Serving the people

Aerial View of fields with coloured crops

“The concentration of farmland in Europe has negative ecological and social consequences. Farmer Gehrke is going another way.”

At a tiny market in the heart of Hamburg, every few seconds, new customers come to a stall offering a colourful variety of seasonal vegetables. Most of the produce is grown in a small family farm on the outskirts of Hamburg, says the owner Henrik Gehrke. Tidily dressed, suitable for the norms of urban society, Gehrke seems to be much more connected to the land on which he’s been working for the past twenty-five years. The farm of just 15,000 square metres is cultivated by him and two other people, while the intense production of vegetables ensures everybody a lot of hard work.

Henrik Gehrke at the marketplace

Perfectly happy with his smallholding, Gehrke is not looking towards running a larger farm. But for many German farmers who do have ambitions to increase production, however, buying more land could be anything from hard to impossible. Concentrated in the hands of a few big players, agricultural land in Europe is becoming less and less affordable for smallholding farmers who have turned their backs on conventional agriculture and chosen instead to go organic. High-scale farms, however, affect not only agriculture and the way food is produced, but also have an impact on the wider environment and the climate, experts have warned.

Gehrke confirms how agricultural areas are limited and land prices are rising: “Many smaller farms can’t afford to buy any more land to grow vegetables, especially ecological farms, where a lot of hand-working is needed.” In many cases, smallholding farmers don’t hold an advantage when competing with big investors for the same piece of land, according to Franz-Joachim Bienstein, peasant and member of Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft e.V. (AbL), which represents the interests of member farmers, and who spoke about the concentration of land at a workshop during the Summit for Global Solidarity that took place on the weekend of 5–6 July in Hamburg.

In 2010 in Germany, the top 11 per cent of farms controlled more than half of the total utilized 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, can be seen at a European level also; in fact, at an even higher percentage – in the same year almost 3 per cent of farms controlled half of the agricultural land in 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”.

Environmental Footprints

Gehrke’s small family farm operated conventionally until eight years ago, at which point the business model was changed intentionally in order to offer organic production. The tendency of land concentration doesn’t seem logical to him: “Why should there be huge farms with extremely big machines that ruin the soil?” he asks.

Ploughing itself is harmful to the soil, and the machines used in high-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 micro-organisms in [the soil], which are key to both ecosystems and soil richness”, he adds.

Popov also points out how heavy machinery usage is not the only problem: many of the chemicals used in agriculture, such as herbicides, harm not only the targeted organisms but also affect populations of different species, which is related to the way the ecosystem functions as extinction of particular species almost certainly lead to a transformation of the whole ecosystem. According to this expert, it is not acknowledged enough that apart from the ecosystems, modern industrial agriculture has a negative effect on production itself. “Reduction of biodiversity and damage of soils has a negative impact on our agriculture”, he warns.

Monoculture agriculture, typical of high-scale farming, not only damages soil but decreases people’s quality of life by lower quality and humdrum products, adds Georgi Medarov, a researcher at “Za Zemiata”: “We need to think of humans as a part of the environment […] And we don’t need to 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 Nature Germany) connects land concentration to the issue of climate change as well: “We also need different agriculture for our climate because land for farming is becoming less and less because of climate change.” The European Parliament acknowledges this same issue in a Report on the state of play of farmland concentration in the EU, pointing out how, “20 per cent of European farmland is already suffering as a result of climate change, water and wind soil erosion and poor cultivation”.

As Gehrke maintains: “It just comes from the heart that we don’t use chemical fertilizers and other chemical stuff”. He asserts that the transition to organic production on his farm was not made in order to attract customers: “At first we didn’t tell our customers,” he tells us, but very quickly they noticed the change, as the vegetables themselves tasted different. Gehrke had another strong motivation to choose ecological agriculture. “A lot of people can see that pollution and use of chemicals leads to catastrophe in the end”, he says. But, according to him, everybody has to decide what it is they can do for their own part, “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 carried out in 2015 by the Hands on the Land alliance among 611 participants in 11 European Countries, 80.9 per cent want the EU to support land policies that prioritize access to land for marginalized rural groups (e.g. the landless, peasants, indigenous groups) while only 2.5 per cent 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: 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”, giving an example where direct payments lead to the largest farms receiving disproportionately large support. The EP points out how “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, and to transfers of land, and to focus their land-use policies in order to maintain a family farm-based agricultural model throughout the Union.

The EP also calls for the establishment of an observatory service collecting information and data on the level of farmland concentration and tenure throughout the EU. This service would record purchase prices and rents as well as the market behaviour of owners and tenants, and 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 that 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 stabilizing rural areas. This is according to information sent to “BlueLink Stories” by the Ministry’s press office.

The Ministry is sceptical about the concentration of agricultural areas striving for a broad ownership spectrum. In addition to possible environmental effects, there may also be a negative impact on economic power in rural areas, as income and taxes run off from the regions, the information says.

Explaining his point of view on the issue of land concentration in Germany, Henrik Gehrke speaks calmly but firmly. When asked about what decision-makers should do to deal with the problems he has just explained, he laughs, and takes a long, silent pause: “It’s the people that serve the money, but the money should serve the people,” he smiles, “that’s it”.

This article was created and published as a result of the Blue Link workshop held in Hamburg/ Potsdam in 2017. More information about the workshop and the project is available here.