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Wednesday, 28 February, 2001, 17:30 GMT
Germany's green revolution
Farmers have been stunned by the blow to their livelihoods
BSE and foot-and-mouth are changing German attitudes to food and farming, putting them at the forefront of an organic revolution. Patrick Bartlett reports from southern Germany

Farmer's wife Doris Haerle watches as her cattle are loaded on to a lorry to be taken away for destruction.

Her farm is one of nearly 40 in Germany blighted by BSE. Under emergency rules, the Haerle family's entire 260-strong herd must be slaughtered.


Customers want healthy food, and we'll do that in a way that goes with and not against the wishes of the farmers

German Agriculture Minister Renate Kuenast
Ms Haerle says she only discovered her farm had BSE when a test result appeared on the nightly television news.

It was a devastating blow. The heart of her business has been wiped out.

Farmers across Germany have been stunned by the recent turn of events - first plummeting beef sales, and then the threat of foot-and-mouth from Britain.

It seems that if ever there was a time for a re-think about the way we produce food in Europe, it is surely now.

Europe's biggest member state has embarked on what, on the face of it, appears little short of a farming revolution.

Radical reforms

Appointed in January, Germany's Agriculture Minister, Renate Kuenast - a Green Party member with no farming experience - represents a ray of hope to farmers.

She has proposed radical reforms to boost the proportion of German food produced organically - from 3% of the total today to 20% in 10 years' time.
Renate Kuenast
Renate Kuenast: Tough talking and radical plans have won farmers' approval

For conventional farmers, there will be stricter regulations on animal feeds and the use of drugs. In shops, less intensively produced food will carry a new quality label.

"I think customers are prepared to pay higher prices, because they want to feed themselves and their children in a more ecological way," Miss Kuenast said.


It's very difficult to convert to organic, because you know that your yields will fall to a level where it's hardly possible to earn a living

Organic farmer Karl-Heinz Kasper

"My new approach will be to try and look at the wishes of the customer. They want healthy food, and we'll do that in a way that goes with and not against the wishes of the farmers."

A key element in her reform strategy, is switching the 5bn EU farm subsidies Germany receives towards less intensive farming.

Farmer of the future

German farmer Karl-Heinz Kasper is an ecologically minded farmer with 160 cows.

The products are there but actually the consumer has not been willing to pay a mark-up

Gerhard Greif, Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture

In the winter he feeds them clover grown in his own fields. No growth promoting drugs are allowed, and in the summer, the cows graze in 100 hectares of pasture.

Mr Kasper turned to organic farming in 1985, but he admits he struggles to make a living.

"It's very difficult to convert to organic, because you know that your yields will fall to a level where it's hardly possible to earn a living," he says.

"You can only do that if you get higher prices for your products. You need to aim for two or three times more for beef or cereals."

Cultural revolution

Some say subsidies for organic farming are not as important as changing consumer culture.

Sheep cull
Germany saw foot-and-mouth creep towards its borders
"You have to get an acceptance in a market place that they pay a premium for those goods they claim they want," says Gerhard Greif, vice-president of the Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.

"The offer is there, the products are there, but actually the consumer has not been willing to pay a mark-up".

If the BSE crisis fades in Germany, it will be even more difficult for Miss Kuenast to persuade consumers to pay more for food.

With Germany now throwing its weight behind a less intensive farming culture, the balance of argument in Europe has shifted decisively.

But without support from other big countries, like Britain or France, Miss Kuenast's food revolution is in for a long, slow haul.

See also:

26 Feb 01 | Europe
Foot-and-mouth fear grips Europe
27 Feb 01 | UK
Countryside faces closure
26 Feb 01 | Media reports
'Panic across the Channel'
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