Germans are increasingly opting for organic food. So much so that that many supermarkets are unable to meet the demand and are forced to rely on foreign imports of foods and vegetables.
Certification that food is organically produced is increasingly important to Germans
Organic supermarkets are booming in Germany and a new store opens each week.
Surveys say that one in five consumers say certification that a food is organically produced is part of their decision to buy it. Conventional supermarkets have also begun to introduce an increasing amount of organic product lines to their usual selections. Last year, the sector had a turnover of around 4.5 billion euros.
But many stores are having a hard time trying to keep up with the demand. Empty shelves and racks of organic fruits and vegetables aren't an uncommon sight in German supermarkets these days.
More and more Germans would rather sink their teeth into organic produce
Pork, carrots, potatoes and oats are most in demand, Antje Kasbohm of the Central Agricultural Market and Pricing Center GmbH (ZMP) told German broadcaster ARD.
According to the ZMP, sales of organic fruit to private households in Germany rose by 69 percent in the first half of 2006 as compared to the same period in the previous year. Sales of organic vegetables increased by 17 percent.
Organic food stocks dwindling in Europe
Many supermarkets who have expanded their organic food product lines at affordable prices in recent months are now scrambling to meet demand by relying on imports.
But not even imported products from other European countries can meet consumer demand, said Ulrich Hamm, head of the department of Agriculture and Food Marketing at the University of Kassel.
"Oats are sold out all across Europe, you can't buy eggs anywhere in Germany and France, and no one knows how consumers are going to get potatoes from the middle of January on," Hamm told German news agency dpa. Organic vegetables, as well as poultry and pork were also difficult to purchase, he said.
Imports from Argentina and South Africa
Supermarkets in Germany are now forced to rely on organic food imports from countries as far away as Argentina, Chile, Canada and South Africa. Experts stress that the quality of the products is not compromised despite the long transport routes because all foreign imports have to fulfill quality standards laid down in EU organic food guidelines.
One of the major reasons for the current organic food crunch in Germany is that subsidies for farmers to switch from conventional to organic farming have been cut in recent years.
This farm near Heidenheim in Germany switched to organic farming years ago
Indeed, an increasing number of German states have slashed subsidies for farmers meant to help them tide over a three-year waiting period as they switch from conventional to organic farming.
Bärbel Höhn, deputy head of the parliamentary group of the opposition Green party told Der Spiegel that the current coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats had "initiated a rollback in agricultural policy."
The German government however has argued that bad harvests for organic farmers were to blame for the current crunch in organic products.
Experts point out that given the organic sector's huge potential, it's still not too late for farmers to switch to organic farming.
Hamm said he still recommended the changeover to organic farming for German growers, even if they could only use the label "Bio" three years later. The trend for organic food was long-term, he said.
Germans more health-conscious
Indeed, the increased demand for organic food reflects a sea change in consumer awareness in Germany and seems to be here to stay.
Organic supermarkets stock everything from cabbage to cosmetics
One of the reasons for the surge of interest in organic food is increased consumer and health awareness with ever more people turning their backs on genetically-modified food. Some 70 percent of German consumers and 50 percent in Europe are said to be against GM food.
A string of food scandals in Germany has also undermined consumer confidence in conventionally-grown food.
Edda Müller, head of the Federal Association for Consumer Affairs, said that a bargain-hunting mentality among Germans was on the wane when it came to buying foodstuff.
"We can count on the fact that buying good quality food will eventually become a question of social status," Müller told ARD.