Small and Beautiful
Concentrated in the hands of big players, agricultural land in Europe is getting less and less affordable for small farmers who turn their backs on conventional agriculture and choose to go organic. However, experts warn that large-scale farming not only affects agriculture and the way food is produced but also has a wider impact on environmental and climate issues.
At a tiny market in the heart of Hamburg, a continuous stream of customers come to a stand offering a colourful variety of seasonal vegetables. Most of the goods are grown on a small family farm on the outskirts of Hamburg, says the owner Henrik Gehrke. Tidily dressed, suitable for the norms of urban society, he seems nevertheless to be much more connected to the land that he has been working on for the past 25 years. The farm of just 15,000 square meters is cultivated by just him and two other people, and the intense production of vegetables ensures much hard work for them all.
Perfectly happy with his small piece of land, Gehrke is not looking to cultivate a bigger farm. However, for the many German farmers who would like to expand their level of production, buying more land can be hard to impossible. Gehrke explains that agricultural areas are limited and land prices are going up: “Many smaller farms can’t afford to get any more land to grow vegetables, especially ecological farms, where a lot of manual labour is needed”. In many cases, small farmers simply can’t compete with bigger investors who want the same piece of land, according to Franz-Joachim Bienstein, peasant and member of Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerische Landwirtschaft eV (AbL), which represents the interests of member farmers. Mr. Bienstein spoke about concentration of land at a workshop during the Summit for Global Solidarity that took place 5-6 July in Hamburg.
In 2010 in Germany, the top 11% of farms controlled more than half of the total utilised agricultural area, according to a study of the Directorate-General for Internal Policies of the European Parliament published in 2015. The trend of land concentration however also exists on a European level and is even stronger – in the same year almost 3% of farms controlled half of the agricultural land across Europe. The study acknowledges that this puts the state of land inequality in the EU “on a par with or even above countries that are noted for their highly skewed land distribution patterns such as Brazil, Colombia and the Philippines”.
In the past, Gehrke’s little family farm used to be operated conventionally. But eight years ago, he intentionally switched to organic production, and the tendency of land concentration doesn’t seem logical to him at all. “Why should there be huge farms with extremely big machines that ruin the soil”, says the farmer.
Ploughing itself is harmful to the soil and beneficial microorganisms living in it, and the machines used in large-scale farming also compress the soil, which leads to a reduction of the air and water flow in the lower layers, explains Ivaylo Popov from the Bulgarian environmentalist association “Za Zemiata” (For the Earth). “This is also harmful to the microorganisms in it, which are key to both ecosystems and soil richness”, he adds.
The expert points out that heavy machinery usage is not the only problem. Many of the chemicals used in agriculture, such as pesticides, not only harm the targeted organisms but also affect populations of different species. This in turn directly impacts the proper functioning of an ecosystem, as extinction of any particular species will almost certainly lead to a transformation of the entire ecosystem. According to Popov, it is not acknowledged enough that a part of modern industrial agriculture has a very negative effect on production itself. “Reduction of biodiversity and damage of soils has a negative impact on our agriculture”, the expert warns.
Monoculture agriculture, typical for large-scale farming, not only damages soil but decreases people’s quality of life by offering them only mid to lower quality products, adds Georgi Medarov, a researcher at “Za Zemiata”: “We need to think of humans as part of the environment […] And we don’t talk about some kind of an abstract nature but our nature and our quality of life”.
Kim Weidenberg of the NGO NaturFreunde Deutschlands (Friends of the Nature of Germany) also connects land concentration to the issue of climate change: “We need different agriculture for our climate because arable land is decreasing due to the climate change”. The European Parliament acknowledges the issue as well in a report on the state of play of farmland concentration in the EU, pointing out that “20% of European farmland is already suffering as a result of climate change, water and wind soil erosion and poor cultivation”.
“It just comes from the heart that we don’t use those chemical fertilisers and other chemical stuff”, says Gehrke. According to him, the transition to organic production was not made because of the customers and as a way to attract them. “At first we didn’t tell our customers”, the farmer says, but they quickly noticed the change as the vegetables themselves tasted differently. Gehrke has another strong motivation to choose more ecological agriculture. “A lot of people see that the pollution and the use of all these chemicals lead to a catastrophe in the end”, he says. But according to him, everybody has to decide on his own what he can do. “So this was our way – in changing a little bit”, he declares.
A Way Back
According to a Pan-European Online-Survey on Land Policy in European Development Cooperation made in 2015 by the Hands on the Land alliance among 611 participants in 11 European Countries, 80.9% want the EU to support land policies that prioritise access to land for marginalised rural groups (e.g. landless, peasants, indigenous groups), while only 2.5% want EU supported policies that foster large-scale farming with a focus on bulk production for global markets.
The European Parliament (EP) itself, in a resolution on the state of play of farmland concentration in the EU and how to facilitate the access to land for farmers adopted on 27 April, 2017, acknowledges that “many EU policies and subsidies encourage farms to expand or entice non-agricultural investors into land ownership”. The resolution cites an an example the system of direct payments that leads to the largest farms receiving a disproportionately larger amount of support. The EP points out that “uncontrolled concentration of farmland is resulting in large farms oriented towards achieving the highest profits possible from agricultural production, often while causing significant and irreversible damage to the environment”.
Through its resolution, the EP calls on member states to take better account of farmland conservation and management as well as transfers of land and to focus their land-use policies on maintaining an agricultural model based on family farms throughout the union.
The EP also calls for the establishment of an observatory service to collect data on the level of farmland concentration and tenure throughout the EU. This would record purchase prices, rents, and the market behaviour of owners and tenants and also observe the loss of farmland following changes in land use, trends in soil fertility and land erosion.
The German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture acknowledges there is a permanent loss of agricultural land for infrastructure and settlement purposes. The Ministry is working on the leasing market to ensure that active farmers retain sufficient access to leased land, thus stabilising rural areas, according to information sent to “BlueLink Stories” by the press office.
The Ministry is sceptical about concentration of agricultural areas and is striving for a broad spectrum of ownership. In addition to possible environmental effects, land concentration has a negative impact on economic power in rural areas due to the resulting loss of income and taxes from the regions, the information says.
Explaining his point of view of the land concentration in Germany, Henrik Gehrke speaks calmly but firmly. When asked about what decision makers should do to deal with the problems he had explained, he laughs and takes a longer silent pause before stating with a smile: “It’s the people that serve the money, but the money should serve the people; that’s it.”
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