27 Sep 2018, 10:04
Kerstine Appunn

"Demonizing global trade" no fix for agri-food emissions

Germany’s farmers, just like their fellow citizens working in other sectors, must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to enable the country to adhere to the national and international climate targets. But curbing emissions from crop production and livestock is a hard sell to both farmers and consumers, as it affects our eating habits and global trade, and conflicts with other environmental issues. Harald Grethe, professor and head of the International Agricultural Trade and Development Group at the Humboldt-Universität Berlin, tells the Clean Energy Wire how a reform of EU farming subsidies could contribute to climate action and how organic farming or the demonization of global food trade is not the solution.

CLEW: What changes could be made in the German agriculture sector to considerably lower greenhouse gas emissions?

 H. Grethe. Harald Grethe: In the report on climate action in agriculture and forestry by the Scientific Advisory Board on Agricultural Policy, Food and Consumer Health Protection (WBAE) and the Scientific Advisory Board on Forest Policy (WBW), we conclude that the largest opportunities lie in ambitious protection of moorlands, so a shift to extensive farming on peat soils. Secondly, reducing the consumption of animal products has great potential for emission reductions, especially against the backdrop of politicians not even having started to make this a larger topic. Thirdly, an important aspect is the more efficient use of nitrogen fertiliser. In many regions Germany has problems with too much nitrogen emissions to water and air, which cause greenhouse gas emissions. This is a result of existing rules allowing too much latitude when it comes to fertiliser usage – so we need more ambitious fertiliser legislation, and in particular a better implementation of these rules, especially when it comes to nitrogen. A fourth area would be the cultivation of lignocellulosic crops on arable land. These can replace both fossil fuels and fossil building materials or plastic.

But wouldn’t the use of land for lignocellulose reduce the arable land for food production?

That’s an important point and it’s why we constantly have to take into account so called indirect land use effects. If we stop using an area for planting food crops and instead use it for purposes that are more beneficial for the climate, while food demand remains the same, this leads to rising prices and an increase in food production in other countries. If this means more intensive production abroad or farming on peat soil that used to be rainforest, then increasing German extensive agriculture could actually cause higher total emissions. With this line of thought it has become obvious that many of the currently produced bio-fuels from oilseeds and cereals are not actually contributing efficiently to emission reductions. But in the case of lignocellulose cultivation [e.g. short rotation plantations of fast-growing trees or chinese reed - editor's note] we can achieve very high yields per hectare, so that the overall balance tends to be positive for the climate, especially on marginal lands.

How does the realisation that growing more food in Germany could prevent carbon leakage tie into the discussion about organic farming? Organic farming is often portrayed as the climate friendly alternative that should be more of a focus.

With the WBAE we concluded that organic farming isn’t a generally applicable climate protection strategy. The reason is the smaller yields per hectare. Organic farms benefit the environment in many ways, for example regarding biodiversity and reduced nutrient discharge. But they also produce 20 to 30 percent less than conventional farms. So if we don’t lower our food consumption, this would mean that having only organic farms would require 20 to 30 percent more land to grow the same amount of food. This use of more land would lead to more greenhouse gas emissions.

But if Germany has an export surplus in agricultural products, wouldn’t it be able to compensate for reduced (organic) production by simply not exporting any farming goods anymore?

Such an island-solution is not completely convincing if we consider that the food that Germany no longer exports has to be grown elsewhere, which could result in more emissions. But of course if Germans were to change to a more sustainable diet, it would be possible to farm the existing arable land less intensively and therefore in a more climate friendly manner.
But I have to say that I am not a great fan of a demonization of either exports or imports in agriculture. Germany’s meat exports, for example, are not per se a bad thing. A lot of the German meat that is sold on global markets is from animal parts such as pigs’ bellies, feet, ears and heads, which aren’t sought after in Germany. Selling these parts internationally is a valid strategy that also makes sense from a sustainability point of view.
But the climate impacts are not the only issue we have with the regionally very concentrated animal husbandry in Germany. We’re talking about environmental problems such as nutrient discharge from animal manure. If Germany was to implement the necessary sustainability standards regarding animal welfare and environment protection, then German farmers would not be exporters of large amounts of animal products on global markets because our production costs would simply be too high.

Critics say that German agriculture exports are also posing problems for developing countries…

Unlike 10 or 15 years ago, we’re not helping exports to these countries via export subsidies anymore. The EU has largely got rid of such subsidies. If Germany exports farming products, it does so because they are internationally competitive. Such exports are not generally bad for developing countries. If a country can import groceries at a low price, this actually benefits consumers in that country because locally produced food can be more expensive if conditions for growing it are less favourable. But of course, if developing countries want their domestic farming sector to develop, it can make sense for them to introduce import tariffs. If developing countries want to, for example, build up their own poultry production instead of receiving cheap frozen chicken parts from Europe, they should have the freedom to negotiate appropriate exemptions in international trade deals.

You mentioned that the EU stopped export subsidies for farming products. However there are a lot of other subsidies for European farmers – are these in any way targeting climate change?

A large share of these subsidies are lump sum payments not aimed at relevant objectives. Germany uses some five billion euros in EU subsidies simply as direct payments to farmers according to how much land they farm. A small share of this money is conditional on farmers complying by certain environmental standards, the so-called Greening policy. But studies have shown that these Greening measures are hardly effective at all. If the money was used more target oriented, a lot more could be achieved for the environment and the climate. The guiding principle would have to be that farmers are rewarded for services they render to the public by operating more environmentally friendly. If that was done, we wouldn’t call these payments subsidies anymore but rewards for services that farmers would otherwise not be compensated for on the market.

There is a consensus between farmers, the German government and environmentalists that reducing food waste in order to reduce production and therefore emissions is a good idea. But at the same time farmers are very vocal opponents of proposing lower meat consumption as a climate measure. Why?

That is indeed the case and in a way it is surprising, but in a positive way because there is such a broad alliance that wants to reduce food waste, even if it means there will be less demand. For farmers this attitude is not obvious because if more food is bought, even if it is then thrown away, they earn more money. But instead the ethical principle that food isn’t thrown away prevails and that is obviously a good thing. When looking at the discussion on reducing meat consumption we see a different picture and an alarmingly polarised debate. On the one side, meat and other animal products are depicted as being bad and shouldn’t be consumed at all. On the other there are farmers’ lobbyists who say that one shouldn’t interfere with consumer decisions at all. Instead of this it would be desirable to develop a strategy on how to reduce the consumption of animal products in the long term without discrediting these products in general. That is obviously not easy. We have to say that these are good products but that we should consume less to prevent climate change. But until now, both farmers’ organisations and most politicians are shying away from participating in this debate. Therefore it mostly plays a role in the environmental community while the administration is trying to ignore it.

After the drought in 2018, do you think it is easier to convince farmers to farm in a more climate friendly fashion?

What becomes obvious in a summer like the last one is that farming techniques as well as risk management strategies will have to be adapted to a changing climate because the likelihood of such extreme weather is increasing. When it comes to climate change mitigation, I think politicians have the main responsibility. Farmers’ willingness to operate in a more climate friendly way is high if politicians provide the necessary rules and rewards. But just like in other areas of society it is always difficult to convince individuals to act if the political framework isn’t at the same time forcing everyone to participate.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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