Grains vs. Biodiversity: Germany’s new, greener government performs a balancing act

Harvested wheat is seen in a field in Zeitz, 120 km southwest of Berlin, Germany, August 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

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SPREEWALD, Germany, May 27 (Reuters) – Alarmed by the prospect of global food shortages due to the conflict in Ukraine, the EU wants as much land in Europe as possible to be used for crops, even at the expense of biodiversity. Berlin’s new greener government is pushing back.

A month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Commission decided to temporarily let farmers plant crops on land earmarked for biodiversity, a move welcomed by farmer lobbies. Continue reading

Environmental groups have criticized the move, saying they fear agribusiness lobbyists could use the current crisis to pressure the bloc to lower organic standards coming into effect in 2023 under the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

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Germany’s Green-led agriculture ministry decided to resist EU easing and only use the land for animal feed, which is less harmful to local flora and fauna as it doesn’t need fertilizer.

“The ecological damage of a land development does not outweigh the economic benefits and the harvest,” said Silvia Bender, State Secretary in the green-led Ministry of Agriculture.

An EU spokesman said Germany had told the commission it would not make use of the derogation granted in March for this year.

This week’s data showed that over the past five years, the EU has fallen behind on ecosystem and biodiversity conservation. Continue reading

Berlin’s decision reflects a greater influence on German agricultural policy by the Greens, who became part of the new three-way coalition government last year, with a new minister calling for more organic farming and criticizing cheap meat prices, in a country that is well known for his one-euro sausage.

Bender said the additional acreage that Germany could use for cultivation under the new EU rules would have no impact globally. Germany produced around 42 million tons of grain last year.

Use of the 170,000 hectares of fallow land would have increased annual production by 600,000 tons, less than 1% of Ukraine’s annual grain production of around 86 million tons. Continue reading

Lucas Schwienhorst, an organic farmer in the Spreewald just outside Berlin with 450 hectares of land, said that these are areas with the lowest soil quality, which are mostly fallow anyway. But the use of fallow land for cultivation would significantly reduce the biodiversity living there.

“For example, an ortolan (bird of the bunting family) could nest well here. He always likes to have overhanging branches over his nest and that would be the case here,” he said.

But not all farmers share Schwienhorst’s view.

“I’m disappointed. We could have lifted that rule for a few months,” says Stefan Bernickel, a 39-year-old farmer in eastern Brandenburg who farms around 300 hectares of farmland with wheat, barley and rapeseed.

For Bernickel, the debate about this year’s harvest was already too late. He is now more concerned about what regulations will be imposed on next year’s harvest.

RETURN TO SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE?

EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said he could not rule out extending the derogation from the brownfield scheme until next year depending on how the situation evolves.

Germany’s opposition Conservatives tried to get ahead of the bloc in April by introducing a bill to parliament asking the country to back away from the EU target of shutting down 4% of the country next year. However, it failed last week.

The EU has so far stuck to its other sustainable agriculture plans and next month will propose legislation to make the use of pesticides more sustainable and set legally binding targets to restore nature.

However, critics are pushing for them to be relaxed as well, as they could affect grain production.

“The terrible war in Ukraine, with its severe consequences for global food markets, was a very good opportunity for some agricultural lobbyists to take advantage of this situation,” Johann Rathke, WWF’s agricultural policy coordinator, told Reuters.

Julia Bar-Tal, director of the AbL Sustainable Agriculture Association, said one crisis should not trump the other – that of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.

Farmers in Germany have already increased the acreage planted for grain for this year’s summer harvest anyway, spurred by rising prices, official data showed last week.

Areas devoted to sewing spring wheat are expected to increase by 73.5%, while barley areas will increase by 20.3% yoy as farmers switch to the more profitable crops.

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writing by Riham Alcousaa; Additional reporting by Kate Abnett in Brussels; Andreas Rinke in Berlin Edited by Sarah Marsh and David Evans

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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