Comment: Sustainability – It’s complex …

Hanka Mittelstadt addressing the panel, which was moderatedDr Ludger Schulze Pais (left), editor of top agrar magazine . The panel (left to right) were: Prinz Lowenstein, Huburtus Paetow, Robert Kloss, Dr Helmut Schramm and Dr Ralf Pude. , moderated the panel.
Ali Spencer was in Germany recently to attend this year's International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) annual World Congress in Bonn.

A spirited opening panel session at the 2016 IFAJ World Congress, pitched a passionate organic farmer against a politician, a German agricultural representative, someone from the plant protection industry, a scientist and a young German conventional farmer in a discussion about sustainability. It showed that primary sector colleagues around the world are debating the same issues as here in New Zealand. And, that it’s a complex and highly interwoven topic.

Germany is an important market for New Zealand produce, especially lamb and venison, and its sustainability approach has often been highlighted as a beacon for New Zealand. The word itself was said by several speakers to have sprung from the Germany forestry industry a number of centuries ago, referring to the practice of replanting forest for future generations.

The speakers were challenged to come up with a single definition of sustainability, “so we can give consumers the impression we are on the right track.”

While the six person panel couldn’t come up with an agreed single definition for ‘sustainability’, they all referred to it hinging on three pillars – economic, environmental (which includes biodiversity and climate change) and social. Which pillar is prominent depends on the point of view of the enquirer, but elements of the other two also come into play.

Talk to farmers, “who know what they are doing”, about sustainability

For farmers and agribusiness, the prominent pillar could be said to be ‘economic’. Impressive young German farmer, 29 year old Hanka Mittelstädt, is the twelfth generation of her family to farm their 500 hectare fruit, suckler cows and laying hen properties in Uckermark and Berlin and she is looking forward over the next three generations to come.  She described sustainability as “such a big hype and so complex,” and urged the German agricultural establishment to go to farms and talk to farmers, who “know what they are doing” to make sustainable decisions every day, before making governmental policy decisions about sustainability.

“Even the peasant in ancient times used sustainability as a matter of course to ensure the survival of the members through the production of food,” she said.

For Middelstädt, sustainability means food for the constantly growing world population in terms of social justice – access to food – while conserving resources. She advocates a drop in “steady land consumption”, while increasing production through investment in research, the continued development of efficient agricultural production and secure farmer incomes in rural areas.

“The intensification of agriculture is not synonymous with increasing environmental pollution. A short-term profit maximisation at the expense of the next generation is, for me not compatible with the original principle of agriculture.”

For environmental campaigners and pressure groups, it’s the environmental pillar that is key, incorporating biodiversity, climate change, soil fertility, animal welfare, amount of animal feedstuffs, water, food waste and so on.

Conventional farming not sustainable

Chairman and chief executive of the Federal Organic Food Industry (BÖLW), the impressively named Dr Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein, is passionate about his cause. “We should farm and produce our food in a way that in another 10,000 years we will still be able to do it. Which means we have to stop using exhaustible resources like phosphate or fossil energy, rebuild biodiversity and soil fertility and close nutrient cycles. We are far away from that,” he said.

He believes food should not be separated from farms and that if one type of production affects climate change then it should be eliminated.

Responding to comments about German farmers, as in other parts of the world, falling out of the value chain, Lowenstein responded, “If individual parts of the value chain are losing money, you need to look at the whole structure.”

Conventional farming is simply not sustainable the way it has been done, he said. “We are victims, but not blame-free.”

It’s the responsibility of the consumer, who holds the purse-strings, to pay for the sustainable products they call for, he believes. In addition, regulations are needed to keep the system sustaining for decades to come.

Produce enough food and think globally

NGOs are enthusiastic about one element, but it’s much more than that, according to Bayer CropScience Germany’s managing director Dr Helmut Schramm. “We need to produce enough food and to think globally.”

