What is wrong with our nutrition in Germany, Mr. Plagge ?

,

Journalist Jan Rübel interviewed Bioland President Jan Plagge about the imbalance of the German food system, farming in 2050 and the challenge of feeding the world.

Bioland is a farming association and member of the Bund Ökologische Lebensmittelwirtschaft (BÖLW), which distributes the products of more than 8000 farms. © Sonja Herpich/Bioland

Jan Plagge

Jan Plagge is an agricultural engineer and president of Bioland, the largest organic farming association in Germany; since 2018 he has also served as president of IFOAM Organics Europe, the international association of organic farming movements. Plagge studied horticultural sciences in Weihenstephan.

Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.

What’s going wrong with nutrition in Germany right now?

For instance, the entire system is experiencing consequential costs – these having developed over decades. This starts with concentrated animal husbandry involving cycles that no longer function at all and with a supposedly successful industrialised agriculture – which has indeed produced winners in some cases, yet has resulted in thousands of losers in society as a whole and on many farms.

 

Why is that?

By focusing solely on the rationalisation of production in order to achieve competitiveness on the world market. We’ve completely forgotten the function of agriculture for the region, for the villages, for the environment, for drinking water, for the climate and for animal welfare. Compared to other industries, however, agriculture is always location-based – so there will always be a location where production is cheaper; this focus has driven farms into a dead end. The system has made us all believe that it’s good if food is cheap. Ever cheaper animal protein, ever cheaper sugar and ever more expensive fruit and vegetables on the same scale have brought us into a nutritional and health crisis. Germany experiences four billion euros worth of nutrition-related damage and illness every year.

 

Pretty well stemming from an unbalanced diet…

…which does not follow the recommendations of the German Nutrition Society (DGE); and certainly not a Planetary Health Diet – which would not only be good for the body, but also for the environment and future generations.

 

The media are full of nutrition tips, with lots of lifestyle and also a trend towards less meat consumption, towards more health as an event.

Sure, these trends exist, especially among young people – but less for health reasons than for ethical or environmental reasons, where sometimes the baby is thrown out with the bathwater and there is no real systemic understanding of a future agricultural and food economy.

 

Should food become more expensive?

Certain food that’s neither good for me nor for the environment must get an honest, true price – in other words, become more expensive. So if I choose some beef from a cleared rainforest – which ideally would not exist in the first place – it should not be the cheapest. The external costs – which are currently borne by indigenous populations or future generations deprived of fertile soil – should be reflected in the price.

 

Then the Hartz IV recipient would say: So I have to pay the bill.

No. If a low-vitamin diet becomes more expensive than one with fruit, locally grown vegetables and regionally produced organic meat, then there are two effects: Firstly, you need less money for good food. Secondly, you’re healthier and feel better. This income effect – be it income or that of single parents and Hartz IV recipients – has been proven: If they follow the DGE recommendations, they haven’t automatically spent more money at the end of the month as a result.

 

If all this is proven – will it catch on?

Yes, it will catch on. The pressure to act is so great. There’s no longer any discussion at European level about whether we’re in this impasse – only about how to get out of it.

 

Ich bin ein Alternativtext
In the future, kohlrabi will probably be cultivated with the help of robotics and in strip crops © Sonja Herpich/Bioland

How would this affect a farm?

By steering investment decisions in a different direction. Today, a farmer asks himself: Do I still have any prospects at all, or should I quit? The neighbouring farm is happy if he gives up, because then it has a chance to expand its barn or arable land and thus reduce costs – so as to clean up the overall market in a cost-reducing way. That’s the situation today. But what the Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategies negotiated at EU level say is: We’re building a new investment framework for more circularity, more climate neutrality and shorter value chains. Then the farm will already come up with the idea of reducing its livestock, strengthening its own feed base and not seeing biodiversity as a burden and a requirement. They might even educate themselves in species knowledge and feel more responsible for their own marketing channels – many regional canteens are asking for this.  

 

Is that still a dream of the future?

No, it's what we're seeing everywhere at the moment. Wherever possible, farms are investing in species-appropriate stables, in halls for vegetable processing for canteens.

 

What will the farm look like in 2050? Will it have an insect barn and the algae pool next to it?

This is not what the classic farm in Central Europe will look like. Due to climate change, however, it will have a much more diverse crop rotation. In addition, there will be more legumes, a wide variety of oils and – thanks to increasing robotics – not everything will be cultivated in fields, but in strip cropping and partly in new agroforestry systems. That will be the broad practice. We’ll also continue to have livestock because grassland management is one of the most important carbon stores in land use – along with peatland and forest. Grassland is best and most intelligently used via a circular economy with ruminants. One thing is certain: Meat from in vitro laboratories is not the panacea – but rather less meat overall, fewer animals, and much more of it within the framework of land-based agriculture.

 
What are the arguments against in vitro meat?

