Farmers around the world are finding themselves in a never-ending quest to become more sustainable.
The difficulty is, while everyone wants to decide how food should be grown, those who eat it consistently show in their buying habits that no matter how food is grown, they still want it cheap.
It’s this battle for sustainability that Dr Thorsten Kraska, Manager of Science at the University of Bonn in Germany, finds himself in the middle of.
“The growers are in a conflict, they have to make money with their crops and the public want to make sure the growers do nothing to the field wanting them to stay in ancient times but at the same time they want food at very cheap prices,” he said.
“Every grower wants sustainability on their farm but the economic pressure sometimes tells them different.”
What is sustainability?
It’s a question that even has world leaders in the field of sustainability baffled.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines sustainable in two ways: 1. able to be sustained, 2. designed or developed to have the capacity to continue operating perpetually, by avoiding adverse effects on the natural environment and depletion of natural resources: a sustainable transport system; sustainable forestry.
Australia often looks to European nations as world leaders in the sustainability for policy ideas and to inform debate, but in truth the struggle to define what is sustainable is a constant struggle for even the world leaders.
The International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) tried to tackle the topic at its 2016 Congress titled, ‘Sustainable Agriculture — Made in Germany’.
Germany likes to pitch itself as one of the founders of the sustainability movement.
In the early 1700s an accountant and mining administrator, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, wrote extensively about sustainability. Mining was being threatened in some areas of Germany, because of a lack of timber and wood. Material was brought in from far away because all of the available timber close to mines had been cut down. Hans Carl von Carlowitz’s writing translates as, “to be the best utility for the heating, building, brewing, mining and smelting activities requires the careful management of sustainable forestry resources”. In other words, only take what can be grown for the next season, to ensure a constant supply of harvested timber.
It is this history with sustainability that defines the current push for German agriculture to be more sustainable and the IFAJ Congress speakers from all sides of the debate referenced the writing of Mr Carlowitz in their attempts to define the problem.
In that case, the idea of sustainable forestry is simple — only take as much as can be grown and this culture of sustainable production has been adopted by the nation’s power generation.
As of 2015, according to the Fraunhofer Institute, 35 per cent of German power supply was supplied by renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, biomass and hydro power.
That is well in front of Australia where 14.6 per cent of the power supply was generated by renewable sources in 2015, according to the Clean Energy Council.
Despite its trailblazing work in generating renewable energy, debate about renewables is eerily similar to what is seen in Australia.
“In Germany, it can be hard to build wind turbines,” a German journalist remarks on a bus touring the Rhineland.
Across rolling fields of wheat, barley and potato crops, wind turbines dot the fields constantly turning in a gentle German summer breeze. In the background, three coal mines and generators can be seen, a sign that Germany has not moved on completely from historical power sources yet.
“A lot of people think they’re ugly,” said the journalist, “and there are many protests when there is a plan to build new turbines”.
When it comes to agriculture, defining sustainable production and a sustainable future for food and those who grow it, not many can agree.
“Sustainability, I hate this word,” states Hanka Mittelstadt, a 29-year-old from the Brandenburg region who farms a 500-hectare cropping and egg property and is the 12th generation of her family to be farming the same land for more than 500 years.
“You can say agriculture is sustainable, yes. What does that mean?”
“Governments decide [what is sustainable], not with us, but about us.”
Ms Mittelstadt, like other German farmers, is worried that government policy is too focussed on environmental sustainability to the exclusion of everything else.
“My family has been farming the same land for 500 years, is that not sustainable?” she said.
In Germany, there has been a lot of discussion about the three pillars of sustainability, a 2005 definition from the World Summit on Social Development.
The three pillars are defined as Environmental, Economic and Social areas for a sustainable future.
In Australia, the pillars are constantly referred to as the triple bottom line approach in areas of policy, such as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
It is this triangular pull of deciding if producers should have a sustainable environment, business, community or ideally all of the above, that is leading to despair in German farming ranks.
This pull can be seen in the future of the agricultural weed-killing chemical, glyphosate in the European Union.
Germany is part of the European Union and adopts EU laws on the regulation of agricultural chemicals.
Glyposhate is a non-selective herbicide, which is key to a low or no-tillage cropping system, meaning farmers can use the chemical to clear a paddock of weeds and directly sow their crops into the ground rather than constantly turn and till up their land.
In 2016 it was nearly pulled from use in the EU but at the last minute was given an 18-month reprieve with farmers allowed to continue using it until the end of 2017.
German farmers are now desperately trying to plead their case to be allowed to continue to use the chemical despite EU concerns about the herbicide being linked to cancer.
They say without glyphosate, they will be forced to till up their soil more, which is bad for the environment and carbon emissions, but the EU on its scientific advice is trying to protect the health of its society.
Gerd Sonnleitner, Honorary President of the German Farmers Association and former President of the European Farmers Association, fears for Europe if glyphosate is lost as a chemical farmers can use.
“It will mean a higher cost of production,” he said.
He believes it is up to farmers now to prove that they cannot be sustainable without its use.
“There will be very strong and hard discussions to bring the politics to reality,” he said.
“If they are shown the reality and the facts then they should give an allowance for glyphosate.”
Mr Sonnleiter thinks it is the predicament of living in a wealthy region that has led to the glyposate and more widely the sustainability debate for farmers.
“The problem is that we don’t have the problem of less food. They say we are too fat, too much food, too much chemical,” he said.
But among the helplessness of German farmers and their ability to contribute to the sustainability debate and policy there is hope for new solutions.
Dr Thorsten Kraska experiments growing new crops for biomass (power) production at the University of Bonn. His work looks at growing commercially viable crops that can be grown by farmers without the use of some traditional chemicals and fertilisers, which when harvested can be used to generate power.
His hope is that science and research can find financially sustainable crops that can be grown under environmentally sustainable conditions accepted by European society to help fill the gap in the sustainability debate.
“We have to feed the people and we have to live in this world. We just have this one, we don’t have another one and there is no other choice,” he said.
Until then, the intense debate about what constitutes sustainable in a country seen as a global leader in the field will continue.