In principle, farmers should embrace climate protection. But they don’t.

The ways that farms can benefit from the energy transition and climate protection measures are manifold – if only they were more open to them. Paul Hockenos reports.

(Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash)

Last year, on a mid-summer’s cycle through the Brandenburg countryside around Berlin, the title of Naomi Klein’s prescient book This Changes Everything came immediately to mind. The temperatures had been so intense for so long that the vibrant sunflower fields were burnt to a cigar brown for as far as the eye could see, their depleted heads bowed over in defeat. Indeed, four of the last five summers have experienced drought in northeastern Germany and farms have suffered mightily. The climate crisis’s deleterious effects on soil, air, water, and biodiversity affects their farms in many ways; and this impacts climate protection too as properly managed soils as well as crops, hedgerows, and trees sequester atmospheric carbon.

On these same farms, evidence of renewable energy infrastructure is everywhere. It’s a rare farm that doesn’t possess a domed, metal-sided digester that slurries chopped-up crop refuse and energy crops thus producing biogas, which then is sold to the grid. While solar panels on home roofs and sheds aren’t as omnipresent as in Bavaria, they don many a barn. One can see them in the fields, too: in the form of small solar parks and elevated arrays that provide shade for livestock. Moreover, farms can lease property to wind power developers to plant turbines in their fields.

With the agricultural sector so invested in the Energiewende and susceptible to climate breakdown, one would envision farmers to be climate protection’s loudest spokespeople. But, au contraire, they’re not. Agriculture is responsible for more than 10 percent of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to EU statistics, mostly from livestock’s’ discharge of methane and nitrous oxide. Climate protection means changing the way we do things – and have done them, yet the agricultural sector doesn’t change easily.

In fact, farmers’ protests stopped Germany cold in January and February when they vented their frustration over the axing of a diesel fuel subsidy that netted farms around €1,000 a year. I stood in their midst at Brandenburger Gate where their XXL trucks blocked traffic and shrill sirens pierced the air. This resistance made at least one thing clear: if agriculture is to change, there has to be financial compensation for the sector every step of the way.

Can climate measures be win-win?

Experts though posit an array of adjustments that farms can make and profit from, too, indeed as they have thus far. Intensive livestock farming and over-fertilization are two bugbears that cause ill will to flare between farmers and climate protectors. The antidote to standard livestock practices is organic farming, which is usually more expensive: giving livestock more space and time outdoors, for example. Better animal husbandry practices mean fewer animals falling sick. And better nutrition can substantially cut methane while boosting the animals’ natural immune systems, helping to keep herds at optimum health.

Agriculture’s dependence on the fossil-fuels-based chemical industry is a harder nut to crack. Chemicals play a crucial role in farming, with nearly four billion tons of pesticides and 12 billion kg of agricultural plastics used worldwide every year. Around 30,000 metric tons of pesticides are applied in Germany alone. It is estimated that as many as 11,000 people die from the toxic effects of pesticides annually, and chemical residues can degrade ecosystems, diminishing soil health and farmers’ resilience to climate change.

A 2023 French study concluded that there are two main types of alternatives to pesticides. One suggests exchanging pesticides for a method termed biocontrol. This involves the suppressing of pest populations through the use of natural enemies – including parasitoids, predators, pathogens, antagonists, or competitors. ’Biological plant protection not only relies on insects such as ladybugs or parasitic wasps’, according to Braunschweig’s Julius Kühn Institute, a federally funded research center for cultivated plants, ’but also makes use of naturally occurring bacteria, fungi, and viruses, beneficial insects, mites and nematodes.’ For the crops this can be win-win shift claims the institute: natural substances help to keep pests in check, produce healthy plants, and protect the natural balance.

A second path is based on an overhaul of agricultural production as we know it. This means switching to organic farming or agroecology by relying upon a range of techniques such as crop diversification, use of organic products, and crop rotation. This is already common practice in northern European countries where Sweden and Denmark, for example, boast that their public sector canteens serve meals that contain 80 percent organic food.

One would think that more of Europe’s farmers would themselves step up and become a constructive part of the transition rather than a wrench in its works. After all, their livelihoods are at stake, but it seems many of them are thinking only in the short term.

These traditional farmers aren’t intrinsically closed to alternative solutions but they fear the costs – and there will be costs. This is why agricultural subsidies must not decrease during this transition but have to be recalibrated so that they encourage and subsidize the transition. Otherwise, be prepared for angry farmers driving their tractors on city streets as they vent their unhappiness.

The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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