Amid growing demand, German organic farming suffers first decline

Acreage for farming organics decreased 1.3% in 2014 in Germany. [Dirk Ingo Franke/Flickr]

The organic foods sector is booming, but in Germany, farming is decreasing, with the number of acres devoted to cultivation shrinking for the first time. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Acreage for ecologically sustainable products decreased in 2014 for the first time. This was indicated by an analysis from SWR (“Southwest Broadcasting”) based on numbers from the Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food.

The decline is a surprise at a time when organic farming is doing better than ever in Germany. Over the past two decades, the acreage used for organically cultivated crops has increased three-fold.

2013 was a peak year with 1,060,000 hectares. But last year, the number was was 1.3% lower. That is the first decline since such data has been collected.

Acreage drop more severe in northern states

Shrinking acreage for organics is most prevalent in northern Germany. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Lower Saxony recorded 5% less cultivation area. In Schleswig-Holstein it was 8%. The biggest decline was in Thuringia with 10% less organic acreage.

In the North, especially in former GDR states, large-scale farming dominates the agriculture sector. But in 2014, companies increasingly chose to switch to more conventional cultivation methods.

The Organic Food Production Alliance (BÖLW) sees three main reasons for this: Firstly, the leasing rates for land used to grow corn have increased drastically due to significant subsidisation of biogas units in recent years. This is one of the effects of Germany’s Renewable Energies Law (EEG), which promotes biogas production.

EU regulation on organics stirs up insecurities

Another problem, the alliance says, is the discussion over a new EU organics regulation. “In early 2014, the European Commission made an unspeakable proposal which has created considerable irritation among farmers,” explained BÖLW director Peter Röhrig.

>>Read: New EU regulation could curb organic farming

Now it is in the hands of the European Parliament to set the Commission’s “bad” proposal straight and use the new legislation to improve framework conditions for organic farming, Röhrig said. That includes bolstering process-oriented organic inspections.

In addition, Röhrig argued, the Parliament should resist the thresholds for pesticide pollution specific to organic farmers, making them liable for their neighbours’ usage of agricultural chemicals.

Röhrig added that the organics law should be implemented more strongly, particularly with regard to imports.

Thirdly, Röhrig said, EU support for organics is still not sufficient, even after reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). There is so-called “greening”, he explained, under which farmers only receive their full allocation of agricultural subsidies once they have complied with certain organics requirements. However the effect is marginal, the BÖLW director indicated.

The alliance also criticised growing competition with cheap organic foods from abroad. This pressure on farmers has increased amid shrinking acreage and a growing demand for organic products.

But in recent years, several German states introduced special assistance programmes for organic farming, the association pointed out, with changeover bonuses and additional funds for maintaining organic cultivation methods.

Increases in acreage in states like Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg are role models for how successful these measures can be, Röhrig said. For this reason he said he is certain organic acreage will increase again in 2015.

In early 2014, the European Commission initiated legislation for a new and improved EU organics regulation. The proposal promises to create clearer requirements for organic products by means of lifting certain special regulations and exceptions, the ban on growing organic and conventional crops side-by-side, and stronger controls on imported organic products.

Measures are meant to restore the trust of consumers, who are unsettled by fraud scandals and the flood of organic labels.

According to the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), 6.4% of Germany’s total farmland was managed according to the principles of organic cultivation in 2013.

Nevertheless, the Federal Government hopes to increase this amount to meet a target set by former Agriculture Minister Renate Künast. The goal is for organic farming to cover 20% of all agricultural land.

In March 2014, the European Commission adopted legislative proposals for a new Regulation. The measure, which is expected to take effect in 2017, contains stricter rules for the production and import of organic products. As a result, it is likely to make it more difficult for conventional farmers to shift to organic agriculture practices, or even cause many organic producers to switch back to conventional farming.

Already in October of last year, all party factions in the Bundestag’s Committee on Food and Agriculture expressed clear opposition to a complete overhaul of the EU Regulation.

Organic agriculture in Europe has already been progressing far too slowly, critics complained, saying chances for development should not be hindered by excessive legal barriers.

In June, the Council agreed to a revision of the EU organics regulation. The measure is not intended to introduce specific upper limits on pesticides for organics. National threshold values, as they already exist in Italy and Belgium, are only allowed to apply until the end of 2020. The special regulations on organic inspections and on production standards will still be considered one entity. The measure also includes an annual inspection on organics companies with, as a general rule, a physical on-site inspection.

The European Parliament plans to sign off on the revision in fall of this year.

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