In my opinion, a lot. It doesn’t solve the problem. It’s a very simple and monocausal strategy that ignores the interactions: Where does the energy for protein to grow meat cells come from? As a rule, it comes from arable land – which is therefore in direct competition with food. And what happens to the grassland? What’s the most efficient way to convert photosynthesis on grassland into multiple benefits for society – i.e. not just energy, not just protein, but also biodiversity? I have yet to see a petri dish that provides flower diversity in a meadow. What the many scientists probably don't know either: Without cows and sheep, I don't get a diversity of herbs and flowers on the pasture, but rather scrub encroachment and desertification.

 

Ich bin ein Alternativtext
Sheep and cows will still be important for pasture in the future to prevent scrub encroachment © Sonja Herpich/Bioland

How digital will the farm be?

Extreme. Drones, robots and satellite-based area and crop evaluations are becoming part of everyday life – if only to be able to react to the extreme weather changes caused by climate change. These are very good tools, as long as sovereignty over the data and its use remains with the farmers and people do not pay with their data, as is the case in the consumer or search engine sector.

 

This digitalisation is not in opposition to the concept of transforming industrialised agriculture?

Not from my point of view. Digitalisation can help our limited brains to better understand complexity and manage it on the farm. Sure, you could use digitalisation to turn a hundred-cow farm into a 10,000-cow farm. But it will help a family farm to create diverse rotations and crops.

 

Is enough being invested in the digitalisation of agriculture?

In a European comparison, Germany is an absolute developing country. The 16 formats of the land use certificates in the 16 federal states alone are a horror. The core data that every farm has are the area and animal data. And for the most part, these are not compatible from one federal state to another, nor can they be analysed together. It’s really incredible that things are so far behind in Germany – the coordination between the federal and state governments is a huge hurdle.

 
Which countries in Europe are doing better?

The Baltic States are a prime example. They started digitalising almost all the processes a farmer has to do 15 years ago and have taken the farms with them. We can now see how much desk work this saves. In Germany, farmers sometimes have to enter their data four or five times for the same questions.

 

Is there too little investment in German agriculture in general?

I don't have that impression. It's just that investments are often made in the wrong way – in machines that are far too big and will have to be scaled down. This is because they create too much pressure on the soil, which compacts it more – thereby resulting in lower yields and more greenhouse gas emissions. With high compaction, there is the problem of increasing nitrous oxide emissions from the soil. That’s why all soil scientists say: We need to reduce the pressure and have much more smaller machines that are intelligently networked and can also work the fields autonomously. This is already happening in other countries. When I look around at trade fairs in Germany, I see ever more gigantic machines. It's the same with stables: Even today, stables are being promoted that are not at all eco-friendly or cannot meet the highest husbandry standards. In the last ten years, so many stables have been built that could be demolished in five to ten years because an Aldi supermarket, for example, says: We won't buy your meat from these stables any more.

 

Ich bin ein Alternativtext
A more diverse crop rotation and more legumes will be seen in German fields in the future, according to Jan Plagge © Sonja Herpich/Bioland

Could the entire agricultural sector be converted to organic farming?

In terms of principles and approaches, definitely. Organic farming and the organic way of life are not static and have always lived from the fact that they are constantly evolving – without dogmas. The problems we encounter in practice – such as lower yields or problems with crop rotation, animal and plant diseases – require constant further development. So it’s important to always think of food and agriculture together here. Yet the basic principles have proven themselves and – as the EU Commission has also stated – form a model for the future.

 

The world's population is continuing to grow. What should be done to ensure humanity remains fed?

We need decentralised and resilient agricultural systems. Centralised, industrial, input-based production has turned out to deliver the opposite: Volatile markets from which rural people suffer – when they can no longer work for their own livelihoods. The consensus in the scientific community is that the question is no longer: How much protein and calories are produced? But rather: Who produces it and how, adapted for the relevant population. It’s farmers who feed the world. The revolution in agriculture must come from them. Industry can provide assistance. But without people on the land we’ll not solve the distribution problem, the problem of waste and loss and, above all, the conflicts that lead to hunger time and again. What’s needed is an image like the one that Federal Minister Gerd Müller helped to initiate: We need knowledge hubs on how to build a locally adapted circular economy in which the population can participate.

 

In Africa, agriculture is very small-scale. Don't certain concentrations make sense there?

If you have an answer, what should people do then – should they all build cars? Make toys or cheap shirts? Do we have too few consumer goods? I think it’s an aberration to believe that – as in the days of the Industrial Revolution – people everywhere will be freed up in agriculture to make industrial or consumer goods. I’d like to hear an answer to that. Of course, in many systems we have inefficient production, there is a lack of know-how in many places – and women are not involved enough. There are examples on every continent of cooperatives sharing knowledge, equipment and seeds, working together to provide irrigation or composting and marketing to the outside world. The big question is: How do you get the millions of farmers to cooperate with each other?

