Do we have to dare a new food system?

Lack of seasonal workers and virus explosion in slaughterhouses, rising vegetable prices, climate crisis – all these things demonstrate what has actually been obvious for decades: our food system is highly productive and (at least for the rich inhabitants of planet earth) guarantees an unprecedented rich and steady food supply ... but it is not resilient.

Indonesia: The base camp of illegal loggers lies in the middle of a devastated landscape. Photo: Christoph Püschner Zeitenspiegel
Indonesia: The base camp of illegal loggers lies in the middle of a devastated landscape. Photo: Christoph Püschner Zeitenspiegel

Dr. Felix zu Löwenstein

Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg is a German agricultural scientist and farmer. He is known as a critic of industrial agriculture. As chairman of the BÖLW (Bund Ökologische Lebensmittelwirtschaft) he helps to promote the development of the organic food industry and to create sustainable framework conditions. He converted the Habitzheim estate, which has been owned by the family for 500 years, to organic. For his many years of versatile commitment to organic farming, he was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2011 his book was published: „FOOD CRASH – Wir werden uns ökologisch ernähren oder gar nicht mehr“, and in 2015 " Es ist Genug da. Für Alle. Wenn wir den Hunger bekämpfen und nicht die Natur "



The industrially structured agricultural sector relies utterly on crutches: for example, without artificial nitrogen fertilisers, which are produced with high energy input, the high yields would be unthinkable, even with sufficient water supply. The same applies to soya beans that are produced on land that was previously a tropical rainforest or South American savannah (pampa). Without them, our massive animal husbandry would not be possible. Chemical synthetic pesticides are also an indispensable part of agriculture and it is called ‘conventional’ just because it has become the norm worldwide.


Not a single square metre of conventional farmland produces harvest that has not been treated with pesticides against weeds, fungi, insects, etc. In animal husbandry, the use of antibiotics is similarly trivial, i.e. it is not the exception for sick animals but rather the norm in a sick system. These crutches are not only expensive and – especially in the case of synthetic nitrogen – very energy-intensive. They also cause collateral damage, some of which even calls into question the very foundation of agricultural production.


Rwanda: A farmer sprays pesticide on his tea plantation. Photo: Wolfgang Langenstrassen/picture-alliance/dpa
Rwanda: A farmer sprays pesticide on his tea plantation. Photo: Wolfgang Langenstrassen/picture-alliance/dpa

It is important to understand that only about 45% of the nitrogen from fertilisers in Germany (worldwide even only 30%) is incorporated into the protein of food plants; a correspondingly high amount remains in the environment. This leads to groundwater pollution, causes ‘death zones’ in river estuaries around the globe and favours natural selection of organisms in ecosystems that prefer to have low levels of nitrogen – all of these effects result in high and increasingly irreversible costs to the general public. The use of pesticides is a major contributor to the decline of species, which, according to the Paris Conference on Biological Diversity, is taking on apocalyptic dimensions similar to those of global climate change – for the latter agriculture and food industry are responsible for about a quarter.


The fact that the collapse in species and population size of insects is not ‘the problem’, but rather only a part of it, is clear to anyone who understands how ecosystems work. It can be illustrated by taking a look at comparable developments in birds of the open agricultural landscape. The fact that we cannot yet describe what species extinction looks like in our soils does not mean that it is not happening. But it is hard to imagine that this part of the food chain could be miraculously spared. Rather, the problem is that we know so woefully little about soil life. We humans must realise that we cannot exist without functioning ecosystems. Because we are a part of nature and not just bystanders. That is why the effects of our agricultural system on human health are not only related to the direct effects of chemical synthetic residues of pesticides or antibiotics on our organism, but also with changes in ecosystems.


Evidence is growing that declining biodiversity leads to increasing infectious diseases.


In February 2020, a Swedish meta-study showed how diverse the evidence is that decreasing biodiversity leads to increasing infectious diseases. Just recently, in May 2020, a study from Kenya was published in ‘nature’ magazine, which illustrates how some causes that look minimal can have unpredictably massive effects: the scientists discovered that in African fresh-waters even minimal trace amounts of pesticides (far below toxicological limits) have an effect on the species composition. This is simply due to the fact that there are species whose chances of survival under such stress situations are lower than those of other species. With fatal consequences: this phenomenon has favoured snails that are intermediate hosts for the pathogen causing schistosomiasis. The researchers found them exclusively in waters that were contaminated with pesticides and eutrophicated with nitrogen.


