Organic farming

Close-up of an organically grown appleClick to enlarge
An organically grown apple

Close-up of an organically grown apple

Source: Mikel Wohlschlegel / Fotolia

Organic products taste good, and make a positive contribution to human health and environmental protection. Organic farming is a highly resource-conserving and environmentally-friendly activity that is oriented towards the principle of sustainability. It also aims to keep animals in a manner conducive to their welfare.

Ecofriendliness of organic farming

Organic farming is ecofriendly from many different standpoints. The avoidance of mineral nitrogen fertilizer use, as well as limiting per hectare livestock herd sizes and livestock manure use to the scope necessary for crop plant nitrogen needs, creates virtually hermetic nutrient cycles. The farm’s livestock manure is used to grow its own crops and can be readily uptaken by the crops. Nutrient surpluses resulting from purchased fodder and mineral fertilizer use are thus avoided. This above all protects surface waterbodies and groundwater, by virtue of the fact that organic farming often generates a lower level of nutrient deposits (particularly nitrates) than is the case with conventional farming; plus the fact that avoiding the use of chemical pesticides contributes to waterbody conservation.

Organic-fertilizer use and cultivating nitrogen-fixating protein crops (legumes) promote humus formation and soil fertility, engender conditions that enable soil organisms to thrive, and create stable soil structures by virtue of their activities. Catch-cropping and undersowing reduces the risk of erosion, because the ground is covered virtually year round.

Organic farming also promotes farmland flora and fauna biodiversity via extensive crop rotation and catch-cropping, and the avoidance of pesticide use. Species-appropriate livestock farming, sufficient exercise and pasturing, fresh air, longer fattening periods, and reduced antibiotic use promote animal welfare, as well as acceptance on the part of the general public.

And finally, organic farming contributes to climate protection, in that the pesticides and fertilizers used for conventional farming entail greater resource and energy use and have a far larger carbon footprint. Higher topsoil humus content also allows greater amounts of carbon dioxide to be trapped in the soil and removed from the ecosphere.

Apart from the environmental benefits of organic farming, organic products often contain lower concentrations of nitrate, pesticides, antibiotics and other residues. The use of genetically modified organisms is banned in Germany.

Organic farming

The proportion of our farmland that is used for organic farming is a key indicator for the government’s sustainability strategy, which aims to increase the proportion of Germany’s farmland that is used for organic farming to 20 per cent by 2030. However, as we are far from reaching this goal, the current figure is 9.7 per cent (1.613.814 hectare), additional measures and adequate EU, federal and regional-state funding are needed.

In 2019, 34.110 farms (12.9 per cent of all German farms) met the requirements qualifying them as organic farms. The amount of farmland being used for organic farming increased by 0,8 per cent, bringing the proportion of German farmland being used for organic farming to 9,7 per cent.

These figures vary from one regional-state to another Organic farming in Brandenburg, Saarland, Hesse and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania greatly exceeded the national average, in contrast to Lower Saxony, Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein.

The demand for organic products is growing in Germany, which is Europe’s largest organic product market and organic food producer, with sales amounting to 11.97 billion € in 2019. Despite the  increase in the amount of farmland being used for organic farming, the demand for organic products continues to substantially outpace supply. Some of these imports could also be produced at home, although this would entail greater effort in terms of the planning certainty and reliability of subsidy policies.

Farmer/producer organizations; legal framework

Organic food and farming are governed by Regulation No 834/2007/EC, whose objectives, principles and rules for organic farming are more clearly formulated than the predecessor regulation and are intended to promote greater transparency and consumer confidence. Regulation No 834/2007/EC is supplemented by implementing Regulation No 889/2008/EC. Germany’s Organic Farming Act (ÖLG) transposes these regulations into German law, enacts other legislation, and stipulates various enforcement tasks such as approval and monitoring mechanisms. The Act was amended in 2009 and 2013 to harmonize it with new EU organic farming legislation.

Many of the current rules for organic farming in the EU are more than 20 years old, and thus need to be updated to adequately take into consideration the major changes that have taken place in the organic sector since and respond to future challenges. On 24 March 2014 the European Commission adopted the legislative proposals for a new Regulation on organic production and labelling of organic products.  At the end of 2017, the Council endorsed the co-legislators' agreement on the new rules on organic production. Once adopted, the new rules will enter into force on 1 January 2021.

Many of Germany’s organic farms belong to grower and producer organizations. Most such farms are members of Bund für Ökologische Lebensmittelwirtschaft e. V. (BÖLW), which is the umbrella association for the German organic farming and food sector. The BÖLW aims to promote (a) the development of the organic food and farming sector; and (b) the interests of its members, mainly through lobbying and other activities. The German organic farming associations’ guidelines meet the criteria of EU organic farming law, but are in some respects more stringent.

A uniform ecolabel has been in use in Germany since 2001 that serves the cause of better eco-labeling. In July 2010 the European Commission promulgated a new ecolabel, the Euro-leaf logo, which, following a two year transitional period, became mandatory for all organic products sold in the EU on 1 July 2012. This label enables consumers to easily recognize organic products. In addition to the Euro-leaf, EU producers are also allowed to use their recognized national ecolabels and private sector logos on their products.

Subsidies for organic farming

Organic farming entails greater managerial effort and is more labor intensive than conventional farming. As organic products tend to have lower yields and are more cost intensive than their conventional counterparts, their prices tend to be higher. Nonetheless, organic farms and organic food manufacturers are often in a stronger economic position than conventional producers. The ecological benefits of organic farming are subsidized under European and German regional-state agricultural policy via agro-environmental measures. Such funding is particularly necessary during the first two to three years of the switch from conventional to organic farming, since during this period producers are not permitted to sell their organic products at the higher prices that are normally obtained for such products. Introduction of or switching to organic farming in Germany is part of the agro-environmental program under Regulation No 1698/2005/EC (ELER program). The federal government subsidizes organic farming via the joint federal/regional state instrument Gemeinschaftsaufgabe zur Verbesserung der Agrarstruktur und des Küstenschutzes (<="">">GAK, improvement of agrarian infrastructures and coastal protection). Of these subsidies, 60 per cent are financed by the EU and federal government, while the remainder is financed by the regional states. By law, EU subsidies must be co-financed by the regional states. In other words, such funds may only be disbursed and used if the regional states provide co-funding from their own budgets. In keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, the regional states have a certain amount of leeway when it comes to implementing agricultural subsidy programs, so as to allow them to be tailored to the specific needs of each regional state. Hence the premiums for switching to and maintaining organic farming vary from one regional state to another.

In the interest of creating conditions that are more conducive to organic farming, in late 2001 the federal government established the Bundesprogramm Ökologischer Landbau (BÖL) organic farming program, which aims to, among other things, strengthen marketing for organic products. The program has been renewed a number of times and, as of 2010, is now available for other types of sustainable farming. (Bundesprogramm Ökologischer Landbau und andere Formen nachhaltiger Landwirtschaft (BÖLN)). Under the new program, information management has been strengthened and the scope of existing measures has been expanded accordingly. Moreover, under the program’s R&D guidelines, it has provided support for R&D and technology and knowledge transfer projects for sustainable cultivation, processing and marketing of farm products.

Financial planning certainty and reliability are essential when it comes to growers’ willingness to switch to and to maintain organic farming. The extent to which the government’s goal of 20 per cent of Germany’s farmland being used for organic farming will be reached largely depends on the availability of sufficient funding for organic farming. The EU and German ministers of agriculture need to step up to the plate in this regard by providing sufficient funding, respectively, for  EU, for federal and regional-state budgets, with the goal of strengthening support for environmental protection in the farming sector.