Seemingly oblivious to the light snow and biting temperatures, on the 21st January, 2018, an estimated 33,000 brightly adorned marchers wound their way through Berlin. Fronted by 160 farmers on tractors, protesters banged kitchen pots and pans to the motto “We are sick of it! Food is political!” The message was clear: intensive industrial agriculture must end.
For the past seven years, the annual demonstration has gathered steam and support and is now a regular fixture at the beginning of International Green Week. Targeting the 60 agricultural ministers assembled for talks on the future of food and farming, rallying cries called for a glyphosate ban, the phase-out of factory farming and the protection of small farms from absorption into large agribusinesses. Back in 2010, around 10,000 people walked the streets, now it is over three times that.
“The transition to environment-, animal- and climate-friendly agriculture, in which farmers can live well from their work, can no longer be pushed aside by politics,” boomed Jochen Fritz from the podium in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the representative of the consortium of 100 groups which organised the demonstration. These organisations included Friends of the Earth Germany, the German Animal Protection Alliance, farmers’ unions and many more environmental, social and political groups.
“Farmers and consumers from all over Europe have made it clear that they are fed up with current policies that benefit huge food and agriculture corporations,” pronounced Adrian Bebb, food and farming campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. It was certainly promising to see such a plethora of engaged organisations and movements working towards a more sustainable food system. However, as I stood nestled between the hooting men, women and children and endless placards of honeybees and witty mottos, it was obvious that German was overwhelmingly the language spoken.
This is perhaps not surprising, we were after all in Germany. But it is increasingly rare in Berlin, a city bursting with people from all sorts of nationalities. That the demonstration, in terms of organisers and attendants, should be overwhelmingly German, is interesting. The German public’s engagement with the issue of industrialised food production is important, but concern with this subject needs to move beyond the national scale. A fair chunk of agricultural policy is determined at the EU level and so effective advocacy for more ambitious or socially progressive farming policy would require countries across Europe coming together.
“When it comes to politics, food and farming is still a very local topic. Any item of food you might find in the supermarket is probably far more international than any grassroots movement around food and farming that I am aware of,” said Benny Haerlin, who was amongst the initiators of the demonstration. He is also involved in various local and European projects concerned with the politics of food and farming. Haerlin organised a ‘Soup and Talk’ event after the demonstration. With a warm cup of soup in hand, protestors were invited to listen to brief presentations about inspiring projects actively creating sustainable food and farming systems, from seed swap initiatives to urban gardening in schools. These 40 presentations included projects from 13 different countries, and is an attempt to create an international platform, to learn from and inspire across borders.
This is sorely needed. If the sustainable food and farming movement at large remains so fractured, either in terms of nationality or in terms of chosen theme – how much does the seed sovereignty movement associate with the urban food waste managers? – I fear we will never reach the necessary numbers to affect widespread change on a grass-roots as well as policy level. Such collaboration must transcend disciplinary boundaries: let us see food system academics, peasant activists, engaged citizens, policy-makers and farmers at the table talking through the future of European food and farming.
Some such projects do exist and Haerlin is hopeful. However, he does mention that the last attempt to bring EU member states together for a collective demonstration on food and farming in Brussels in 2012, saw no more than 3,000 attendants. In light of the upcoming reform of the EU Common Agricultural Policy, it is particularly important to give international attention and pressure towards socially and environmentally ambitious reform of our food system.
A previous student of Agricultural Sciences at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Alice Bischof attended the demonstration for the first time this year. “I’ve always been very sceptical of the message the demonstration sends,” she said, “I did not want to stand up for an easy to digest ‘anti’-message, as it is just as easy to contradict, and not really constructive.” ‘We are sick of it!’ she found was a rather vague motto for the demonstration, lacking in specific calls for action; just being against industrial food production was not good enough. But, Bischof goes on to remark that she understands that the demonstration was advocating for something as well, ‘good food and farming,’ but was not sure what that concretely meant. “However, when I finally went to the demo, I realised just how important it is to raise our concerns about our food publicly” she says, “it is an extremely bulky and complex topic, and any attempt to [reduce it to] one sentence is almost doomed to fail. The worst thing, however, would be for the demo not to take place at all.”
In discussion with other participants in the demonstration as the afternoon wore on, the range of food and farming backgrounds became clear. “I notice the tensions within the movement,” one participant said, “particularly around different livestock production strategies. But that does not and should not stop us from uniting on a day like today.”
This is a good point – unity need not necessarily be found in consensus, it can also be found in collective dissent. At the end of the day, one thing all agreed on was the environmental and social unsustainability of ‘business-as-usual’ exploitative industrial agricultural production. This ability to see and work beyond differences in opinion, allows me to entertain the thought that we can and must see beyond the national and disciplinary borders I spoke of earlier.
One thing I noticed at the demonstration and the talks and events which surrounded it, was the lack of a British presence, in terms of the individuals, groups and organisations attending the march but also in the lack of engagement with broader issues affecting British food and farming. Even in publications concerned specifically with the agricultural sector, there was minimal UK coverage of the event. British newspapers are filled with the latest updates on Brexit negotiations. And there is, understandably, deep concern around what post-Brexit British food and farming may look like, and how our future relationship with Europe will affect that sector.
Only in Germany did I realise this concern with Brexit did not cross the Channel with the same impact. Certainly, Britain will be significantly more affected by Brexit than the other EU countries. Brexit will require the complex renegotiation of a hefty chunk of EU agricultural policy. However, an agrifood system is far more than just a package of policies. It includes the spread of new agricultural technologies and practices, the wide reach of multinational agribusinesses and the broad range of issues affecting the global food system, including soil degradation and the significant decline of our pollinators. These are not national but international concerns which have a global impact. Whatever the outcomes of Brexit negotiations, the UK and the remaining EU member states should continue to engage on food and farming issues. We will still be neighbours and, in many instances, may be faced with similar problems.
A European agrifood movement would be a way to keep tabs on such problems and lobby against them. It would be a way to express a widespread and multifaceted concern with the future of food and farming, while acknowledging the place-specific consequences and reactions to particular EU policies or specific environmental and social issues. It could be an important way for British farmers, activists and academics to remain in fruitful engagement with their European counterparts, however the Brexit negotiations may develop.
A Europe-wide movement is an opportunity to pool resources and learn from each other. Reaching across national and disciplinary borders is a way to reach a critical mass in terms of size, attracting the attention of regional, national and international policymakers to ensure socially and environmentally ambitious reform. It could be a crucial way to gather enough support to mark an end to intensive industrial agricultural production in Europe. ‘We are sick of it!’ could become a European rallying call for a broad range of groups and organisations to come together, united in a collective concern for European food, animals, people and land that transcends national borders.
Photographs: Alexander Puell and Fabian Melber