Germany's new agriculture minister, Cem Özdemir, knows how to deliver a good soundbite: "Sometimes I get the feeling that a good engine oil is more important to us than a good salad oil," the veteran Green told the mass-circulation paper Bild am Sonntag.
Food quality in Germany is too low, Özdemir said, and so are the prices, and everyone loses out because of it. "There should no longer be any junk prices," he said. "They drive farms to ruin, prevent animal welfare, promote species extinction and burden the climate. I want to change that." The price of food should, he said, reflect the "ecological truth."
Ultimately, he said, consumers also suffer from cheap food with too much fat, sugar and salt in it, pointing out that over 50% of German adults are overweight. "The former government tried for too long to get the industry to reduce these ingredients with voluntary commitments. That's over now. With me, there will be binding reduction targets," Özdemir said.
The new government's declared aim, formulated in the freshly signed coalition contract, is to increase Germany's proportion of "organically farmed" land from the current 10% to 30% by 2030 — though there are few details beyond that.
The agriculture minister's plans immediately drew flak from the conservatives, who are now in opposition. Bavarian State Premier Markus Söder was quick to lash out along familiar lines: The federal government is "not there to dictate to people what or how much they should eat," he told Wednesday's Bild newspaper. Söder, in whose state farming plays a major role and farmers associations have a strong voice, said he doubts whether that is the right "vision" for Germany's agriculture.
None of the new government's plans are news to Christoph Minhoff, head of the Food Federation Germany, an industry association that represents companies all the way along the food supply chain. "Özdemir is ramming open doors that are all already open," he told DW. "It's nice, but at the end of the day, it's no help if a company tries to sell something that just stays on the shelf. They need products that consumers will buy."
The cost of meat
Minhoff said the food industry was already doing at least as much as any other industry to make its products sustainable and climate-friendly. "No one wants to produce more meat from tortured animals," he said. "All these aims have been formulated before — the problem is it costs all kinds of money. And the key question is: Who will pay the price?"
In July, a special government commission for the future of industrial agriculture — made up of both environmental groups and farmer groups — set out the same general targets that Özdemir did: reduce meat consumption, increase climate protection. Startlingly enough, it concluded that beef should cost five or six times more than it does now, or over €80 ($90) per kilogram (2.2 pounds), rather than the current €14. This price hike would be necessary to balance out the costs incurred through pollution and the loss of biodiversity, which the commission put at €90 billion a year. By the same calculation, dairy products should cost two to four times as much as they do now.
The commission also recommended that an investment of €7-11 billion a year was necessary to finance the ecological transformation of the agriculture industry. Even so, the report found, there would be no way around reducing the total amount of livestock on German farms, which would inevitably mean less meat on the market, and higher prices.
Same goals, different paths
Farmers and environmentalists are not as far apart as the media debate sometimes suggests. After all, farmers clearly want their food to be valued more.
Reinhard Jung, head of the independent farmer group Freie Bauern (Free Farmers) and a part-time farmer himself, welcomed Özdemir's general approach. "If consumers consciously asked after regional food and food that has been produced in a certain way, that would increase not only the appreciation but ultimately the amount of money that farmers can earn," he told DW.
But Jung doesn't think that food prices must necessarily rise for farmers to be paid fairly. "If we managed to pry a little bit of money from the big supermarkets and the big slaughterhouses and the big dairy factories, the consumer wouldn't have to pay much more."
Freie Bauern have three main ideas on their wish list for Özdemir. Firstly, the group seeks an origin label on all food, so consumers can identify locally produced food more easily. Secondly, the farmers want what Jung calls "fair supply-chain relations" so that the know in advance what they will be paid. As things stand now, the big agricultural companies pay farmers later, determined by the market at the time of sale.
"Especially with milk, it's an unbelievably exploitative system," said Jung. "The farmer only finds out a month later what he's actually being paid: namely, what's leftover" after intermediaries have taken their share.
And, thirdly, Jung wants an "unbundling law" that will break up the monopolies of the big food producers. This, he said, might also lead to lower prices through the power of free-market competition and "allow farmers to play an active part in the competition."
The origin label is in fact in the new current coalition contract, and the issues around the other two are at least addressed: The new government has expressed an ambition to "develop a system which allows agricultural businesses to be compensated for running costs, and at the same time promote investments into agriculture."
But the German Farmers' Association, the largest such lobby group, is skeptical as to whether a monopoly-busting law is politically or legally realistic. "Of course, the farmers are under a lot of pressure, because the retailers negotiate very hard," Udo Hemmerling, the association's deputy general secretary, told DW. "But unbundling is really just a theoretical option: There are very few examples internationally of when competition authorities were able to break up big companies."
Hemmerling's demands are more modest: a state bonus for farmers who offer better conditions for animals or better environmental protection. Such state investment looks unavoidable, given Özdemir's ambitions, but it is also difficult, given that — at the behest of the neoliberal party in the coalition, the Free Democrats (FDP) — the government has already ruled out tax increases and additional borrowing.
Can poor people afford good food?
There is a social aspect to the issue that a government under a Social Democrat chancellor cannot afford to ignore: Higher food prices mean an increase in the cost of living, which would be problematic for Germany's low-income earners. About 3.8 million people receive state benefits.
According to the Paritätische Gesamtverband, an umbrella group for Germany's social welfare organizations, people with lower incomes would need to receive compensation payments for higher food prices.
"The fact is that the necessary ecological transition must go hand in hand with good social policy," said the association's chairman, Ulrich Schneider.
For that reason, Schneider said it was "unfortunate" that Özdemir chose food prices as his main line of argument, rather than ecological issues and sustainable businesses. "People have to get the feeling they're being included," he said.
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg.
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