Towards sustainable agriculture – we’re still on the starting blocks

The challenges in switching to sustainable and organic farming are considerable. The agricultural sector needs to adapt to climate change and substantially reduce its climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions. “We currently have a great many policy goals – climate neutrality in particular – but very little by way of practical action,” says Margarethe Scheffler in the new episode of the Oeko-Institut’s “Wenden bitte!” podcast. “We have a long way to go and in terms of transforming our farm sector, we’re still on the starting blocks. Germany needs to take urgent action here.”

Livestock farming accounts for 80% of emissions from agriculture and land use. “Much of this comes from drained peatlands. They make up around 7% of the total agricultural area but produce around 40% of emissions from farming and land use. When it comes to rewetting the peatlands, there’s no time to lose,” Margarethe Scheffler explains. Agricultural areas can also be used as sinks for residual emissions from biological processes.

If Germany were to switch to the Planetary Health Diet, livestock numbers could be reduced by 75%. This would result in a substantial decrease in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, which currently account for a significant share – around 15% – of Germany’s total emissions. The freed-up land could then contribute to achieving food security.

“Wie kommt Klimaschutz auf den Acker?” – “What can be done to make farming more climate-friendly?” Oeko-Institut podcast (in German)

The podcast audio is in German; an English translation of the exchange is here.

Boosting biodiversity

Around 50% of Germany’s territory is farmed. In many regions, agriculture is very low in structural diversity: it consists of large-scale monocultures with few structural elements such as hedgerows. There is often also a lack of diversity in the succession of crops that are grown. This results in more intensive use of nitrogen and pesticide inputs, worsening species decline. Germany’s biodiversity strategy currently states that 10% of the agricultural area should be designated as high-value habitat. In line with the EU’s current agricultural policy, at least 4% of Germany’s farmland must be set aside and left as fallows or wildflower strips. “But our project-based examples show that for some species, as much as 20% is needed in high-value habitat,” says Senior Research Margarethe Scheffler.

Promoting sustainable farming

A sustainable, resource-conserving approach to agriculture can boost food security while ensuring that production systems are fit for the future. This must include rethinking the system of agricultural subsidies. Currently, around 50% of subsidies are distributed somewhat indiscriminately, with the result that climate change mitigation tends to be overlooked. One option would be to use the available funds primarily to promote ecosystem services by paying attractive financial compensation to farmers for providing wildflower strips and agroforestry schemes, for example. In a current study, researchers at the Oeko-Institut are looking at whether it is feasible to transfer the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) model to agriculture in order to generate more funding for ecosystem services.

Knowledge rather than everyday advice

The Oeko-Institut's podcast “Wenden bitte!” (“All change please!”) is aimed at listeners from politics, science, the media, NGOs and the general public – anyone with an interest in political and environmental issues. Co-presenters of the podcast are Nadine Kreutzer, journalist and presenter, and Mandy Schossig, Head of Public Relations & Communications at the Oeko-Institut. For about an hour – enough time for the “long haul of environmental podcasts” – they talk with one of the Oeko-Institut’s experts about upcoming transformations towards sustainability.

Season 3

Episode 5: “What can be done to make farming more climate-friendly?” with Margarethe Scheffler, released 22 June 2023

Episode 4: “How effective is the Supply Chain Act?” with Dr Peter Gailhofer, released 11 May 2023

Episode 3: “Will transport make the transition?” with Peter Kasten, released 6 April 2023, recorded 27 March 2023

Episode 2: "Sustainability through digitalisation?" with Carl-Otto Gensch, released 25 February 2023

Episode 1: "Can the forests still be saved?" with Dr Hannes Böttcher, released 12 January 2023

The podcast is available on all the usual podcast portals – such as Apple Podcasts and Spotify