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. What’s more, organic farming is a sustainable activity that uses far fewer resources than conventional farming. It is also environmentally and livestock friendly.

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, in that 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 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, by virtue of the fact that 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 to 20 per cent the proportion of Germany’s farmland that is used for organic farming However, as we are far from reaching this goal, for which no timeframe has been set (the current figure is only six per cent), additional measures and adequate EU, federal and regional-state funding are needed.
In 2012, 7.7 per cent of all German farms (22,932 in all) met the requirements qualifying them as organic farms – a 2.2 per cent increase (426 farms) over the prior year. The amount of farmland being used for organic farming increased by 1.8 per cent (18,729 hectares), bringing the proportion of German farmland being used for organic farming to 6.2 per cent.

These figures vary from one regional-state to another, and break down as follows (for 2011): Brandenburg 10.8%; Saarland 10.6%; Hesse 10.3%; Mecklenburg-West Pomerania 9%. These figures greatly exceeded the national average, in contrast to Lower Saxony, Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, where the figures were 2.8%, 3.9% and 3.5% respectively. Germany’s organic-farming surface area falls somewhere in terms of the EU as a whole, where in 2011 organic farming was most widespread in Austria, Sweden and Estonia (18.9%, 15.7% and 14.1% of farmland respectively).

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 €6.9 billion in 2012 – a 5.6% increase over the prior year’s figure of €6.59 billion. The market share of organic products in the German grocery sector amounted to 3.8 per cent in 2012. Despite the only 2.7 per cent 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 to harmonize it with new EU organic farming legislation.

Many of Germany’s organic farms belong to grower and producer organizations. Most such farms are members of Bund 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

Because organic farming is far more ecofriendly and uses far fewer resources than conventional farming, it 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 infrstructures 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. For budgetary reasons, in some regional states the subsidies for continuing to practice organic farming are in some cases discontinued after the sixth year of cultivation.

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 received €16 million in funding for 2010, a level that will be maintained for the foreseeable future. The program has been renewed a number of times and, as of 2010, is now available for other types of sustainable farming. Current plans call for the program to remain in existence until the end of 2015, under the name Bundesprogramm Ökologischer Landbau und andere Formen nachhaltiger Landwirtschaft (BÖLN). Under the program, information management has been strengthened and the scope of existing measures has been expanded accordingly. Moreover, under the program’s R&D guidelines, since 2011 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 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 the second pillar of the CAP and for federal and regional-state budgets, with the goal of strengthening support for environmental protection in the farming sector.