Nutrition in transition

Transformation on a plate – how initiatives are rethinking our food systems

Long supply chains, price wars, unfair working conditions: Our food system must become more sustainable. But how to achieve this? We show how initiatives such as solidarity farming, food councils and food cooperatives are working to rethink food.

Sabine Fischer
Pia Bublies
May 23, 2024
Reading time
7 Min.

Our food systems are responsible for 37 % of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. These are made up of agricultural production, processing and the transport and storage of food - and are therefore one of the biggest drivers of climate change. To counteract this negative trend, alternative initiatives are rethinking the food system. Via short value chains, organic food production and new models for cooperation, they want to bring sustainable change to the system. In doing so, they are helping minimize global greenhouse gas emissions through local approaches and better political structures. 

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Solidarity farming as an alternative

500solidarity farms in Germany

One local response to these food system challenges is community-supported farming. Around 500 "solawis”, or solidarity farms, produce food seasonally and locally in Germany. "Our vision is a community-supported, needs-based and organic regional agriculture," says Anika Füger from the Solidarity Farming Network in Germany. The idea is catching on. Over the past ten years, Germany has seen exponential growth in community-supported agriculture in Germany. The model is in clear contrast to the negative trend in conventional agriculture. For several decades, more and more farms have fallen into decline in Germany, with 7,800 closing in the last four years alone. This leaves the remaining farms to cultivate more and more land, which reduces diversity and promotes monoculture farming. Against this backdrop, community-supported agriculture is setting an example – for greater diversity, cooperation and responsibility. 

With 74 farms, Baden-Württemberg has the most community-supported farms of any state in Germany, followed by North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria. The local groups are varied and diverse. Sometimes they lease land, for example, to farm and manage it together (co-entrepreneurship). Sometimes they join forces with local producers to share both the harvest and the costs of growing (producer-led solawis or cooperative solawis). How much each member pays is decided on the basis of solidarity. "We want to move away from putting a price on individual foods," says Füger. It is more important to support agriculture as a whole and create fair conditions for farmers. 

87 % of Germans want locally grown fruit and vegetables.

If you value fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables, you sometimes have to forgo them. "Consumers are used to supermarkets offering every type of vegetable 365 days a year – but that's not how farming works," says Andrea Klerman from the Solidarity Agriculture Network. In fact, only 36 % of the annual demand for vegetables is met with produce grown in Germany. "This is also because it is cheaper for supermarkets to import products," she says. This has devastating consequences for agriculture and the climate: In Spain, for example, tomatoes must be irrigated at great expense due to growing periods of drought so they can be sold on the shelves in Germany. As a result, cultivation consumes large quantities of groundwater and leads to ever greater desertification in the region. So that people can feed themselves with confidence and in a healthy way, they need to understand how supply and prices come about. "Community-supported agriculture breaks up this opaque system, establishes contact with agriculture and provides knowledge about what is grown regionally and when," says Klerman. 

Food cooperatives circumvent the pricing policies of supermarkets

3000food cooperatives in Germany

Around 3000 food cooperatives in Germany take a similar approach. These groups of people come together to order food directly from producers. They circumvent retailers and their pricing policies and make healthy, local food available to members at a reasonable price. Food cooperatives are also an alternative to the conventional food system in other European countries. In Poland, for example, where around 10 percent of workers are employed in agriculture, dependence on farming is particularly high. "With food cooperatives, we bring consumers and producers together and promote appreciation for local food and agriculture," says Ruta Spiewak. She is part of the "Fundacja Koopertywy Grochowskiej" network, which implements cooperatives in Poland and is trying to make the idea more accessible there.

Despite the challenges, Ruta Spiewak and others in Poland are working on sustainable change. There are currently around 30 food cooperatives in the country, but the number has shrunk significantly in the last 10 years. "As a result of communism, we now have a weak civil society. The coronavirus pandemic also forced many food coops to close," she says. Nevertheless, she hopes to anchor the idea more firmly in Poland. "We have a network of farmers who work reliably with us. This helps create a good model of best practices and we hope we can reach more people with it," says Spiewak. 

Good to know

Food Cooperatives

There are three different types of food cooperatives. Depending on their size, the groups either have their own warehouse (warehouse foodcoops) or form a cooperative with their own member store. The initiatives often collect orders directly from their members and then deliver the food to participants' homes (order foodcoops).  

7 bn. Euro in direct payments for agriculture in EU 2023

Agriculture should not be dependent on the global price market, says Ruta Spiewak. For farms to be sustainable, they must be able to produce under fair conditions. "Farmers often find it difficult to keep their heads above water and are dependent on global price developments," she says. Andrea Klerman agrees. "Hardly any farm in Germany would be able to produce economically without subsidies," she says. Due to high wage standards and labor laws, farms would not be able to keep up with the global price competition. "In addition, agriculture is a long-term business that cannot simply react to market demand," says Klerman. The solution: As alternative initiatives help foster contact between consumers and farmers, not only profitability but also appreciation of locally produced food will return. 

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Food councils create sustainable local structures

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Food councils in 45 German cities are campaigning for appreciation and fairness along the entire value chain – as an interface between politics, civil society and producers. "We want to create more networking and democratic experiences for people to support self-determination when it comes to food," says Judith Busch, Chairwoman of the Food Council in Oldenburg. To achieve this, the initiatives aim to create sustainable structures at a local level, because often those who are involved in the topic locally are barely connected to each other, says Busch. "We start by bringing everyone together and then see where we can take concrete action to make the local food system more sustainable," she says. Politics also plays a central role. "Nutrition is a local field of action, but often is not perceived as such," says Busch. "We are creating awareness of just how much local government can do to make nutrition more sustainable – for example in school or day care food programs." In some places, there are already concrete results. In 2016, the city of Cologne founded the first food council in Germany (alongside Berlin). The council laid out a jointly defined strategy paper to make the city’s food system fit for the future, which has guided efforts since 2019. This political success shows how committed, creative and transformative alternative approaches are already helping shape the future of our food system.