How sustainable is the import and export of food?
Prof. Dr. Stephan v. Cramon-Taubadel from the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Göttingen gives his opinion in an interview.
Why don't we just stop exporting food?
In principle, it would be possible to do without. But if population density, incomes and demand for food in many other countries continue to rise as expected, then every ton we export less would have to be produced more elsewhere on earth. Sustainability would increase here at home, but at the expense of sustainability elsewhere on the planet. Whether there would be a positive effect on the bottom line is by no means certain, because in many places production standards are not as strict as they are here.
So German food exports have no impact on sustainability?
The global agricultural and food system is complex. Simple solutions that seem advantageous from a regional or national perspective often only displace problems such as CO2 emissions or biodiversity loss. Exporting does not preclude sustainable production. We can produce more sustainably and still continue to export. If we want to relieve the global agricultural and food system in a sustainable way, we have to think first and foremost about our consumption habits, for example our meat consumption, not exports.
What effect do production surpluses have on sugar beets, potatoes, bread cereals and milk?
These foods are exported and can then be found in almost every other country in the world, often in processed form. Initially, this is a completely normal process. Germany exports vehicles and engineering products, for example, but also cereals, because we can produce these products competitively on an international scale.
Why are so few fruits and vegetables grown in our country?
Actually, not so little fruit and vegetables are grown in Germany: in 2022, fruit and vegetables worth around 5.2 billion euros and potatoes worth 2.6 billion euros were produced in Germany. It is true, however, that Germany has a self-sufficiency rate for fruit and vegetables of well below one hundred percent. First of all, this has to do with the fact that fruit and vegetable production is generally labor-intensive and employees in Germany are scarce and expensive compared to many other countries. This is a competitive disadvantage. In addition, there are many types of fruit and vegetables that we like to eat but that could not be grown in our country, or only at astronomical cost, such as citrus fruits, bananas and olives.
So in the end, is it down to what consumers want?
One hundred percent self-sufficiency in local fruit and vegetables would theoretically be possible, but then we would have to do without bananas altogether. Or accept self-sufficiency with greenhouse bananas in Germany, which is expensive and would be subsidized at the expense of the environment. Due to consumer demands, we even import some fruits and vegetables that grow well in our country, because this stretches seasonal availability. For example, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers from Italy or Spain are offered to us several months before our domestic production becomes available.
But what about imported rapeseed from Australia or eggs from Poland, for example? Can't we produce these ourselves?
We could, but it would not always be in the spirit of sustainability. Certainly, some of our food imports can be questioned from a sustainability perspective, the small bowl of organic blueberries imported by air freight from Latin America, for example. But domestic products are not inherently more sustainable than imported ones.
A fresh imported apple from South Tyrol may have a much more favorable carbon footprint in a Munich supermarket than a local apple from the more distant Alte Land. Quite apart from the fact that in our common EU internal market, eggs from Poland or apples from South Tyrol are not legally imports at all, any more than Bavarian beer in Berlin or Spreewald gherkins in Stuttgart.
Buying regionally is a big trend. Does that not matter after all?
The important thing is not whether a product is "local" or imported, but that all the players involved in the chain between producers and consumers bear the full costs of their production and purchasing decisions, including the costs caused by the transport of goods in the form of CO2 emissions. This is often not the case, or is still insufficient. Pricing in environmental costs is a thick plank.
Many foods would be significantly more expensive if all the environmental costs incurred in their production and marketing were reflected in their prices. Pricing in environmental costs while at the same time cushioning the negative impact of more expensive food on low-income households is a big challenge that policymakers in Germany and the EU have not yet dared to tackle consistently.
Many experts fear that agriculture in Germany is in decline, even though Germany exported 350 different food products to 186 countries in the calendar year 2020. What is your assessment of this?
I don't see any danger of a significant migration of agricultural production from Germany. The natural production conditions in Germany are too good for that, and global demand for food is too strong for that. Structures in German agriculture will continue to adapt to the conditions; production will increase for some products and decrease for others.
"This interview and further information on modern agriculture can be found on the website and in the magazine Stadt.Land.Wissen of our cooperation partner Forum Moderne Landwirtschaft: Moderne Landwirtschaft - Modern Agriculture (moderne-landwirtschaft.de)"