Agricultural policy: At the limits of green growth

If green growth goes hand-in-hand with factors like deforestation, then the Green Economy has to be called into question. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Germany’s agricultural challenges.

The Green Economy is meant to create wealth and protect the environment at the same time. But experts are increasingly doubtful about the concept and are calling it a whitewash. EURACTIV Germany reports.

At a rural development conference in Cork at the beginning of the month, 330 stakeholders were brought together to consider the challenges facing the agricultural sector. One can only speculate what was meant by the following sentence, found in the preamble to the declaration that was signed at its conclusion: “Persuaded that economic growth and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.”

The sentence symbolises one of the main problems of European agriculture and begs the question, what constitutes a sustainable enterprise? The various politicians and industrialists brought together by Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan discussed this issue at length during the two-day-long meeting.

Achieving balance between growth and sustainability has come to be known as the Green Economy. It is an idea that has taken off in recent years and involves using green technology to halt or even reverse the effects of climate change, without impeding the onwards march of capitalism.

The fact that the EU organised the Cork meeting, as well as another in Bratislava recently, shows how the concept has taken hold in Brussels.

The term has also entered the day-to-day vocabulary of the industry. The German Farmers Association (DBV), one of the biggest interest groups in the sector, has said for years that greening is the “right answer to the challenges of our time”. Trading conglomerate BayWa called on seed producers in its annual prospectus to switch the sustainable farming techniques and to “sow green growth”.

Critique of the Green Revolution

But the optimism about the Green Revolution is not shared by all. More and more experts are beginning to doubt that the Green Economy can lead our current one towards real sustainability.

The authors of the book Critique of the Green Economy dismantle these promises by highlighting that more growth and more consumption are not sustainable through increased use of green technology.

For example, using biofuel for transport, instead of conventional petrol, is on the one hand a “green” alternative, but increased use of substances like biogas can have a devastating impact on the environment, by taking up arable land or polluting the soil.

The main argument in favour of green growth is efficiency. With modern production methods and high-tech machinery, it isn’t just yields that can be increased. Resources can be conserved too. So a piece of land can produce more, but consume less.

Agricultural giant Monsanto has pioneered modern methods like genetic engineering and computer-aided precision farming so that “every hectare of arable land, every drop of water and every unit of energy can generate more”, for example.

Critics argue that increased efficiency does not automatically mean environmentally friendly credentials, especially when lower prices are the be-all and end-all. Reinhild Benning and Tilman Santarius warned in their Critical Agriculture Report 2016 that this new found green philosophy could add to the problems instead of the solutions.

The authors admitted that it is obviously a good thing when agriculture is more efficient and uses less resources per hectare. But if efficiency ultimately leads to lower costs and higher demand, then everyone’s a loser, apart from the companies producing more.

If our eating and consumption habits do not change, if production is not adjusted or demand is exploited by manufacturers, then green growth is just going to descend into a whitewash, the report argued.