There is no doubt that this agricultural system facilitates a nutritional system in which food is abundant (and enables diets that have made diabetes caused by overeating a pandemic). But it is just as clear that it is destroying the very foundation of this food production – in particular stable climate, biodiversity and fertile soils.


Fishermen from the Congolese jungle village of Ntondo pursue their trade. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt
Fishermen from the Congolese jungle village of Ntondo pursue their trade. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt

Moreover, the coronavirus crisis has revealed a fact that has become very clear: global supply chains favour cheap production and create export opportunities. But where they damage local food sovereignty, they lead to hunger. When commodity chains no longer function in crisis mode, labour mobility is restricted or individual countries even suspend their exports, we hardly notice it – after all, we spend only 11% of our income on food. For people who spend 75% of their income on food, the resulting price increases make the difference between having food or not.


What we need are stable systems


Consequently, we must prioritise the stability of our food systems over their productivity, starting with the stability of agricultural production. It must function independently of the use of unnatural substances, so that ecosystems are relieved of substances for which they were not naturally prepared through evolution. Nutrients must be kept as far as possible in the cycle so that they do not act where they should not act at all. Soils must be alive so that they can build up humus, store water and make it available. This would allow them to provide yield security even under the stress conditions of the climate crisis and avoid being carried away by wind or heavy rain. Animals must be robust enough and kept in good health so that they are usually not ill and only require veterinary treatment in exceptional cases.


This also means that their organism should not be subject to performance requirements for growth or milk production that put too much of a strain on them. Additionally, national economies must have the highest possible level of food sovereignty, as must the farming families that live in them. It does not exclude division of labour or global trade, but it does not put all eggs in one basket to avoid getting stuck during a crisis. And it requires that farmers are not robbed of their fields in order to make them available to internationally active companies that produce palm oil for blending with European diesel or animal feed for our insatiable meat industry.

The wide range of these requirements shows how thoroughly these stable systems have to be planned and that they reach beyond the farm gate. It is encouraging to see that there are models for all requirements that show it works. There are organic farms and agro-ecological practices in every country around the world that show that production systems can be stable. Their overarching basic principle is diversity as well as understanding of natural feedback cycles and assimilation of agricultural practices to function as close as possible to natural ecosystems. It is fascinating that such farmers are both economically successful and highly productive.


It is a key priority for scientists to take up such systemic approaches, to develop them further in collaboration with practitioners and then make the detailed descriptions available and scalable for others. After decades of investments in perfecting unstable, technology-centred production methods, there is an enormous need to catch up!


Zambia: Women farmers in their maize field with improved, climate-adapted cultivation methods. Photo: WWF Germany
Zambia: Women farmers in their maize field with improved, climate-adapted cultivation methods. Photo: WWF Germany

Go back

Similar articles

Hunger must not be a consequence of the epidemic!

By Michael Brüntrup (DIE)

Even though COVID-19 poses a threat to the health of humanity, the reaction to the pandemic must not cause more suffering than the disease itself. This is particularly relevant for poor developing countries, where the impact of the corona crisis on food security is even more severe!


Read more

Double interview: The Forest Maker and his director

By Jan Rübel

Tony Rinaudo uses conventional reforestation methods to plant millions and millions of trees – and Volker Schlöndorff is filming a cinema documentary about the Australian. The outcome so far: An educational film on behalf of the BMZ (Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development).

Read more

Global responsibility: Tackling hunger is the only way forward

By Lisa Hücking (WHH)

Chancellor Merkel has begun an ambitious European political programme: Striving for compromise in budget negotiations, an orderly Brexit as well as an appropriate response to the corona crisis. Unfortunately, one of her positions that she previously held is nowhere to be found: Africa's prosperity is in the interest of Europe. 

Read more

Success story allotment garden: Food supply and women's empowerment

By Nadine Babatounde and Anne Floquet

To prevent malnutrition among young children and strengthen the role of women in their communities, Misereor, together with the local non-governmental organisation CEBEDES, is implementing a programme on integrated home gardens in Benin - a series of pictures.

Read more

Turning many into one: CGIAR network restructures

By Jan Rübel

International agricultural research is responding to new challenges: Their advisory group is undergoing a fundamental reform process and unites knowledge, partnerships and physical assets into OneCGIAR.

