Toward ecofriendly farming

Hilly terrain with fields and forests Click to enlarge
Hilly terrain with fields and forests

Hilly terrain with fields and forests

Source: CC Vision

Farming is key when it comes to conserving and protecting our natural resources. Ecofriendly farming helps to mitigate and avoid ecological damage. To do this, an adequate legal framework and green agricultural policies are needed.

Introduction

Thanks to its fertile soil, moderate temperatures, and adequate rainfall, Germany is a very good place for farming. As a result, German food and animal feed farmers obtain high yields and good quality.

While farming is ecologically harmful from a number of standpoints, it also helps to preserve agro-ecosystems. The land that we cultivate and develop constitutes one of the main features of rural environments and offers numerous opportunities for ecofriendly farming practices. This also makes farming a cornerstone of regional economies and tourism in certain parts of Germany. Ecofriendly farming should aim to forestall deleterious effects on soil, air, water and biodiversity, preserve cultivated and developed land, and promote regional development.

German laws, as well as German and European agricultural policy instruments, provide opportunities for farmers to keep environmental degradation within reasonable bounds and employ ecofriendly farming practices. This can be accomplished through (a) enacting regulations and folding them into funding eligibility (cross-compliance) requirements; and (b) financial compensation for the economic disadvantages entailed by meeting environmental standards exceeding the legal minimum (agro-environmental program). Other options include participation in environmental management systems and certification programs, provided that their technical underpinnings are sound and plausible.

Germany’s legal framework

The regulations and minimum standards concerning environmental protection that German farmers are required to adhere to are enshrined in our existing legal framework comprising numerous laws with which Germany transposes EU agricultural policy directives into German laws governing matters such as fertilizer use, pest control, nature conservation and water conservation. However, Germany’s soil conservation laws – which lay down the principles of good agricultural practice for soil conservation – are based solely on national mandates and not on European regulations, as the EU lacks a soil framework directive.
And while Germany has numerous laws on the books concerning farming practices, the extensive ecological damage we see around us clearly indicates that there is room for improvement in this domain, by virtue of the fact that some regulations are not fully enforced at present and that some sources of pollution are not adequately regulated by current laws. For example, Germany’s fertilizer regulations currently contain no provisions limiting fermentation residues to 170 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare. As a result, additional application of nitrogen rich fermentation residues cannot be adequately forestalled under current laws, a situation that can occasion increased regional nitrate loads in groundwater.

What’s more, many regulations tend to take the form of recommendations; on-site monitoring by the authorities tends to be sporadic and violations are rarely uncovered and/or sanctioned.

European subsidy regulations

Environmental safeguards are folded into the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) through the avoidance of environmentally unsound farming practices, maintaining the good agricultural and ecological status of farmland, and the agro-environmental program, which financially compensates farmers for the management problems and lower yields resulting from their environmental protection measures. In order to qualify for CAP grants, farmers are required to (a) meet statutory EU requirements concerning environmental protection, food safety, plant and animal health, and animal welfare; and (b) maintain the good agricultural and ecological status of their farmland. Such funding is cut off to farmers who fail to comply with these rules. Farmers who exceed the basic legal requirements by offering goods and services and voluntarily adopting farming practices that protect nature and the environment are rewarded for their efforts with financial support for agro-environmental measures. Such measures include farming practices and methods that improve the soil and reduce erosion, as well as extensive cultivated-grassland protection measures and organic farming.

Environmental management and certification

Environmental management in the agricultural sector aim to (a) monitor and document farming practices so as to reduce ecological damage and costs; and (b) encourage farmers to voluntarily improve environmental protection in the agricultural sector by so that they feel motivated to act in a more environmentally responsible manner and set their own goals in this regard. Environmental management promotes the improvement of substance flows from an economic standpoint and thus helps to relieve the strain on the environment through resource conservation. The EU’s Environmental Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS II) entitles growers to participate in the European environmental management system. It applies to “all organizations that have an environmental impact,” and this of course includes farms. EMAS II enables all types of organizations to conduct an internal audit (based on a specific protocol) aimed at ferreting out operational and/or organizational weaknesses, the goal being to cut costs and strengthen legal certainty. The environmental declaration that the participating entities are required to issue is destined for the general public. Farmers must meet certain requirements concerning their internal processes, as well as the environmental impact and goals of their farming activities for the coming three years. Particular weight is given to the environmental statement by virtue of the mandatory external audit of the businesses in question carried out by a state certified environmental auditor, whose task is to officially validate the environmental statement. This in turn lends environmental statements the weight of a credible instrument for communication with the public, the media and governmental authorities. Businesses that successfully pass the audit are entered in the European Register of EMAS sites.

In terms of European environmental policy, extending the EMAS to the agricultural sector is timely and makes good sense in that virtually all farm production activities have an environmental impact. Minimizing this impact is one of the main goals of environmental management, whose technical and organizational measures aim to minimize the resources that go into farm production. One of the keys to achieving this is legal compliance and use of the best available technologies. Apart from EMAS and EMASeasy, other auditing and certification systems are coming into increasing use, among them Kriteriensystem Nachhaltige Landwirtschaft (KSNL) from Thuringia (as well as VDLUFA), the DLG-Nachhaltigkeitszertifikat (based on the REPRO system) and the universally applicable RISE (Response Inducing Sustainability Evaluation) system from Switzerland.