David Richardson: A visit to Germany

A tabloid newspaper might have declared: “Build-up to German Election at Fever Pitch”. But Farmers Weekly is not tabloid and when I was in Germany last week there seemed little excitement in newspapers or on TV.

There were plenty of posters showing a smiling Mrs Merkel and her political opponents and there were glimpses of them on screen as they exploited photo opportunities. But, unless I missed something, the whole affair was conducted with dignity and goodwill.

Most of the German people I spoke to thought this suggested many of those standing expected to have to work together after the election. In other words, the two-party coalition of the past could become a three-party government in the future. There was confusion among voters as to how the candidates could merge their disparate policies and whether the arrangement might work.

However, there was widespread agreement that the Greens seemed to be gaining ground and would be a greater force than before. Given that German Greens were the main instigators and promoters of new pesticide restrictions about to be imposed across the EU, this could be cause for concern both inside and outside that country.

Indeed the possibility of this may have played some part in the decision by BASF, which now claims to be the biggest chemical company in the world, to run a conference at its Ludwigshafen HQ for general and agricultural journalists from across Europe.

The main objectives were to persuade the reporters that chemical farming was not necessarily less environmentally friendly than organic farming – that when all considerations, such as carbon footprints, were taken into account, organic production was often more damaging, and if farmers were to have a chance of producing sufficient food for an expanding world population, modern science must be developed and used to the full.

My role was to chair a debate then field questions from the journalists which, we were warned, might be hostile to conventional farming. Audience comments were mainly of an enquiring nature and views from the BASF team and my independent panel were hardly challenged.

Perhaps the green elements of the German press were too polite to argue with their hosts; perhaps they had been persuaded by the power of the presentations by the speakers or perhaps they had accepted the need to increase production to feed a hungry world.

Even so, it was instructive that BASF had invited three Brits to serve on a panel of five – comprised Meurig Raymond, NFU deputy president, Caroline Drummond, chief executive of LEAF and myself. We were supported by Alex Avery, an American polemicist who deplores organic farming and Harald von Witzke, a German academic who forecast that during the next decade shortages would drive up the prices of basic food commodities to twice the level they are at today.

“You Brits have it right,” our hosts complimented us. “You have involved the public and consumers in your industry.” In Germany, apparently, there is virtually no dialogue between greens, farmers and the chemical industry. No dialogue means no hope of improving our understanding of one another and reaching workable compromises. Our hosts were, perhaps, too kind but I hope our small British contingent made some contribution towards helping to bridge that important German gap.

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