Organic Agriculture

Spring 2003
Cornerstone for Regional Development and Nature Conservation

By Jean English

Hardy Vogtman, Deputy Minister for the Environment for Germany, is optimistic about the future of nature conservation and organic agriculture in his country. In the last election, the Greens increased their votes by 25%, so they have more input now; and three Ministers are Greens. Also, this is the first time the Social Democratic Green Government has been reelected, “because Europe for a long time tended to be going to the right,” which “was not good for nature conservation or organic agriculture.” Vogtman hopes that the current turnaround in Germany will spread in Europe, especially in France, “certainly the country to block any reforms in agriculture, because they have large arable farms and their profit grows from the present system.” Given the strengthening of the Greens in Germany, Vogtman believes that “the area of agriculture, consumer affairs and the environment is an area where we can really make points in the wider public, if [we] do it the right way.”

The Price of Increased Yields

In the last 30 to 40 years, agricultural yields increased by 50 percent in Germany. “We are used to hearing that you have to increase yields to feed the world,” said Vogtman, “but that is all bullshit, because there is not a Western country giving food to developing countries if there’s nothing they have to do for it – for some political deal. Occasionally it may be free if it’s a disaster or catastrophe, but for the rest of the time, it creates a greater dependence on food from Western countries, and the Western countries like it. They don’t want to feed the world because they think they’re all friends and are all humane. It’s only [that] they’re using food as a weapon against the rest of the world … That has created tremendous problems … because a 50% increase in Germany needed a 400% increase in energy input; 500% in N fertilizer input; 1000% in pesticide input; 1000% in imported feedstuffs. One can question: Is it worth it? There you see the lie you have with increasing production to feed the rest of the world, because for Germany, we need about 60% of our arable area in addition to produce the imported feed. So if Germany had to produce the feed themselves, we would need 60% more area. Or indirectly, we are leasing 60% of land in addition to buying feedstuffs from other countries.”

This increase in production also was associated with a 70% decrease in farm employment; an 80% decrease in agrobiodiversity; rising surpluses; and rising market regulation costs. In the United States, likewise, Vogtman said that subsidies for agriculture have gone up by 70%, and “very little of it goes to farmers; a lot goes for export subsidies to reduce the price on the world market.” This vicious cycle occurs in Europe, too. “Money is used to reduce the price of European commodities for the so-called world market, which is actually a surplus market, which determines the price even within the country … You create a very small, artificial world market with dumping prices subsidized with our tax money, and then say the rest of farming has to follow that same price. It doesn’t make sense at all, and needs to be changed politically … There should be no export subsidies.”

Increasing international trade conflicts also result from this system. “In Johannesburg, it was very close that all international environmental agreements (the Convention on Biodiversity and so forth) would be put below the WTO agreement,” below economic considerations. This proposal was defeated “only because Norway was fighting very hard, because [of] this little island that would disappear, would be flooded if we had climate change.” So, while climate change is now a factor in WTO decisions, Vogtman believes that the next WTO must agree that economic, environmental and social aspects should count equally in its decisions.

Another problem with the current system of agriculture is that farmers continue to get a smaller proportion of the price of food. “The largest proportion goes to transport, storage, destroying of food and getting the price down for export; export subsidies. These take 80% of farm subsidies … Why would the taxpayer support this system where most of the money is used for transport, storage, destroying or getting rid of [food] at the lowest possible price? I don’t think for a long time that taxpayers understood this, but it’s coming and they won’t vote for that leadership anymore.” When the Eastern countries enter the European Union, the money just won’t be there to have the such subsidies.

Industrial farms with large inputs are creating both environmental and structural problems in Germany and elsewhere. Not only are pesticide residues left on much conventional produce, but groundwater is polluted with pesticides and with fertilizer nitrates as well, and these are serious problems regarding nature conservation and rural structures. “People don’t want to live in the [polluted] countryside, so they move to the cities; and there are no more structures; schools are closed. People have to transport their children farther to school.”

