive – incentives for the many farmers who would have to switch should be created.”

Many organic farmers are currently complaining that their prices have not risen in relation to the prices for conventionally produced food in recent months. Consumers reacted to inflation: Instead of buying expensive organic products, they are switching back to conventionally farmed food, says Cramon-Taubadel.

“The market for organic products is currently rather saturated and could hardly absorb any significant increases in production”summarizes the agronomist.

Fresh fruit is also very expensive at the moment.

Fresh fruit is also very expensive at the moment.Image: / imago images

The European Union has set the standards for organic farming. This includes, for example, not using chemical plant fertilizers or antibiotics in animals – except for medical purposes. Organic farming must therefore do without boosters. As a result, it is also less productive than the conventional one.

Cramon-Taubadel also criticizes this fact.

He notes:

“If we expand the organic area and therefore produce less, but do not reduce our demand to the same extent, then more must be produced elsewhere on earth.”

In this way, the environmental effects of production would not be reduced from a global perspective, but merely shifted spatially. “Ultimately, the climate doesn’t care where a ton of CO2 expelled,” Cramon-Taubadel clarifies.

What, on the other hand, would make a significant contribution: an adjustment in consumer habits. Less meat, less animal products. But the agronomist also says: “This is not a plea for a vegetarian or even vegan diet.”

Two pigs on an organic farm in Lower Saxony.

Two pigs on an organic farm in Lower Saxony.Image: / imago images

Nevertheless, the reduction to 30 kilograms of meat per capita and year could be enough to ensure that no one does without meat, while still protecting the environment. Annual per capita consumption is currently over 60 kilograms of meat.

And not only the environment would be helped, says Cramon-Taubadel. The global food supply situation could also be improved, while doing something good for one’s own health.

What is also important from the point of view of the agricultural scientist:

“We need to invest in research and innovation that goes beyond outdated ‘eco versus conventional’ narratives that promote sustainability and productivity at the same time.”

Agricultural turnaround unaffordable for many households

Many people in Germany cannot afford to eat according to organic standards – especially in times of high inflation. This must also be considered in an agricultural turnaround: How should the 13.4 billion people affected by poverty be fed? A number that may even increase by 2030.

Inflation is currently making shopping difficult for pensioners in particular, but also for all other people affected by poverty.

Inflation is currently making shopping difficult for pensioners in particular, but also for all other people affected by poverty.Image: / imago images

The current situation means that the situation is getting worse for people living in poverty, says René Böhme. He works at the Institute for Labor and Economics at the University of Bremen. His focus: poverty research. The fact that the standard rate of five euros per day for Hartz IV recipients is not enough to buy groceries can already be seen in years without inflation. Now that the price has gone up, they would be missing at least 17 euros a month.

Boehme says:

“As early as 2018, 1.5 million people regularly visited the Tafel. In 2019 there were already 1.6 million – an increase of almost ten percent. There are no current figures from the corona crisis, but there is a Tafel survey that shows them has found that 90 percent of food banks have seen a significant increase during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Now there are refugees from Ukraine – and inflation. But: The capacities of the board are also limited. According to the poverty researcher, it is important to recognize that people in poverty are not only recipients of Hartz IV: students, pensioners, low-income earners. Of course, all of these groups benefited from the government’s current relief packages – some more, some less. However, it is necessary not only to do something ad hoc about the situation, as Böhme emphasizes.

Many people have to get their groceries from the Tafel.

Many people have to get their groceries from the Tafel.Image: dpa / Christophe Gateau

Because the problem behind it is much more fundamental: “The level of protection established by the law is intended to prevent poverty – but in fact this is not the case.” All of this will become even more difficult if the question is no longer: Is the welfare state’s claim that two million people still have to go to the table? But: How to combine social policy and climate policy?

In Germany, the problem is even more serious:

“We have one of the largest low-wage sectors in Europe. In addition, there is often entrenched long-term unemployment among people who receive unemployment benefit II (Hartz IV) and with a level of security that is relatively low in European comparison.”

In short: In Germany, many people are too poor for climate change. With the upcoming agricultural and energy transition, answers must also be given as to how this should work for people who are in income poverty, says Böhme.

The concepts of how such a socio-ecological turn could take place are in the drawers, says Böhme. Keyword climate money. A proposal from the Greens.

But: “The question is whether this will be implemented in the end.” One problem is that Germany and the world are currently stumbling from one crisis to the next. The phase in which it would have been easier to shape the climate change socially is over. That was between the years 2010 and 2019. Years of growth, stability.

Boehme says:

“Of course, this stable phase would have been perfect to make progress in such fields. But politicians let this phase pass and used it for other things. Now with Corona, the Ukraine war and climate change we have all the crises at the same time. And it lack the financial means to manage everything at the same time.”

The panels are also reaching their capacity limits.

The panels are also reaching their capacity limits.Image: dpa / Felix Kästle

Government does not want to reduce VAT on food

At the end of June, the Bundestag debated suspending VAT on staple foods in the current situation. This is how citizens could be relieved at the supermarket checkout – a motion by the left faction. The motion was referred to the Finance Committee for further consideration.

Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir (Greens) had already made this request. In April he told the dpa news agency:

“If we make fruit and vegetables cheaper, we not only relieve the burden on consumers comparatively inexpensively, but also promote healthy nutrition through the steering effect gained.”

However, the Ministry of Finance has its hat on when it comes to VAT. In an interview with the “world on Sunday” Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) made it clear that he did not believe in the idea of ​​a steering tax or a suspended VAT. Instead, Lindner has now sworn the population on ZDF to a “phase of deprivation”.

With a view to the climate crisis, agricultural and energy transition, this phase is likely to last a long time, especially for people in poverty – unless they politics actually takes on the topic of social-ecological change.

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