Agriculture | 1 min

“Of Course There Is No Right To Cheap Meat”

German Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner rejects reducing factory farming, saying that numbers alone say little about the actual conditions. The Greens would degrade farmers to mere landscape gardeners

This Article is part of the debate on
Green New Deal Agriculture Factory Farming

Jakob Pontius
Julia Klöckner (CDU), German Minister of Agriculture, speaks outside a the party headquarters.

The interview with German Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner, 49, takes place in her office in Berlin. Just a few days before, she and the SPD reached a national compromise on the distribution of billions of euros in EU subsidies. For three years, the Rhineland-Palatinate native has been at the helm of the Agriculture Ministry, which has been led by the CDU/CSU for almost 13 years.

Zeit Online: Ms Klöckner, a pig farm recently burnt down in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. 57,000 pigs died miserably, an unbelievable number. Shouldn’t such industrial facilities finally be banned?

Julia Klöckner: The pictures from Alt Tellin are cruel, hardly bearable. The giant plant was approved by the state authorities, in accord with the law in force at the time. These mass facilities are not what citizens and farmers want. Of course, a fire could also have occurred on a small farm, but because of the scale of the facility and the large number of animals that perished, it is clear that such an extremely high level of centralisation and concentration in animal husbandry cannot be healthy.

Why aren’t you more radical? You could say enough is enough, we must limit the number of animals on farms to prevent, for example, nearly 60,000 pigs being fattened up in one place?

60,000 in one place is too many! But would we say the same about 1,000 pigs, or 100? The number alone is not telling us anything. It is not the only factor that determines animal welfare. There are small farms that have not rebuilt their barns in 40 years, and still keep some of their cows tethered. Animal welfare also requires adequate space or opportunities for the animals to busy themselves. And I think that the usable area should also fit in with this. It is a question of proportions.

“The CDU will continue to have a clear stance on animal welfare during the election campaign.”

 

The larger such mass animal facilities are, the more difficult they are to control especially in terms of fire safety.

A fire accident can also happen to a small business. But the scale of large companies is something else. Today, probably, such a plant would no longer be approved. However, it must also be made clear that both the approval and the examination of husbandry conditions or the sanctioning of violations are a central task of the state administrations, not on the federal level. An additional factor is resistance from the local population. Animal husbandry with more animal welfare must be the future. That is why animal welfare will also play a greater role in European agricultural policy in the future.

You have frequently proclaimed animal welfare to be a task for the future. At the same time, you have prolonged the anaesthetic-free castration of piglets, and chick shredding has not ended by the middle of the legislative period, as was set out in the coalition agreement.

Anaesthetic-free piglet castration is banned. As of this year, we have the strictest law on piglet castration in Europe, and that’s what counts in the end. For piglets that are castrated in Germany, not only pain relief, but pain elimination is mandatory. And if we had banned chick killing all at once, it would have failed in court. It would have been equivalent to a professional ban for farmers. What we did instead is to promote and introduce alternatives first, and now I can ban it. And we’re the first in the world to do this.

Of course, barn conversions and higher animal welfare standards cost money. Does the consumer have no right to cheap meat?

Of course, there is no right to cheap meat.

Exporting helps to protect resources

 

Does this mean meat must become more expensive – even a luxury good?

There is something in between the right to meat and meat as a luxury. It’s about quality, about eating less, but in higher quality. We are restructuring animal husbandry in Germany to make it more animal-friendly. You can’t make this change at the push of a button, not even with just one law. Of course, it all costs money and above all: time. If we consumers want it that way, we must also be prepared to dig a little deeper into our pockets for more animal welfare.

For the pig farmers, this will mean not all farms being able to survive. After all, we still have overproduction.

Today, we in Germany consume mainly the best parts of fresh meat, such as the filet, the ham, or the cutlet. The rest is exported or partly used for sausage production. If we do not export these parts, up to 40 per cent of the resources used for their production would be wasted. In this sense, exporting helps protect resources. We export meat, especially the parts we do not eat in Germany, but at the same time we also import meat products from abroad.

“Farmers don’t want any more farmer bashing”

Two years ago, the German government decided on an animal welfare label for pork, comparable to the organic label. It would show consumers how the animal has lived, for example, if it was cramped into a barn or allowed to roam outside. But the label has still not made it into supermarkets. How can that be?

The animal welfare label is in parliament.

So when is it coming?

We decided on it as the Federal Government. I am not a member of the Bundestag.

Well, your party is in government.

Yes, but we also have a coalition partner. The SPD likes to turn its back on the issue. At the moment, for example, it is blocking a reform of the Federal Building Code, which we need for the animal welfare-friendly conversion of stables.

Why not go one step further and make the lowest level of animal welfare labelling the minimum legal standard?

Obviously, we must get there. However, if we immediately raise the legal standards for German farmers only, then we must no longer financially support the pig farmers, who are reconstructing their barns to become animal welfare stables. No subsidies may be granted for a statutory minimum standard; that would be contrary to the EU state aid law. And that makes production more expensive; imported goods would be cheaper than domestic goods.

“The Greens have an urban way of life – and they’re imposing that on rural areas.”

 

You could also compensate the farmers for the higher costs by means of a levy.