Read more


Actual Analysis: The locusts came with the crises

By Bettina Rudloff and Annette Weber (SWP)

The Corona-Virus exacerbates existing crises through conflict, climate, hunger and locusts in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. What needs to be done in these regions? To face these challenges for many countries, all of these crises need to be captured in their regional context.

Read more


Resilient small-scale agriculture: A key in global crises

By Kerstin Weber and Brit Reichelt-Zolho (WWF)

Biodiversity and sustainable agriculture ensure the nutrition of whole societies. But there is more: These two factors also provide better protection against the outbreak of dangerous pandemics. Hence, the question of preserving ecosystems is becoming a global survival issue.

Read more

Developing countries hit doubly hard by coronavirus

By Gunter Beger (BMZ)

In most African countries, the infection COVID-19 is likely to trigger a combined health and food crisis. This means: In order to cope with this unprecedented crisis, consistently aligning our policies to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is more important than ever, our author maintains.

Read more

“Corona exposes the weaknesses of our nutritional systems"

Interview with Arif Husain (WFP)

The United Nations plan a Food Systems Summit - and now the Corona-Virus is dictating the agenda. The Chief Economist of the UN World Food Programme takes stock of the current situation: a conversation with Jan Rübel about pandemics, about the chromosomes of development - and about the conflicts that inhibit them.

Read more

Hier steht eine Bildbeschreibung

Statement from GAFSP Co-Chairs: GAFSP and COVID-19 Pandemic


COVID-19 has unprecedented effects on the world. As always, the most vulnerable are the hardest hit, both at home and - especially - abroad. A joint appeal by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ) and the Department for International Development (DFID).

Read more

(c) Welthungerhilfe

5 questions to F. Patterson: Why is there more hunger?

Interview with Fraser Patterson

Every year in October, the "Welthungerhilfe" aid organisation, with the Irish "Concern Worldwide" NGO, publishes the Global Hunger Index, a tool with which the hunger situation is recorded. What are the trends - and what needs to be done?

Read more

"Pandemic increases violence against women"

Interview with Léa Rouanet

African countries still face huge gender gaps in terms of access to work and capital. What are the consequences of Corona for women in Africa? Jan Rübel interviewed Léa Rouanet on lockdowns and gender-based violence. The economist works at the Africa Gender Innovation Lab of the World Bank.

Read more

Gender equality: Essential for food and nutrition security

By Carsta Neuenroth (BfdW)

The majority of producers in developing countries are women. Although they contribute significantly to the food security of their families, they remain chronically disadvantaged in male-dominated agriculture in terms of access to land, credit, technology and education.

Read more

Building our food systems back better

By Jes Weigelt and Alexander Müller

What is required to make food systems provide sufficient, healthy food while not harming the planet? How should food security be maintained given the threat posed by climate change? Our authors look at some aspects of tomorrow’s food systems against the backdrop of the corona crisis.

Read more

"We must mobilise all available resources"

By Ismahane Elouafi (ICBA)

Freshwater deficits are affecting more and more people throughout the world. In order to counter this, our global food system will have to change, our author maintains. A case for more research on alternative crops and smart water solutions.

Read more

Video diaries in the days of Corona: Voices from the ground

By Sarah D´haen & Alexander Müller, Louisa Nelle, Bruno St. Jaques, Sarah Kirangu-Wissler and Matteo Lattanzi (TMG)

Young farmers’ insights on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food systems in Sub-Saharan Africa @CovidFoodFuture and video diaries from Nairobi’s informal settlements.

Read more

Quinoa could have a huge potential in Central Asia, where the Aral Sea Basin has been especially hard-hit by salinisation.

Planetary Health: Recommendations for a Post-Pandemic World

By Dr. Kathleen Mar and Dr. Nicole de Paula

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, health is receiving unprecedented public and political attention. Yet the fact that climate change is also affecting the environmental and social determinants of health in a profound and far-reaching way deserves further recognition.

Read more

Good health is impossible without healthy food

By Heino von Meyer

Corona makes it even more difficult to achieve a world without hunger by 2030. So that this perspective does not get out of sight, Germany must play a stronger role internationally - a summary of the Strategic Advisory Group of SEWOH.

