Ecological impact of farming

Tractor with tow tubeClick to enlarge
The drag hose prevents environmental pollution
Source: stefanthiermayer /

Germany’s farming sector uses the largest amount of land, but is at the same a lynchpin of our economy – one that provides a reliable food supply and produces sustainable raw materials. The farming sector also plays a key role when it comes to preservation and development of the man-made environment. But increasingly intensive farming brings with it a host of eco-unfriendly effects.

Agriculture in Germany

Almost 47 per cent (16.7 million hectares) of Germany’s surface area is used for farming. Of this land, some 71 per cent is used for crop cultivation and 28 per cent is used as cultivated grassland. A minute amount of Germany’s farmland (1 per cent) is used for permaculture and other agricultural purposes. In 2016, nearly 60 per cent of Germany’s farmland was being used to grow fodder for intensive livestock farming, while just under 20 per cent was being used for food crops. An additional 20 per cent was being used for biogas crops (mainly corn) and biofuel crops (mainly rape), as well as for recycling.

And while the mere 0.9 per cent of GVA and 1.4 per cent of the workforce accounted for by the German farming sector appears at first glance to be relatively insignificant, the fact is that our farming sector has a major impact on our economy because it is closely linked with other sectors. Apart from the 616.000 person workforce of Germany’s 267,000 farms, many other persons are employed in upstream and downstream agribusiness sectors. In 2017, these sectors comprised 750,000 businesses that employed 4.7 million persons directly or indirectly for the production, use and processing of farm products. One in every nine employed person in Germany is somehow connected to the farm sector, which particularly in rural areas is a major employer in domains such as gastronomy, the building trades, and retailing and is a lynchpin of rural development and land conservation.

In 2016, Germany’s farmers registered revenues amounting to €52,5 billion, producing crops worth €25,2 billion and animal products worth €23,9 billion. Such high production levels were not always the case, however. In the early 20th century each German farmer produced enough food for four people. By 1950 this figure had increased to 10, and by 2016 the figure was 135 persons. This evolution was attributable to (a) the development and use of highly efficient machinery, precision technologies and fertilizers and pesticides; and (b) advances in the field of livestock breeding. Needless to say, these evolutions have impacted the environment and its various compartments, namely soil, water, air and the biosphere. Interactions between these compartments engender conflicting environmental protection goals.

Environmental impact of intensive farming

Farming is of crucial importance and bears a great responsibility for environmental protection. Farms lack the protective walls and enclosed spaces found in factories and instead carry out their activities in open systems. Mechanized tilling and harvesting, as well as fertilizers and pesticides, have an impact on soil, water, air and on the plants and animals that inhabit farm areas (general biodiversity). Intensive farming aimed at increased yields leave behind monotonously denuded farmland, while the use of heavy machinery and intensive tilling can compact the soil, and increases the likelihood of soil fertility loss and water and wind erosion. Groundwater contamination by nitrates and the eutrophication of rivers, lakes and oceans is mainly attributable to extensive use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers.

Pesticides and fertilizers containing heavy metals, as well as pharmaceutical contaminants and residues from animal breeding, pose an additional threat to terrestrial and aquatic ecosytems. Further environmental repercussions include biodiversity loss, as well as the greenhouse gases engendered by changes in land use (particularly converting grassland to arable land, fen/mire use and forest clearing), fertilizer use, tilling, and livestock raising. In 2016 our farm sector accounted for 7.3 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions, not counting changes in land use or emissions from the production of mineral fertilizers. Thus making this sector, in conjunction with the industrial sector, Germany’s second largest polluter, behind its number one polluter, the energy sector (83.5 per cent).