As industrial farms move from less favorable agricultural areas, such as hilly country, to broader, flatter areas, the former landscape becomes more forested, and “that would kill the tourism industry in Germany. Tourists don’t like to walk through deep forests for three days. They like to have open landscape, see flowers, meadows, creeks, and then go back through a little forest, then an open landscape again. If farmers move out of hilly areas, we have a problem.”

Pay the Farmer for the Healthy Landscape

For these reasons, Vogtman believes that the Convention on Biodiversity, signed in Rio in 1992 and ratified by 187 nations, is very important. It “shows the way nature conservation, farming and the environment should go.” One aspect of the Convention addresses fair and equitable sharing of benefits, “which the U.S. is very much against; they want to use genetic resources and not share equally with those where the resources came from.” As with genetic resources, Vogtman believes that the farmers who produce biodiversity should get a fair share of the benefits of their work. “Tourists should help the farmer if they want the farmer to produce the landscape that tourists want to see. Why would not the group that produces clean air, clean water and recreational landscape get a benefit from it? For too long, farmers have not understood that [they] are producing much more than food: clean air, water, recreational landscapes, biodiversity are always included for free. Maybe that was possible when the price of food was high, but now that the price of food is going down, these additional products cannot be provided for free by farmers. You are going to lose those products if the political arena doesn’t change.”

Even organic farmers must understand this, said Vogtman. “They need a higher price for their product, because it’s a good product, a quality product, but I don’t think the price is going to be so high that they can for free provide the nice landscape.” He suggested using computer models and graphics to show how the landscape would change with and without diversified, small-scale, family farms. Showing people a picture of meadow flowers, say, “You want that? Ok, next time you vote, you vote the right way.”

Voting the right way should bring more money for organic farming, which can then spearhead farm development and nature conservation in the right direction. “I say the money has to be disproportionately greater if organic farming is to spearhead development so that other farmers will be prepared to come in. They also need to develop their markets. For many larger German farmers, even organic, the market is not local. It may be out of the country. The danger is that the large food processors go for the cheapest food, the cheaper organic wheat from Australia, which is cheaper even with the transport than the German. The big food chains and processors are not our friends. The local, regional market is the one that supports the landscape, with water, with air, the one everybody can experience.”

He suggested that when growers take their product to Frankfurt, consumers “should not see your product, they should see the landscape, clean air and water, and they should say, ‘Hey, that looks nice up there, that clean water and everything.’ And the wife says, ‘Let’s buy this,’ and they won’t even look at the price. Don’t show the product — use the picture with the product. Industry is doing this all the time. Every new car is shown in a nice meadow with flowers. They are using our pictures for that! We should use the healthy environment to sell healthy food. You have created it yourself. It’s yours, not theirs!”

In addition to helping preserve biodiversity, organic farming protects the groundwater from nitrate and pesticide pollution; produces healthy food; ensures jobs in agriculture, food processing and marketing; strives for largely closed farm cycles; preserves soil fertility; preserves air, soil and energy resources; and provides for adequate animal health. The latter, said Vogtman, “is very important for many people, because once they see how the farm animals are kept, they might change their mind if they’re going to buy the meat or not.”

Regarding biodiversity, Vogtman said that German researchers looked at farms that converted to organic. Before, most centered on three- to four-year rotations; after conversion, rotations were four to eight years. “This shows already that you have a bigger diversity within the agricultural crops,” because longer crop rotations require more crops. Researchers also found that a surprising number of weeds can grow on a farm without decreasing crop yield. “It’s surprising how much [the crop] can tolerate as long as it’s not one weed.” Vogtman added that a British study found more species of nesting and breeding birds on organic farms than on conventional. “Only organic farming will allow [the number of bird species] to stay the same or increase. So all nature conservation groups, all environmentalists should support organic.

“Don’t waste money on storage, transportation and destroying crops so that you can sell them cheaply on the world market,” Vogtman continued. “Use the money to produce the products for that secondary market, for that type of landscape. Society and farmers will be happier. That is a true regional product, and that’s what we have to pay farmers for. This is what we are doing now, and this will be our fight within the EU, because I don’t think they all agree. France and Italy oppose [this plan], which is amazing to me.”