 

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

A contribution by Nadine Babatounde and Anne Floquet (MISEREOR)

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.

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Hunger must not be a consequence of the epidemic!

A contribution 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!

 

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Developing countries hit doubly hard by coronavirus

A contribution 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.

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Hier steht eine Bildbeschreibung

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

A contribution by GAFSP

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).

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An investment in Africa's future

A contritbution by Essa Chanie Mussa (University of Gondar)

Rural youth need viable livelihood opportunities to escape out of poverty and realize their aspirations. How could they be helped to fully unleash their potential? This is an aloud call that needs novel strategies among governments, policy makers, and international development partners and donors.

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© GIZ

Actual Analysis: The locusts came with the crises

A report 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.

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"Extreme is the new normal"

A report by Alexander Müller and Jes Weigelt (TMG)

As the climate changes, the population of Africa is growing and fertile land and jobs are becoming scarcer. New ways are currently leading to urbanisation of agriculture and a new mid-sized sector in the countryside

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© GIZ / Angelika Jacob

This is how developing countries can adapt better to droughts

A contribution by Michael Brüntrup (DIE) und Daniel Tsegai (UNCCD)

Droughts are the natural disasters with far-reaching negative consequences. While rich countries are still vulnerable to drought, famines are no longer found.

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(c) Christof Krackhardt/Brot für die Welt

Together and resourceful against worldwide hunger

A contribution by Brot für die Welt

Climate change disturbs the climate in Ethiopia. The answer from small farmers in the northern region is convincing: diversify!

 

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(c) Christoph Mohr/GIZ

Microinsurance against climate change

A contribution by Claudia Voß

Climate change is destroying development progress in many places. The clever interaction of digitalisation and the insurance industry protects affected small farmers.

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(c) Nina Schroeder/World Food Programme

Hunger is caused by people, not the climate

Interview with Jacob Schewe (PIK)

A study by the World Bank predicts that millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa will have to leave their homelands because of climate change. We have spoken with one of the authors

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What do you expect from this Pre Summit, Mr. Haddad?

Interview with Lawrence Haddad (GAIN)

Nutrition experts from all over the world are coming together in Rome. They are not only distilling 2000 ideas to improve food systems - they are also preparing for the big UN summit in New York in September. An interview. 

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Mr. Campari, how do we create sustainable food systems?

Interview with Joao Campari (WWF)

Journalist Jan Rübel spoke with Joao Campari ahead of the UNFSS Pre-Summit. The Chair of Action Track 3 highlights key challenges in transforming existing food systems towards sustainable production and shares his expectations for the Summit.

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Land Rights, Gender and Soil Fertility in Benin

A contribution by Dr. Karin Gaesing and Prof. Dr. Frank Bliss (INEF)

Especially in densely populated areas, land pressure leads to overexploitation of available land and a lack of conservation measures. The West African country of Benin, with heavily depleted soils in many places, is no exception.

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The Rice Sector in West Africa: A Political Challenge

New insights on trade and value addition in the rice sector in West Africa

Low import tariffs, smuggling activities, unpredictable tax exemptions and weak enforcement of food safety standards: The potential of local rice value chains is undermined in West African countries.

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UNFSS Pre-Summit: What did it achieve?

Interview with Martina Fleckenstein (WWF), Michael Kühn (WHH) and Christel Weller-Molongua (GIZ)

After the summit means pre-summit: It was the first time that the United Nations held a summit on food systems. Martina Fleckenstein, Michael Kühn and Christel Weller-Molongua reviewed the situation in this joint interview.

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City, Country, Sea: 6 Innovations in the Fight Against Climate Change

A listicle for climate-neutral agriculture

Vertically growing plants, magnetic cotton. Hairy leftovers fertilizing fields, tractors running on algae? These six innovations could lead agriculture’s next Green Revolution!

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No Food Security Without Climate Protection

A Contribution by Michael Kühn (WHH)

Climate change already affects the daily lives of people in the Global South. What are the challenges they face and what do these imply for negotiations at the climate conference in Glasgow?

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(c) GIZ

Sustainable artisanal fisheries and aquaculture in rural areas

Fish is important for combating malnutrition and undernourishment. But it is not only notable for its nutritional value, but also secures the livelihoods and employment for 600 million people worldwide.

A Project of GIZ

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Food System Transformation Starts and Ends with Diversity

A Contribution by Emile Frison and Nick Jacobs (IPES-Food)

While having failed to solve the hunger problem, industrial agriculture appears to be causing additional ones both in environmental and health terms. Emile Frison and Nick Jacobs call for a transformation.

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Fair Trade and Climate Justice: Everything is Conntected

A Contribution of the 'Initiative for Sustainable Agricultural Supply Chains' (INA)

Fair Trade organisations and the Initiative for Sustainable Agricultural Supply Chains (INA) have launched the #ichwillfair campaign during COP26 to highlight the link between global supply chains and climate change.

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