The plant protection specialist believes sustainability is the major theme of agriculture, in Germany and all over the world, and sees its role as helping farmers develop cultivation strategies that also protect natural resources, Schramm explained. Sustainability is the ability to do business for a long time, he said, adding that producing sustainably also benefits farmers economically.

“With only three percent of the earth’s surface available for growing crops, we must feed a growing population that is estimated to reach nine billion by 2050. In addition, agriculture is being called upon to provide feed for animals as well as renewable raw materials for the production of energy.”

The aim is not to create excess production and bank it, rather to increase productivity on available land through the use of new technologies such as plant protection, precisely targeted at when and where plants need it.

“We want each of the regions to be able to produce safe and sufficient foods for their purposes.”

It’s about generations: future and present

It’s the social pillar that is of most importance to consumers and local communities. For farmers, that pillar also relates to the importance of conserving land and businesses for future generations to farm and enjoy – and also for the current generation to earn a living.

Arable farmer from Finkenthal-Schlutow, Hubertus Paetow, is vice-president of the German Agricultural Society DLG e.V and chairman of the DLG-Test Centre for Technology and Farm Inputs. He believes innovation and progress are the basis for an agriculture that is both competitive and sustainable.

“Sustainability, which encompasses ecology, economy and social responsibility, requires farmers to take a continuous critical look at their own actions,” he said. “Sustainable management also means taking social demands, and consequently one’s own actions, seriously. Likewise society must face and fulfill its responsibility towards farmers.”

Showing how farmers are doing is one way ahead. DLG recently launched a new Sustainability Standard, which allows sustainability to be measured objectively on ecological, economic and social aspects. This is a methodical system, which has a matrix of up to 26 indicators, is measured over a three year period and takes into account all aspects of the farm operation. “The farmer can assess his farm, take measures for sustainable development and communicate these to his customers, consumers and the local community, explained Paetow.

“The DLG Sustainability Standard not only evaluates the whole farm, but provides feedback at field, part-field and even crop level. This highlights any weaknesses in the farming system, providing the opportunity to undertake optimising measures where these are required.”

That’s all well and good, said civil servant Dr Robert Kloos, German Federal undersecretary of state for the country’s ministry of food and agriculture. The model is good but needs more work and also needs to be a “one-size fits all”.

From Lowenstein’s point of view, sustainable systems should be based on organic principles. He commented that while it’s good to have indicators, if the bee population, for example, is still dying then they are worthless.

Base it on science

According to Kloos, the German government’s position on sustainability is based on scientific facts and evidence. “We want the German consumer to freely decide and won’t prescribe, but rather inform the consumer about the issue and also that they must pay a price for the implementation of those sustainability standards,” he said.

Science needs to lead the way and have a multi-discplinary approach, agreed scientist Professor Dr Ralf Pude of the University of Bonn. His view of sustainability is, “the efficient utilisation of renewable resources and waste materials followed by development of intelligent bio-based (sequential) products.”

Many changing dimensions of sustainability

While the three pillars of sustainability were agreed, Kloos noted that there are many different dimensions to ‘sustainability’. “We are keen on adding new dimensions but we haven’t come to our destination yet,” he said. “We assume we need to have a productive sector catering to consumer demands, but if someone can produce soybeans, for example, more cheaply, then we should not stand in their way.”

Looking to the future and envisaging agriculture in 10 years time is difficult as some of the objectives may have changed by that time, he pointed out. “It’s possible more investment may have to be made into environmental protection and technology and equipment for farmers,” he said, adding also that policing compliance is another element that needs looking at.

“The general consensus is that sustainability is a work in progress,” said Paetow, adding that DLG has started work on a vision of sustainable production for German agriculture in thirty years time. The German government will also publish a green paper on the topic later this year.

I suspect, the debate will continue for some time to come.

Ali Spencer travelled to Germany recently to attend the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ annual World Congress, held this year in Bonn. The conference theme was ‘Sustainability – Made in Germany’.


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