Vogtman believes that conservative parties should live up to their name and conserve nature. “It seems they’re conserving only their benefits and profits.”

Even profits should benefit from nature conservation through organic farming, however. “Which landscape can we afford?” asked Vogtman. The present subsidy system, with large-scale agriculture and a monotonous landscape, takes 10 person-hours and 300 euros per hectare of support. That’s a payment of 30 euros per hour “to produce an empty landscape which nobody wants.” On the other hand, small scale, structured agricultural landscapes, with creeks, trees, fields and hedges, take 90 person-hours and receive 450 euros of support per hectare, for a payment of 5 euros per hour. “They are not considering what it costs to produce the empty landscape. They should try the game on the world market without subsidies, and we’ll see how far they get.”

Even “integrated agriculture” (IPM) is “fooling everybody,” said Vogtman. “It’s [just] optimizing chemical agriculture, integrating chemistry into agriculture in a smarter way.” He said that conventional agriculture brings very little benefit regarding energy conservation; alleviation of global warming, soil acidification, groundwater and surface water contamination; increasing biodiversity; improving the landscape image; and providing good animal husbandry. Integrated agriculture makes better use of energy because it might reduce fertilizer and pesticide inputs and reduce nitrate and pesticide pollution, but it does not reduce global warming or soil acidification much. Organic farming, however, increases the internal cycles with green manures, legumes, compost, and so on. He suggested finding farms that are near 100% in optimizing the categories of energy conservation, increasing biodiversity, etc., then teaching others how those farms work.

Just as conversion to organic increased biodiversity on farms, it also increased the number of people living on farms and the farm labor force in Germany. Before conversion, each farm supported a mean of 5.7 people living there and 3.6 laborers; after conversion, those numbers jumped to 12.6 and 6.4, respectively. “This tells you something about people living in the countryside, about the infrastructure necessary, schools … because suddenly more than double the number of people are living there. So again, this is an argument for organic farming and to put research money into organic farming and money to develop better marketing.”

Saving a Local Dairy

Vogtman gave examples of how government can help organic farmers and rural communities. In one village, an independent, farmer-owned dairy was taken over in 1995 by a big dairy from the middle of Germany. The new dairy said it would pay the farmers 2 cents more per liter of milk and would keep jobs in the village. A year later, the local dairy was closed because it was cheaper to transport milk over 200 km, where the dairy had a surplus of infrastructure. The farmers then got 5 cents less for the milk, and they didn’t have any other sales options for it. “This was the reason for 30 organic farmers to say, ‘We’ve had it with you, we are doing something different.’” Vogtman, then presiding over the Agency for Rural Development and Agriculture, found funds to support the village but not to support the farmers taking over the dairy. “So we needed a little trick. The mayor said ‘We need these [dairy] buildings to maintain the appearance of our village, and I would like to have 95% subsidy to buy them from this dairy.’ So we paid 95% subsidy, the village paid 5 percent. The next day, 36 farmers came along and said to the mayor, ‘Hey, you own these buildings! We could use them for a dairy!’” So the town leased the dairy back to the farmers, who got money to buy new equipment from another deputy minister. Vogtman then got a government labor program to agree to employ people at the dairy for a certain time. “In the end, this dairy was running again … They made more for their milk than they did when they delivered it to the [big] dairy. Once it was clear that they could get more for organic, a bunch of conventional farmers (62 I think) converted.” The value added to this rural region in 1999 from having the dairy, with associated regional services, was 8.1 million Deutsche marks, or about $4 million. And the area became “more ecological.” Thirty-seven jobs were added to the town (six farmers, 21 dairy workers, and 10 at input/service firms). “That is regional development through organic farming,” said Vogtman. “Even tourism profits from this,” because the area would have had forests instead of fields if the farms had disappeared.

