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Germany's organic farmers are in despair

January 20, 2023

Germany is restructuring its agriculture to make one-third of all farms organic by 2030. But as inflation rises, farmers are demanding more government support. They are set to flock to Berlin to make their voices heard.

Bernd Schmitz with his cows (and some hens)
Farmer Bernd Schmitz is set to leave his cows for one day and travel to Berlin to join street protestsImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

Bernd Schmitz owns a small organic farm in western Germany. He is upset at the government's new regulations for making agriculture more sustainable, which come at a time of rising inflation.

So Schmitz will hit the road this weekend to protest with thousands of other farmers driving their tractors to a major demonstration in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. They want more support for the government's plans to make agriculture more ecologically sustainable.

"We are demanding a change in agricultural policy that rewards quality production," Schmitz told DW. The rallying cry #WirHabenEsSatt, or "We are fed up," has been planned for weeks by 60 activist groups.

Six farms close down in Germany on average every day, mainly because of skyrocketing production costs. Currently, there are over 250,000 farms across the country, but the numbers are falling steadily.

Schmitz produces milk from black-and-white spotted Holstein cows on his "Hanfer Farm," which has existed since at least 1850 and which the Schmitz family has been running for five generations. It is now the smallest farm in the area; all the other small farms have given up. If you ask Schmitz how many more years like 2022 he can hold out for, he says: "One."

"I had to pay 50% more for fuel and electricity than the year before. We can't absorb that in the long run," he said. "Together with my daughters, who want to take over the farm, I'll have to think about whether there's still a future for this."

Climate change brings drought

And then there is climate change, which is taking its toll on the meadows. Last year, three months went by without any rain. So Schmitz had to reduce his herd from 48 to 35 because his drought-struck pastures simply could not feed all the animals. A vicious circle: no water from above, no growth of grass, fewer animals, and less milk.

Organic farmers gaining ground

Some 35,000 farms in Germany are organically run. But they have been hit particularly hard by record inflation as a fallout of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For the first time in history, Germany's market for organic produce has shrunk, with sales down 4.1% by the end of October, according to the German Farmers' Association (DBV).

Consumers have to pay substantially more for organic produce due to the more labor-intensive production and the requirements of animal-friendly and environmentally-friendly farming. But they have been cutting back for months, giving organic supermarkets a wide berth. Sustainably produced foodstuffs are now mostly bought from discount supermarkets. That is where Schmitz now has to sell his milk, too.

The 57-year-old says the retail sector, which obviously prioritizes its own profits, is partly to blame for the current crisis: "It can't be that we see only a moderate price increase for our dairy products but consumer prices go up multiple times."

The organic farmer gets 56 cents ($0.61) for a liter of milk from the processing dairy; he would need 14 cents more per liter for things to add up.

The German government wants to increase the proportion of organic farms to 30% by 2030. But critics say this ambitious plan is illusory. They point to changes in consumer preferences, the sluggish progress in converting cultivation areas to organic production, and the lack of support from politicians.

"If society really wants a conversion, then that's where money must be put," says Bernd Schmitz. "If that doesn't happen, the restructuring can't take place."

Tractors blocking the streets by Victory Column in central Berlin
German farmers held big demonstrations in Berlin in 2019 — making similar demands as todayImage: Reuters/A. Hilse

Schmitz is disappointed with the current center-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), and environmentalist Greens. He says they have not delivered on the promises made when they took office a year ago.

For Schmitz, this is clear on a small scale, as in the cafeteria of the federal parliament, the Bundestag, where few organic products are on the menu. And it goes all the way to free trade agreements that could be detrimental to small German farms: An EU alliance with the South American Mercosur states could come about this year, and a new attempt at a TTIP treaty with the US also seems possible again after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

For Schmitz, the new CETA agreement with Canada has already been a step in the wrong direction. "We want less meat consumption in Germany to protect the climate, and at the same time ratify a treaty that allows the import of 60,000 tons of beef from Canada?" he wonders.

When Schmitz joins hundreds of protesting farmers in Berlin this Sunday, they will be calling for a rethink. They demand more government support to ensure fair producer prices for sustainable GMO-free agriculture, facilitate a climate- and species-appropriate conversion of farming, promote fair trade and ban speculation in the food sector.

This article was originally written in German.

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Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.