On Saturday, January 17, 2015 for the fifth consecutive year a demonstration took place in Berlin for fair and organic agriculture under the slogan We’re Fed Up. According to the organizers 50,000 people took to the streets. The Berlin Police Department reported 20,000. That’s a 35,000 average, and we were in the thick of it.
The date was not chosen at random. A colourful alliance of environmental and animal protection organizations, organic farmers, beekeepers, anti-GMO advocates, aid organizations, organic food stores, political parties and consumers were calling for an agricultural turnaround; approximately 80 secretaries of agriculture from around the world were simultaneously in session exchanging views on the global agriculture industry at International Green Week, the largest agricultural conference in the world.
Sunny and 5°C, the rally kicked off at noon on Potsdamer Platz. The north-south tunnel of the S-Bahn was closed, so we came on the U2 and the station was surprisingly full. A stage had been built, associations and political parties were giving out flyers, and organic mulled wine and other treats were being sold. The speeches on stage criticized the government’s course of action with some speakers apparently affected by the spectators’ mood and prompted us to introduce ourselves to the people in our immediate surroundings. The considerable turn-out from all over the country was also praised. Bauer Otto even walked 450km in wooden clogs to get to Berlin.
Many people followed the call of the organizers, as did we, and by 1 p.m. the square was filling up. Then the small-scale farmers came on their tractors, some of whom had travelled for days on the highway to be able to set an example in Berlin. Upon arriving they made a little side trip to Green Week at the exhibition grounds to vent their anger
With a starting shot, the wave, and bad attempts from the stage at straightening out the procession, we started off with the farmers on their tractors leading the way down Leipziger Straße, passing the Mall of Berlin (renamed the “Mall of Shame” due to scandalous working conditions) and the Federal Council.
Although different groups had different interests they all shared the desire for sustainable food production.
With slogans such as “Power to the Bauer” (Power to the Farmers) and “TTIP-Fehla, Alta” (TTIP-Mistake, Jake) participants were demonstrating for more rural agriculture and against the agriculture industry and its conventional methods. People dressed in bee and rabbit costumes dramatized death in front of an oversized nebulizer with a Monsanto sticker in disapproval of the international agri-giant and its broad-spectrum herbicide, Round-up.
Posters that read “TTIP – Get off the Fields!” or “TTIP, Up the Wrong Tree” referred to the free-trade agreement between the E.U. and U.S., currently in negotiation to the exclusion of the public. The agreement could downgrade European standards regarding environmental concerns and food safety and includes regulations on the use of GM technology, treating livestock with hormones and the use of pesticides. The precautionary principle of the E.U., that is, that the manufacturer verifies a product’s safety with respect to human health before putting it on the market, could be softened. This would open the floodgates of Europe to U.S. agribusiness. It is feared that aggressive marketing strategies would ruin small-scale farming infrastructure, potentially leading it to die out.
Shortly before turning onto Wilhelmstraße we find ourselves in a strange smelling haze. The beekeepers have smoked out the entire procession with their smokers! They were criticizing the widespread use of pesticides and genetically modified seeds as possible causes of colony collapse disorder. Beekeepers receive no agricultural subsidies whatsoever although they contribute to pollinating a large percentage of field crops.
With “Vielfalt statt Einfalt” (Diversity Instead of Sameness) a change of thinking in conventional agricultural practices was being urged with regards to seed patenting and the increasing expansion of monocultures worldwide.
Passing the Department of Agriculture we walked and danced ourselves in a zig-zag through the government district, which isn’t exactly hustling and bustling on Saturday. At least three drum groups and some rowdy participants with music created a high-spirited atmosphere and various chants gave expression to political demands.
For the advancement of animal welfare, animal rights activists demanded, “Stoppt Tierfabriken!” (Stop animal factories!) against the expansion of mega stalls. New feed lots where animals are kept and tortured for their entire lives for human consumption are increasingly being approved, even though with meat Germany boasts a 120% level of self-sufficiency.
International aid organizations have called attention to existing world hunger and land-grabbing and the appropriation of land and arable land by corporations. It took a half hour for the last marchers at Potsdamer Platz to start moving.
At around 3 p.m. those at the front had reached the final gathering place of the demonstration, a stage in front of the Federal Chancellery. Here, too, there were booths with handouts, treats, and speeches again attempting to create a can-do atmosphere for the future of agricultural politics.
Leaving the rally on our way to Berlin Central Station at the foot bridge over the Spree, a rally worker using a rainwater tank as a donation box thanked us effusively for participating: “50,000 people!! That’s crazy! Thanks for coming!”
Year to year the increasing number of participants in colourful demonstrations urging nothing less than a global revolution of the agricultural sector and ending world hunger is an expression of a growing social consciousness of the consequences of food production and consumption. And the resistance is making progress.
In Germany, for instance, genetically modified corn can no longer be planted, and initiatives and actions against the construction of factory farms are ever-multiplying. Yet such small, hard-won achievements are threatened by so-called free-trade agreements such as TTIP and CETA and by the insanity of neoliberal deregulation, which could nip these efforts toward a re-ecologization of agriculture right in the bud.
In the course of the day consumers and producers demonstrated shoulder-to-shoulder and showed that a part of the population is outraged about a policy promoting an agriculture that ruins the basis of life for itself and all people. And it was also shown that there are organizations, initiatives and individuals who champion the betterment of these relationships all year long. There is reason to hope.