Climate change and Agriculture

“We will have to eat far fewer animal products”

Weather extremes such as droughts and heat waves as a result of the climate crisis will also occur more frequently in Germany. The directors of the new Agora Agriculture think tank funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung explain how the climate crisis and our response to it will transform agriculture and why this need not result in anyone losing out.

Julia Rommel
Lars Johansson; Agora Agrar
January 18, 2023

Mr Harald Grethe, though it’s not normally so obvious during the winter months, Germany has been experiencing a widespread drought since 2017. This is a direct consequence of climate change. What are farmers doing to adapt? 

Harald Grethe: The droughts of recent years have posed a considerable burden on many farmers. It is very likely that extreme weather events such as droughts and heatwaves will also occur more frequently in Germany as a result of the climate crisis. Those regions with sparse rainfall will be particularly hard hit. Farmers therefore face great challenges and will need to adapt. The effects on agricultural production already differ from region to region and according to the crops being grown. This applies to all systems of growing crops: we must adjust crop rotation, practice site-specific humus and soil management, step up investment in agroforestry systems – integrating trees into farming – and drive forward technical solutions such as the cultivation of more drought-tolerant varieties. 

Prof. Dr. Harald Grethe

He is Director of Agora Agrar and Professor for international Agricultural Trade and Development at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. From 2012 until 2020 he was Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board on Agricultural Policy, Nutrition and Consumer Health Protection at the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

Ms Chemnitz, as if this were not enough, climate change is challenging farmers on another level, too. For Germany to reach its goal of climate neutrality by 2045, greenhouse gas emissions in all areas of the economy will have to be drastically reduced. What does this mean for agriculture and forestry, and for the food sector? 

Christine Chemnitz: Our diets will change. To achieve our ambitious climate targets, we as a society will have to eat far fewer animal products by the year 2045. We are already making progress in this direction, as meat consumption has been on the decline for several years. That is good news, but it is not enough. At present, each person in Germany eats on average around 55 kilos of meat per year. In a climate-neutral Germany we are likely to be consuming less than half of that amount. In a parallel step, we should change the way we keep livestock. We need to keep fewer animals and improve the conditions in which they live. Higher standards of animal welfare cannot be guaranteed by farmers unless they receive fair remuneration. In other words, we must use public money to “buy” the animal welfare that society wishes to see. Furthermore, we need major investments in forests. For example, spruce and pine woods need to be transformed into mixed forests to make them more resilient to drought and pests. This is the only way to ensure that they can reliably and lastingly capture carbon dioxide, thereby helping to protect the climate. 

Dr. Christine Chemnitz

The PhD agricultural economist Christine Chemnitz studied agricultural sciences in Göttingen and Berlin. She headed the international agricultural and food policy department at the Heinrich Böll Foundation for more than 15 years before founding the think tank Agorar Agrar together with Harald Grethe.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions alone will not be enough, however…

Christine Chemnitz: This is why we at Agora Agriculture are focusing on the central question of how we use our limited land area. After all, land serves many different purposes: we need it to produce food, to protect biodiversity, to capture carbon dioxide, and to produce biomass, among other things. One of the key political governance questions therefore is the following: How can we use land in an appropriate and sustainable way in a climate-neutral society? Currently we use a lot of land to produce animal feed. Keeping far fewer animals and consuming far fewer animal products will free up considerable land for other purposes.

[DE Copy] Agora_Agrar-2023-Beitragsbild

Clever production: Renewable energies and agricultural products are combined on this area.

Harald Grethe:  Moreover, we need a long-term political strategy for the rewetting of peatlands. While drained peatlands account for only seven percent of agricultural land in Germany, they contribute nearly 40 percent of the emissions generated by agriculture and agricultural land use because drained peatlands release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A large proportion of the peatlands should therefore be rewetted by the year 2045. That poses a huge challenge because it means a substantial cut in earnings for those who are using these areas today. The forms of arable farming, dairy production and pasture grazing that are practiced nowadays will no longer be possible on the majority of land areas. Instead, we need to develop and implement new ways of using wet peatlands. These include things like paludiculture, plants that can be grown, harvested and used on peatlands, such as reeds and bulrushes on low-level moor, and peat bogs on high moor. However, this requires industrial consumers who will process the biomass. It will become economically interesting to use this biomass, especially for building and insulation purposes or as packaging material. Photovoltaics also offers enormous income opportunities, as well as a two-fold contribution to protecting the climate: on the one hand, we avoid the high emissions generated by using drained peatlands, and on the other we expand solar power output.

In past centuries it was in the interest of society to drain peatlands, as this played a major part in food security. Today, rewetting these areas can play an important part in protecting the climate.

Quote fromHarald Grethe, Director Agora Agrar

For farmers whose land is to be rewetted, this will put an end to their dairy cattle breeding. Ms Chemnitz, what must be done at the political level to ensure that no one loses out during this transformation process? 

Christine Chemnitz: Long-term and reliable strategies are essential. Farmers need security of investment. That is why it is so important, especially when it comes to peatlands, to get started now and to formulate a joint target for society for 2045. It is a question of finding alternative models for farmers. This requires policymakers to invest in new value chains now and to identify where research and investment are needed. Change is always challenging. The better this transformation is handled at the political level and the more inclusive the debate is, the fewer losers there will be. 

Many people nowadays no longer have any connection with agriculture. They do not know any farmers, nor do they know how our food is produced. The kind of fundamental restructuring that you have outlined requires widespread public support. How can this be organized?

Harald Grethe: Many young people are very interested in a healthy diet, in animal welfare, and in protecting the climate. Surveys show that there is in principle considerable support for farmers among the population. We must build on this. Agriculture must be geared to a greater extent to society’s goals, and we need to better explain farmers’ roles. They do a lot more than simply produce food. These “new” contributions of agriculture, in the form for example of greater animal welfare, protection of the climate and of biodiversity, do not come for free – we must pay for them. Farmers can only make these contributions if this generates an appropriate income for them. My impression is that society is increasingly understanding this. It is at the policymaking level that action tends to get blocked.

Based in Berlin, Agora Agriculture is an independent, non-profit think tank for food, agriculture and forestry. It maps out scientifically founded and politically viable pathways to climate-friendly land use and food production. Its activities are intended to help achieve the democratically agreed sustainability goals in Germany and Europe and to support the societal processes by which the necessary transition is negotiated. The think tank is funded by a number of private foundations and organizations; besides the Robert Bosch Stiftung, these are the ALV Foundation, the German Federal Environmental Foundation, the European Climate Foundation, Stiftung Mercator, Porticus and the Umweltstiftung Michael Otto.

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