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Why are Germans demanding an agriculture transition?

Gero Rueter / sad
January 15, 2016

DW looks at why people are taking to the streets in Germany to demand an "Agrarwende" - or agricultural transformation. Issues include health concerns, protection of animals, and pollution impacts on water and climate.

Berlin Demonstration gegen Agrarindustrie
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Under the motto "we're sick of it!", people in Berlin will hit the streets by the thousands on Saturday (01.16.2016) to protest for a transformation in agricultural systems.

A broad coalition of more than 50 environmental, consumer, animal and farming groups have called for the demonstration, which coincides with the opening of Green Week in Berlin - the largest agricultural trade fair in the world.

Agriculture in Germany, an industrialized country at the heart of Europe, has changed dramatically over past decades. As farming has become more intensive, ever more artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides are spread over the land.

Small farmers have been hit hard, and many have had to shut down. Instead of coming from "mom and pop" farms, meat is being produced at large factories that pack tens of thousands of animals together.

But Germans are raising ever more questions over such intensive, industrialized farming. Genetically altered feed imported from overseas, the destruction of virgin rainforest for crops, mistreatment of animals and overuse of antibiotics for livestock are just some of the concerns.

Chicken packed together at a factory farm
Animal rights activists point out poor conditions for animals in factory farmsImage: picture alliance/Walter G. Allgöwer/JOKER

Consequences for human health

Germans are increasingly concerned over health impacts from the foods they consume.

Recent studies from Germany have indicated that agricultural products from industrial farming often contain traces of poisonous chemicals from pesticide, or leftover antibiotics.

Also the safety of consuming genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, continues to be controversial.

A recent study on what Germans eat indicated that consumers seek out "safe" and "natural" products that have not been genetically modified.

Consequences for nature

Environmental groups and government studies point to industrial agriculture as a main culprit for loss of biodiversity in Germany. Important habitats are being lost due to establishment of monocultures, while overuse of pesticides has effects through the food chain - especially on insects and birds.

A recent study by the group Nabu (the Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union) indicates that changes in agriculture have contributed to an 80 percent drop in insect populations over the last 15 years.

Fertilizer being spread on a field
Nutrients from fertilizer often end up in the waterImage: picture alliance/F. May

Water quality has also suffered under intensive farming: according to the German Environment Agency, fertilizer - mainly livestock manure from factory farms - has been overused for decades.

Phosphate and nitrate not absorbed by the crops enter the groundwater, rivers and lakes. There are warnings over the increasing concentration of nitrates in tapwater, which is becoming more expensive to treat.

Consequences for the climate

Proponents of an agricultural transformation are also looking towards the climate. According to the IPCC, agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is produced through the energy-intensive production of fertilizer. And land around the world is being deforested to grow industrial crops.

Intensive fertilizing of fields also generates the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). Also methane from the digestion process among ungulates (cattle and sheep, for example) contributes to climate change.

Organic agriculture as a solution

Women planting on organic farm
Organic agriculture helps preserve biodiversityImage: imago/R. Lueger

Those demanding an agricultural shift have a clear goal: smaller-scale, regional production that also considers the welfare of the planet.

Organic agriculture in Europe includes strict rules against the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers; as well as care standards and limits on the use of antibiotics for animals.

Genetically altered feed is not allowed under organic farming rules, and pollution from animal waste must be carefully held in check.

Many experts and activists are promoting organic agriculture as a solution to the problems associated with intensive agriculture.

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