Another example related to compost. Germany has a goal of recycling 65% of its waste. Since organic material makes up 50% of the waste in Germany, composting could meet the bulk of that 65 percent. “Our idea … was to have the farmers involved, making the compost and earning money, because waste is something you can make money with, millions. And it’s a Mafia-similar structure, a lot of bribery, even in Germany. So our idea was to have decentralized, small compost sites, have a closed regional nutrient cycle and get additional value and money and jobs.” This was successful in some areas but not in others, because some politicians wanted huge, shiny, energy-intensive buildings to show off, rather than smaller, simpler but well-functioning, regional ones. One successful small operation, however, has an input of 6,500 tons per year of green waste from households and gardens; another has 16,000 tons. Also, 14 “chopping places” were established where people could bring branches. The chipped wood is transported to the compost facilities, where a 10-inch-high base under each compost pile provides aeration and moisture absorption. After a few weeks, the coarse material is gradually worked into the compost.

These composting facilities provide income and compost for farmers who work there. “This is also the cheapest way of waste reduction,” said Vogtman, costing about $40 per ton, whereas disposing of waste at a dump site costs $75 per ton, and incinerating, $150, although the price of incinerating has come down because the incinerators don’t have enough waste anymore.

Saving More Dairies

Three young dairy farmers near Frankfurt provided a third example of rural development. The farmers’ wives wanted them to quit dairying. One said her husband smelled 365 days per year; another said her kids were teased in school because they smelled; the farmers were working in “really terrible” barns, “dark wet holes for the animals;” people in the town were upset because the cows were crossing the road to get to pasture when the people were trying to drive to work in Frankfurt in the morning, and when they came home from work, they had to drive through cow dung. And “maybe on Friday afternoon when [the townspeople were] sitting on the balcony, the farmers would have slurry to spread. So the farmers were not very popular.”

To save these farms, the idea was to locate a central barn for them outside of the village, in the middle of the pastures. The farmers would give the land, the community would own the barn and lease it to the farmers. After 15 years, it would belong to the farmers. The barn would provide better housing for the animals, better and longer access to pasture, and the farmers could afford better equipment for haying. At first the community didn’t want the responsibility of the barn. “I told them, ‘If I don’t hear from all of you present that you say our three farmers we are going to support, our farmers, there will be no money in this village, and no tourism after a few years. Do you want this?’ No. So we got them to accept our 65% subsidy, the barn was built, the problems were solved.” The cows were on pasture longer and had loose, open housing. The men had better working conditions and holidays (with one farmer working each third week). The cows, manure and slurry were off the road. The old farm buildings in the village were remodeled into a kindergarten, a cafe and a tourism building. The wives were trained to do farm tourism, “because when the farmer gives tours, he [just] goes there and says, ‘There it is.’” One of the wives built a swimming pool, another a bicycle renting shop, and the third a barbecue place. Rather than commuting to Frankfurt, they could now stay in the village. One of the farmers built a slaughterhouse and was making sausage; another wanted to expand the barn and get more cows; and the third said that he and his wife had more time for each other. This was a great success that Vogtman helped create before an incoming conservative government dismantled his office.

Vogtman described another small village that supported nature-conscious tourism by promoting organic agriculture, a bakery, cheese production, traditional craft making, an ecological country school and conference house, and a therapeutic farm. “We could have many more such examples if our agricultural policy goes in the right direction.”

In closing, Vogtman showed data based on research that he and his coworkers have done over the years:

Pesticide Residues in Foods
Conventional Organic
Total Fruits Vegetables Total
No. of samples 856 30 143 173
Without pesticide residues 60.9% 100% 96.5% 97.1%
With residues less than legal max. 32.9% 9% 3.5% 2.9%
With residues greater than legal max. 6.2% 0% 0% 0%

“In conventional produce,” said Vogtman, “only 60% of the vegetables were without residues. In organic, 97.1% were without. Even if you talk about residues below the maximum tolerated level, there is still a big difference.” He quoted John Ruskin (1819-1900): “There is hardly anything in this world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper. And the people who consider price only are that man’s lawful prey.”

Vogtman stressed the small amount of money that the German government spends each year to educate about consumer protection, nutrition and agriculture, compared with the huge amount spent by the food industry to influence consumers. “That is the information people are getting. There I think we have to change things … Taxpayers’ money should not be thrown away. It should be used for ecological and socially sound agriculture.”

Much of the information that Vogtman presented is on the website, in German.

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