Organic produce is a given in a lot of shops in Germany. But while demand is increasing, cultivation is lagging behind. Since Germany is failing to turn out enough organic products on its own, many of the products must be imported.
Organic apples from Argentina, tomatoes from Spain – when looking at the assortment in German organic supermarkets, consumers are easily confused. Even though one might want to make ecologically correct and sustainable decisions when shopping, many of the fruits and vegetables have travelled a long way, leaving a considerable carbon footprint. German grocers are not just importing the exotic produce such as bananas and mangoes that are impossible to grow in Germany, but also potatoes, apples and cucumbers, as well as pork and dairy products.
According to a recent study by the University of Bonn, every second organic apple sold in Germany is an import. While sales of these products have tripled in Germany, farmland used to grow organic products has increased to just 6.3 percent of land under cultivation. The organic boom is leaving German farmers behind, keeping potential profit out of their pockets and stunting job growth in the organic farming sector.
Organic farming unattractive for German farmers
According to experts, organic farming is not failing because of a lack of incentives. Each German state, along with the German government and even the EU are supportive of organic farming. However, no steady progress can be seen. “Many farmers are questioning whether organic farming is worthwhile and whether the support from the state will last. In fact, some of the German states have considerably cut their funding or even left the program,” said Ulrich Köpke, who published the study by the University of Bonn, in an interview with DW. By now, the price gap between organic and non-organic products is so small that making the switch is not worth it anymore.
Expansion of organic farming has stagnated in Germany for a couple of years now, to the point where many organic farmers are even going back to traditional farming. In 2010, the amount of land converted from organic to traditional farming was higher than vice versa in two northern German states. This is due not only to the increasingly similar prices for the two products but also to the fact that organic yields are lower. “From experience, a conversion to organic farming means a decrease of yields in the first few years. Soil that has been fertilized for years has to learn to manage without additional fertilizer again,” said Markus Arbenz from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
Germany lags behind the rest of the EU
Farmers who abide by the rules of organic farming must keep their animals in large areas and use less fertilizer than conventional farmers. Organic farmland has increased by an average of 50 percent in the EU over the last few years. France, the country in the EU with the second largest organic revenue, saw an increase of 60 percent. In Poland, it skyrocketed by 500 percent.
Germany's neighboring countries have caught on to organic farming for various reasons. Usually, organic farming is more labor-intensive than conventional farming. States with low wages thus have a competitive advantage. Weather also plays an important role. Those who want to eat zucchini and tomatoes in winter cannot expect vegetables grown in Germany.
Austria is leading the organic market in the EU. No other EU country has a more ecological management of their farmland. In 2010, 13 percent of all agricultural businesses were certified as organic. The Czech Republic comes in second place. The country invested in organic farming early on, creating an organic union and establishing the necessary infrastructure – a development still paying off today. The organic industry is also taking off outside of the EU. Growth is visible in Argentina, Ethiopia, Australia, Brazil, China, India and Peru.
Chance for developing countries
Critics say that long transport routes from countries in Asia or Africa do not mesh with organic ideals. But according to Arbenz, organic farming gives developing countries a chance to fight poverty and to further implement environmental protections. There, small farmers are able to share the profits with large corporations.