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German farmers hit by Ukraine war and pork crisis

June 17, 2022

The skyrocketing prices for fertilizer, animal feed, and fuel are causing pressure on Germany's farmers, with food prices continuing to rise. The government is offering help.

Pigs in cages
German pig farmers are facing a multitude of problemsImage: L214 /abaca/picture alliance

Germany's farmers are under increasing pressure as a combination of war in Ukraine, fuel price hikes, and the climate emergency take hold.

Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir, visiting the annual farmers' conference, warned that prices were likely to rise further throughout the year. "Unfortunately, a lot is yet to come," the minister told Rheinische Post newspaper earlier this week. "We have to expect rises in autumn and winter because the business must supply itself with expensive energy now, and the price increases will be passed onto consumers."

There are numbers to back him up. According to an analysis by the insurance giant Allianz, food prices in Germany are likely to rise by as much as 10% in 2022, which would mean average extra costs of €250 ($260) per consumer for the year.

Özdemir blamed Russia for these rises, saying it was part of Russia's war strategy to block cereal exports from Ukraine to intensify the global food crisis.

Ukraine can't bring in its harvest

Fertilizer, fuel, and food

Farmers are also feeling the pressure on their markets: According to the German Farmers' Association (DBV), they are seeing four-fold price hikes for fertilizer, two-fold prices for animal feed, and diesel is "almost unaffordable."

"It doesn't matter how you run your business," DBV General Secretary Bernhard Krüsken said. "Whether you're an ecologically run farm or a more classical business model, fuel in a way represents the mechanical work that has to be done, so there is no way to compensate for high fuel costs."

Krüsken said there had already been signs of the current crisis last year. "The rising prices, especially for energy, fertilizer, and animal feed, were already noticeable to some extent before the war, but they have of course really accelerated now," he told DW.

tractor and dust
German farmers face high fuel costs and droughtImage: Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa/picture alliance

The rise in food prices has shielded some farmers from the worst — especially cereal crops and oil seeds — but this is not true for everyone.

Pork production is especially troubled because German pig farmers are facing rising feed and fuel costs even as prices for meat are continuing to stagnate, partly because meat producers and retailers can import cheap meat from abroad.

The pig farmers see it in dramatic terms. "The nerves are frayed — completely!" said Heinrich Dierkes, chairman of the Interest Group of Pig Farmers in Germany (ISN). "I've been working in pig husbandry for more than four decades, but I've never experienced such a scale of multiple crises."

The ISN counted off this concatenation of troubles: Swine flu outbreaks, the coronavirus, and now the rise in feed costs caused by the Ukraine war have all had an impact. The number of pig farms in Germany has dropped by 40% from 2011 to 2021, with 18,800 now remaining, and the ISN believes there is a real danger that the pork industry could be driven out of Germany altogether.

Cheap meat from abroad threatens German pig farmers

Dierkes said German pig farmers were the victims of the government's "double standards:" Forcing them to raise animal welfare standards while not obliging meat producers who import cheap meat to label it with the origins.

This, according to Dierkes, is causing a paradox: "The politicians want to do all they can to reduce livestock numbers, but are driving precisely those family businesses to giving up who want to develop animal husbandry progressively," he said.

cows, meadow, Bavarian village
Germany's Green party wants to speed up the transition to ecological farming Image: AP

Özdemir, as a Green party minister, is attempting to spearhead the drive towards ecological agriculture, a transition that has been underway for some years.

But do German farmers, in general, treat this as an obstacle to their businesses? "You can't answer that with a yes or no," said Krüsken. "There is plenty of agreement: We both believe that the transformation process must continue, and Özdemir has acknowledged that businesses need to be brought on board and that economic sustainability is the key factor for keeping farms in business."

But there are, he admitted, differences on the question of how. One particular sticking point, which has become more urgent in the last few months, is the government's plan to make farmers keep 4% of their land as "unproductive" in order to foster more space for wildlife.

Cem Özdemir speaking at the German Farmers' Association's annual conference in June 2022
Green Party Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir explained his government's plans to the Farmers' AssociationImage: Axel Heimken/dpa/picture alliance

The DBV thinks this plan needs to be put on hold for now, as using the land for food would be a way of easing grain shortages. "It's not a good idea from the farmers' point of view, because of course it leads to lower production," said Krüsken, though he admits only about half of the unused land would be suitable for grain production. "It would be a small, but from our point-of-view important, contribution," he said.

And that's not the end of all the problems farmers are facing: Europe is a net importer of fertilizer, which is a problem because much of Europe's nitrogen fertilizer comes from Russia and Belarus.

But Krüsken also suspects that some European suppliers are exploiting the situation. "We have market conditions which we believe the cartel authorities should look a little closer at," Krüsken said. "We think the producers would certainly be capable of increasing production but aren't doing so for reasons of price optimization."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight