Green minister pushes for farming reform: One in five farms will be organic in 10 years' time if the government's policy goes according to plan

Green minister pushes for farming reform:
One in five farms will be organic in 10 years' time if the government's policy goes according to plan

June 12, 2001, Financial Times (London) by Bettina Wassener

The Mager family's 50-hectare farm in the state of Hessen has been organic since 1994, when the Magers decided to switch to organic farming after 20 years using conventional methods. The family now keeps 50 pigs and 350 laying hens and grows a variety of vegetables, all of which are marketed locally.

If Renate Kunast, the minister for food, agriculture and consumer protection, is to have her wish, in 10 years' time 20 per cent of German farms will be organic, like the Mager's, compared with around 2.5 per cent today.

The 45-year-old Ms Kunast, who took office in January, announced ambitious plans for the transformation of the country's agricultural sector following the discovery that Germany had not stayed immune to the spread of BSE, the so-called "mad cow disease".

Indeed, her very appointment, and her newly-created ministry, which groups farming and consumer protection under one roof, symbolises the start of a turnaround in German agriculture - one that has been broadly welcomed by consumer, environmentalists and organic farmers' associations.

Ms Kunast is an unusual choice for the post in that she is a leading member of the Green Party and has no previous link to farming - a stark contrast to previous agriculture ministers, who have tended to come from farming backgrounds with strong connections to national farm lobbies.

"The BSE scandal marks the end of agricultural policy of the old style," she declared in her first major policy speech in February.

The outbreak of BSE late last year produced a near panic reaction among Germany's generally environmentally-conscious and meat-and-sausage-loving citizens. It also prompted the resignation of two ministers, although, with only a few dozen cases detected by May, the problem remains small compared with the UK.

In her drive for "quality, not quantity," Ms Kunast outlined plans to increase organic food production and shift from intensive factory farming towards less intensive methods.

Her proposals include tighter controls over the use of antibiotics and other drugs for animals, new guidelines for battery hens, as well as steps, announced last month, for clearer labelling of eco-friendly products.

She is also preparing to implement EU rules giving member states some flexibility over subsidies to farmers, based on whether they meet defined environmental criteria.

The BSE crisis, and the subsequent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, have called into question some of the basic tenets of the EU's common agricultural policy, giving Ms Kunast the opportunity to promote her proposals at EU level.

Franz Fischler, the EU farm commissioner, has called for a mid-term review of the common agricultural policy by next year, while trade talks and looming EU enlargement also present opportunities for more fundamental changes further down the line.

However, any imminent change in the EU is unlikely in the face of opposition from France, in particular. On the national front, too, the tenacious Ms Kunast will have her work cut out in dealing with Germany's Lander (state) governments, which are responsible for regional agricultural policies.

"I can't alone change a crusty, 50-year-old system, with hundreds and thousands of actors," she admitted in an interview with the Financial Times last month.

Susanne Weissbecker, of the Bioland organic farmers' association in Hessen, says: "She started at a very difficult time. But we need more steps on a federal and a Lander level."

The main question is whether German consumers will be prepared to pay more for food produced with less intensive and organic farming methods, or whether they will revert to cheaper, mass-produced products once the immediate crisis is forgotten.

According to Bioland's Thomas Dosch, recent surveys have shown that almost 80 per cent of consumers say they would be ready to spend 20-30 per cent more for organically-produced food. Clearer labelling and retailers' growing willingness to offer organic food should ensure these consumers keep putting their money where their mouths are, he says.

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements sees farmers following suit. If the demand is there and consumers are willing to pay the right price, many will be prepared to convert their farms, it says.

This, in turn, has many old-time organic farmers worried. "It's all very well wanting to promote greener farming, but if farmers are going to make the switch to organic farming, it is important they are convinced of the benefits, and don't just do it for the money," says Erhard Schwalm, who has been running his 20-hectare organic vegetable farm since 1982. "If too many go over for purely financial reasons, we risk undermining confidence in the sector."

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