Read more

"The virus does not need visa"

Interview by Dr. Ahmed Ouma (CDC)

Countries across Africa coordinate their efforts in the fight against corona by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) of the African Union in Addis Abeba. Until now, the curve of new infections has been successfully flattened – why? Dr. Ahmed Ouma, Deputy Director, explains the work of CDC in an interview with Tilman Wörtz.

Read more

Freed from trade? Towards a fairer EU Trade Agenda

By Dr. Jan Orbie

‘Fair’ and ‘sustainable’ are key words in Germany’s EU Council Presidency. At the same time, Germany pursues ‘modernization’ of the WTO and ‘rapid progress’ on free trade agreements. Are these goals really compatible? Can we be concerned about fairness and sustainability while continuing with ‘business as usual’?

Read more

Ms Rudloff, what are the benefits of a supply chain law?

By Jan Rübel

The Federal Government is fine-tuning a law that would require companies to ensure human rights – a supply chain law. What are the consequences for the agricultural sector? Dr Bettina Rudloff from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) discusses linking policy fields with added value.

Read more

Reference values: A building block on the road to social equality

Article by Friederieke Martin (GIZ)

A quick and cost-effective method calculates living wages and incomes for many different countries. The GIZ together with Fairtrade International and Richard and Martha Anker have developed a tool that companies can use to easily analyse income and wage gaps.

Read more

Quinoa could have a huge potential in Central Asia, where the Aral Sea Basin has been especially hard-hit by salinisation.

Supermarket Scorecard on Human Rights

By Dr. Franziska Humbert (Oxfam)

Oxfam’s supermarket scorecard, which is in its third year, shows one thing in particular - it works! Supermarkets can change their business policies and focus more on the rights of those people around the world who plant and harvest food. However, this does not happen without pressure. 

Read more

Quinoa could have a huge potential in Central Asia, where the Aral Sea Basin has been especially hard-hit by salinisation.

Africa's face of agriculture is female

By Beatrice Gakuba

Africa has a huge opportunity to make agriculture its economic driver. However, the potential for this is far from being made exhaustive use of, one reason being that women face considerable difficulties in their economic activities. The organisation AWAN Afrika seeks to change this state of affairs.

Read more


Ideas on the ground: Local solutions for global challenges

Interview with Sebastian Lesch (BMZ)

A world without hunger and with sufficient healthy food as well as climate-friendly agriculture can only be achieved if ideas are transformed into innovations and ultimately also applied - a conversation with BMZ Head of Division Sebastian Lesch on the Innovation Challenge programme of the new Agricultural Innovation Fund.

Read more

(c) Christoph Pueschner/Zeitenspiegel

From start to finish: a vision of interconnectivity

By Tanja Reith

At the moment, the agricultural industries of African countries exist in relative isolation. Imagine peasant farmers digitally connected to the value chains of the global food industry. How could this happen? A guidebook.

Read more

School Feeding: A unique platform to address gender inequalities

By Carmen Burbano de Lara (WFP)

Besides the well known impacts of Covid19 lockdowns for the adult population, the associated school closures led to 90 percent of the world’s children with no access to schools. However, school meals are in often the only daily meal for children. Without access to this safety net, issues like hunger, poverty and malnutrition are exacerbated for hundreds of millions of children.

Read more

Africa's rapid economic transformation

By T. S. Jayne, A. Adelaja and R. Mkandawire

Thirty years ago, Africa was synonymous with war, famine and poverty. That narrative is clearly outdated. African living standards are rising remarkably fast. Our authors are convinced that improving education and entrepreneurship will ensure irreversible progress in the region even as it confronts COVID-19.

Read more

More than just a seat at the table

By Welthungerhilfe

Africa is home to the world’s youngest and fastest growing population. For many young people, agriculture could offer a job perspective. But to improve the living conditions and job prospects of young people in rural areas, political reforms and investments are desperately needed, as these people will be at the centre of agriculture and agricultural development in the future.

Read more

The human finca

Interview with Marvin Antonio Garcia Otero

In Eastern El Salvador, campesinos are cultivating a self-image to encourage rural youth to remain in rural areas. With help from Caritas, they have adjusted the cultivation methods to their soils and traditions - Marvin Antonio Garcia Otero,the deputy director of Caritas of the Diocese of San Miguel believes this is the best way to prevent rural exodus and criminality.

Read more