The demonstrators gathered at the start of International Green Week, the world's largest fair for food, agriculture and horticulture, which is taking place between 17-26 January. The protest, 'We are fed up', is held yearly to raise awareness about the negatives impacts of large-scale intensive food production.
This year's main organisers, sustainable food campaigners Slow Food Germany, bio food brand Demeter and Oxfam Germany, say that large-scale 'agribusiness' threatens the livelihoods of small-holder family farmers, leads to the standardisation of tastes and damages the environment and biodiversity.
Carlo Petrini, the president of Slow Food, told the crowd gathered in Berlin's Potsdamer Platz: “Small-scale farming is not anti-progress, poor or underdeveloped. It is a sustainable agricultural model that uses natural and human resources respectfully, and therefore guarantees social and food security. This is why this year is the International Year of Family Farming, and this is why we are in Berlin today.
“I am going home full of joy of what I have witnessed today in Berlin: Thousands of people who fight for a sustainable and small-scale agriculture, that is fair to the consumer, the producer and the environment. If this is the new generation, and these the new movements for the future of Europe, then I am convinced that we will win this battle,” he said.
Some 400,000 people from around the world are expected to attend Green Week, along with 100,000 industry experts.
The European commissioner for agriculture, Dacian Cioloş, said at the start of Green Week that 2014 would be an important year for the direction of EU farming policy, due to the May European Parliament elections and the discussions that will take place between prospective MEPs.
Cioloş added that Europe’s agricultural system would have to balance the desires of consumers with environmental protection. “These two elements – taking account of consumer expectations and our capacity to regenerate natural productive resources in a sustainable way - are two interlinked features of the competitiveness of modern farming: not only to produce, but also to be in line with society's expectations,” he said.
Petrini made a call for Europeans to push their parliamentary candidates to give a clear position on agriculture and ensure that they defend the interests of more than just agricultural multinationals.
“We will not let any candidate avoid our questions,” Petrini said. “Our message today is clear: If the EU loses its small farmers and its family farms, then it loses its history, it loses its culture, it loses its identity; it would not exist anymore."
Lower resource agribusiness
Discussions during Green Week, which this year will bring together 70 agriculture politicians from around the globe, will focus on food security. The world’s population is expected to rise to nine billion by 2050, from seven billion today, posing the tricky question of how to feed everyone while protecting the environment.
Large-scale intensive farms have managed to keep putting food on European plates at relatively little cost to the consumer since the Second World War.
But research on the impact of monocultures and other forms of agricultural specialisation comes up with clear results. A European Commission overview of challenges for farming stresses that “this high pressure agriculture has had a profound impact on the environment”, particularly through the increase in pollutants. The report also says that intensified agriculture has “greatly increased the pressure on water resources”.
This style of farming is heavy on inputs such as energy, pesticides and chemical fertilisers and is responsible for 9% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The EU is considering a host of options to improve the sustainability of the farming system, including research on the more sustainable use of pesticides and fertilisers, genetic modifications, precision farming techniques and advanced technological aspects.
Speaking on Thursday at a conference for Green Week, representatives from the association of European farmers and agricultural cooperatives, Copa-Cogeca, said efficient farming was the best way to combat hunger rising hunger while keeping the environmental impact to a minimum.
"Already, 842 million people suffer from chronic hunger in the world and food demand is on the rise. The challenge is to produce more food using less resources in an efficient, innovative way. Access to nutrients is key," a spokesperson for the association said in a statement.
To Copa-Cogeca, regulation may leave producers struggling to keep up with demand.
“European farmers have had to cut fertiliser use by 36%. This is not acceptable. Farmers will no longer be able to produce the food European consumers want," said Arnaud Petit, Copa-Cogeca's commodities and trade director.
Other issues to be discussed at Green Week are animal welfare, food waste and the price of organic food.