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Business

Bringing the Farm to the Big City

Farmers from far and wide meet up in Berlin each year for the "Green Week" agricultural trade fair. As things wrap up on Sunday, German organic producers are celebrating their rapidly growing market share.

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Agriculture Minister Künast is a strong supporter of organic food

In 1926, the Berlin tourist office thought it a good idea to bring the wintertime agricultural conference together with the sale of farming equipment, goods and services that went on outside the meeting's doors. And because farmers traditionally wore green clothing, a journalist gave the gathering a name that's stuck: "Green Week." Since then, the Green Week has established itself as the world's most significant international agricultural fair.

From Jan. 21-30 more than 1,600 exhibitors from 55 countries presented their specialties on the fairground, which is as large as 12 soccer-fields. Farmers and city-dwellers, young and old work their ways past colorful stands to the sound of a Dixieland band. Exotic foods from Asia, wines from Africa and Australia, meat specialties from the new EU countries and Bavarian beer, pretzels and cheese are on offer.

"It's great to meet regional producers. It's good for us to compare national and international standards," said Thomas Ahrens, a young farmer from Lower Saxony. "And of course, it's important to make new contacts in our globalized world. It's hard to make a living as a farmer in Germany. We -- the farmers -- were entirely dependent on EU subsidies in 2004. So we've got to be part of a community that stands by us."

A pizzas every three days

Einkaufen im Supermarkt

Germany's most eaten dinner?

For the German grocery trade, 2004 was a bad year as well. Compared to neighboring countries France, Italy and Switzerland, Germans didn't spend a great deal on food. A recent study found that, 44 percent of Germans don't even cook their own food. The average citizen here eats 91 ready-made pizzas annually, the study said. Price-cutting competition between chain stores and supermarkets was the other reason for a slump in the food business.

While farmers and the food industry in general has been suffering from Germany's weak economy, one area has been booming and has managed to successfully overhaul its image: organic food. Organically grown food and environment-friendly agriculture were alone in the food industry in announcing a sales increase of 10 percent last year.

With names like "Eat Organic," "Supernatural" and "Bio Company," 200 organic supermarkets are in business in Germany today. They sell more than 1,000 products ranging from organic fruits and vegetables to wine, beer, meat, tobacco -- and deep-frozen pizza. Organic food stores made €350 million ($457 million) in turnover last year. That makes up for only 2.5 percent of Germany's annual food turnover. But experts say the organic food market is likely to double in the next five years.

Rising demand

CDU-Parteivorsitzende Angela Merkel auf der Grünen Woche

CDU politician Angela Merkel at the Green Week

And they are backed up by agricultural scientists who demand an ecological approach to agriculture worldwide.

"We're poisoning ourselves with modern food -- chemistry, pesticides and genetic engineering," said Anita Idel, a veterenarian.

"Illnesses like diabetes are increasing worldwide and only a better quality of food and greater food awareness can stop them," she added. "But we, too, have a growing problem in Germany: with overweight children. They go to school without having had breakfast. And there, they get fast food from vending machines. We know that's bad for the brain. We know bad nutrition will lead to disease."

The supply determines the demand on the organic food market, experts say. In Germany, the supply chain has been improved. The organic food industry is not only able to guarantee high quality, but can now also provide high quantities. Store owners share 4 percent of the profit with suppliers, compared to less than 1 percent in ordinary supermarkets.

There's an additional advantage according to farmer Peer Trunkweiler.

"The market is growing fast," he said. "The consumer demands ecological farming. And I get a chance to market my vegetables and meat -- by myself, in my region. That means I can get better prices."

For farmers as for customers, the future looks green.

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