However, this conflicts with EU law because meat from foreign producers would then be discriminated against. We have found a way to support farmers financially in the reconstruction process. 300 million euros are already available for this purpose. We are definitely setting up reliable financing for our farmers. To this end, I will be presenting a follow-up assessment this month on what an animal welfare levy could look like.

Will the CDU/CSU go into the election campaign demanding such an animal welfare solidarity supplement?

The CDU/CSU will have a clear stance on animal welfare in the election campaign.

Why should someone vote for your party to get more animal welfare – and not for the party who originally had it on their agenda, ie the Greens?

We are the ones paying attention to feasibility and staying realistic. We show that ecology and economy go hand in hand. The CDU/CSU is committed to strong rural regions with regional agriculture. The Greens, on the other hand, have an urban attitude to life – and they impose them on rural areas.

Your current policy doesn’t seem to be going down too well in the countryside. Farmers have been protesting against your policy for months now.

There are as few “farmers” as there are “consumers”. Agriculture is more fragmented into individual groups than ever before. And we are currently demanding a lot from farms: less fertiliser, fewer pesticides, more animal welfare, to name just a few examples. Farmers no longer want farmer bashing. But they also want to be able to make a living from their work.

“There will be no more money from Brussels without environmental and climate protection.”

 

Why not be much more radical in shifting the agricultural billions of euros from Brussels to ensure just that?

Because I can only do the maths and spend every euro once. We are talking about six billion euros a year from Brussels. It is linked to environmental performance and ecological requirements. In return, direct payments will be reduced. With this, we are rewarding the commitment to more climate protection.

But the system change in the agricultural budget has not happened, the land premium remains. Those who have a lot of land will get a lot of money. Even without an upper limit.

I have to disagree with you there. Repeating the sweeping claims of environmental associations does not make them true.

What’s your assessment then?

We have initiated a system change in German and European agricultural policy: there will no longer be a euro from Brussels without environmental and climate protection. This had been different until now. The so-called conditionality, ie stricter basic requirements in the area of environmental and climate protection, without which farmers receive no money, is being newly introduced.

“In the end, it’s about food security”

Apart from you, hardly anyone is talking about changing the system yet.

That’s a criterion for its validity, then? Realising the need for system change comes with the study of the matter. My colleague, the minister of the environment, and the ministers of agriculture of the individual German states are now also talking about a change of system. In the future, every euro will be linked to environmental performance. In addition, a quarter of the previous area payment will only be paid out if stricter environmental regulations are followed. And by 2026, we will have reallocated an additional 15 per cent of direct payments to finance further agri-environmental and climate measures. I could have imagined even more, for example a cap for large farms. But do you know who was responsible for the failure to cap bonuses?

Who?

The ministers of agriculture pertaining to the Green Party in eastern Germany, where there are many large farms. The aim is to redistribute money from large farms to smaller farms for the first hectares. My proposal was that anyone with more than 300 hectares would not receive support for the first hectares. The Green ministers rejected this, as they did with a degression of payments from EUR 60,000. Food security, by the way, is the core mission of agriculture. Without the certainty that there is enough for everyone, there would hardly be any room for philosophy, culture, European cohesion, but only concern and struggle for something to eat.

Nutrition should not only be safe, but also healthy. For half a year now there has been the voluntary food traffic light system which is supposed to show how healthy a product is. Why have you not obliged the food industry to use it?

“I’m not making friendly suggestions to the industry.”

 

I wish I had. And I know you don’t like to hear it: Europe.

The EU is to blame again?

This is not a question of guilt, but a sober question of law, because the EU legal framework for this regulation is lacking.

You have also relied on voluntary action on other issues, such as sugar and fat content. Instead of introducing limits, you have developed a reduction strategy. Doctors and patients’ associations criticise this. Aren’t you making yourself too small as a minister if you make friendly suggestions to the industry instead of taking decisions?

I don’t make friendly suggestions to the industry, the industry was pretty huffy, I can tell you that.

Huffy about suggestions?

Huffy, because, against many odds, I made food producers commit to clear, measurable targets for reducing salt, sugar and fats in processed foods.

Still, making food healthier remains optional.

“The way the Greens treat farmers, basically as landscapers, means that regional food security is not going to work.”

 

We have defined reduction targets with considerable pressure and against very strong resistance. And we have established independent scientific evaluations. But I cannot legally enforce the recipes.

But you could limit the sugar content.

Looking at the sugar content is not enough. If you take a look at the United States: on the food there, it either says fat free or sugar free – and then the other ingredient is crammed into the product stabilise it. That’s not healthy either. We want the overall composition of food to be better. What I have banned is added sugar in children’s teas and baby teas. Because a legal ban was the more effective way.

The Greens are expected to do strongly in the federal election. Do you want a black-green coalition?

Nice try (laughs). I would like to see a strong CDU/CSU. It’s not a question of who has to add to the demands. The Greens raise hopes that sound nice, but you’ll wake up with a heavy hangover. Because in the end it’s about honestly addressing the conflicting goals. The Greens don’t dare to do that.

The Greens are eyeing your ministry. Would you rather leave your potential successor a meadow or a stubble field?

The Greens must be careful not to stumble while eyeing up the position and then find themselves holding an empty shopping basket. Because without farmers, there is no food. And the way the Greens treat farmers – as if they were landscape gardeners – means that regional food security will not work.

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