German government to boost organic farming

Demand for organic foods is growing. Now Germany's Agriculture Minister is planning to provide more support for producers. [Martin Fisch/Flickr]

Germany is hungry for organic products. But, despite good market conditions, and heavy marketing, organic farmers are not reaping their share of the boom’s benefits, something Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt intends to change. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Between 2010 and 2013, Germany’s market for organic foods increased by one-fourth to almost €8 billion. Still, switching to organic cultivation remains a difficult process for farmers. While revenue from organic products has enjoyed an annual increase of 5-9% since 2011, the parallel increase in surface area over the past four years has only been 1-3%.

Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt hopes to change this. “We want a timetable for growth that allows domestic producers to benefit more from the boom,” he said on Tuesday (19 May) in Berlin. Organic must be strengthened, he said, with the help of the Future Strategy Organic Farming plan.

Schmidt’s Ministry hopes to work out details of the scheme together with representatives from the organic foods industry, and with involvement from Germany’s states, relevant associations and academia.

>>Read: Agriculture poses immense threat to environment, German study says

In this way, Germany, which is the biggest market for organic products in Europe, will take advantage of its “key role”, Schmidt indicated. If growth in the organic sector remains at the same level, it would take until 2077 for Germany to reach its goal of having 20% of cropland used by organic farmers.

More support and motivation for young farmers

The Organic Food Production Alliance (BÖLW) is emphasising a need for action in one area in particular. More agriculture companies must be motivated to switch to organic cultivation.

“The younger farmers must get a clearer idea of what organic even means,” said BÖLW chairman Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein. Many farmers still have preconceptions concerning organic cultivation, he explained.

How education and consulting resources can be improved for farmers is one of the issues tackled by the Thünen Institute, which is helping the German government develop action plans.

“Better training is one of many important goals meant to give an extra push to bolstering the supply of organics,” said Thünen researcher Jürn Sanders. At the same time, he said, marketing and the value-added chain should also be strengthened, the advance offerings for organic farmers should be expanded, and EU legal requirements further developed.

But the EU laws are a particular point of content between the Commission and the German Agriculture Ministry. In reforming the EU Organic Agriculture Regulation, the Commission is focusing on setting new limits. But just over a week ago, Schmidt stopped a corresponding amendment in the EU’s Council of Ministers.

>>Read: New EU regulation could curb organic farming

“Limit value checks on pesticides cannot be the only approach”, he said. Instead, one must focus on the “processuality” of the checks, sticking to checks that closely investigate the production and processing procedure at farms, or in processing operations.

Like Schmidt, many experts believe that the Commission’s draft, especially the planned introduction of additional limit values for organic foods, is handicapping organic cultivation and overstraining smaller companies in particular.

Skyrocketing rental fees being neglected

Meanwhile, regional politicians and farms are complaining about an extremely high hurdle in the change to organic.

In many regions of Germany, purchase as well as leasing costs for agriculture lands have all but skyrocketed.

Competitors interested in the properties have long come from outside the agriculture sector.

Statistical estimates indicated that building areas and infrastructure projects have been steadily running agricultural lands short. In Germany alone, 80 hectares of agricultural land are lost every day.

In addition, government-funded expansion of biogas plants has consumed a large part of what is grown in the fields over the past few years.

In the eastern states, the price of rent has increased from €122 per hectare to €169 today, Schmidt said at the presentation of the 2015 agriculture report on Wednesday (21 May). The German government is hoping to curb this, he said, but concrete paths for a solution remain open.

But fears remain high in particularly hard-hit states.

“Organic operations that are especially extensive, but also dairy farmers, are coming closer and closer to not being able to cope with this enormous rise in rental prices,” complained Lower Saxony’s Agriculture Minister Christian Meyer. But years could pass, before a price limit he proposed is introduced.

In the meantime, the EU has launched an ambitious plan for green cultivation. Around 30% of the funds are used for the greening payment, which the farmers receive for taking additional environmental measures. But this will not solve all the farmers’ problems. If land prices continue to rise, most of the extra money will go to the leaseholders, they predict.

Organic farming is a particularly resource-conserving, environmentally and animal-friendly form of agriculture. It avoids practices like fertilising with minerals and chemical-synthetic herbicides, and limits the number of animals depending on a certain holding area.

The EU’s organic market has quadrupled in the past 10 years. It is for this reason that the European Commission is seeking to update the sector’s regulations. In 2013, the Commission led a public dialogue on organic farming and observed a high demand for organic food.

On 24 March 2014, the Commission proposed a new regulation on organic farming, the labeling of organic products, and a plan of action for the future of the organic sector. The objective is to reinforce rules regarding testing and producing organic food sold in the EU.

According to European Commission data, there are more than 186,000 organic farms in Europe. Around 5.5% of all EU farmlands are used for to grow organic crops.

Organic foods in Germany: (German language)

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