Agroecology and Party Politics

Berlin's Role in a World without Hunger

What can a sustainable food supply look like in the Berlin of the future?

[This article was originally written in German.]

The participants of a professional discussion on May 19th in the Berlin House of Representatives, organized by the non-governmental organization, Inkota, asked themselves the same question. Representatives of all fractions of the Berlin state legislature were invited, and except for the CDU representative, all showed up.

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Dr. Altieri of the University of Berkeley started by introducing the basic approach of agroecology as an attempt at an interdisciplinary, holistic view on agricultural systems. Contrary to the conventional focus entirely on productivity factors, agroecology takes into consideration the interaction among technical, biophysical and socio-economic components in agriculture as well as the design, management and assessment of land. This establishes systems at once productive and resource-saving.

Dr. Altieri backed up his approach with statistics on resource consumption in industrial food production and called for a democratization of the entire agricultural sector, including production, distribution and consumption. To do so, production would have to be organic and small-scale: supporting small-scale farming, urban and peri-urban agriculture instead of large-scale monocultures and strengthening producer-consumer bonds. The current economic framework, with its inherent dependence on fossil fuels and fertilizers, its loss of fertile top soil and its centralized marketing is in no way sustainable.

Following this was an assessment of Berlin’s food supply by Christine Pohl, One World Promoter of Sustainable Economics at Inkota. Berlin is largely dependent on importing conventionally grown food from around the world. Neither in the House of Representatives nor the Department of Agriculture is there a committee on the issue of food, meaning the responsibility for food production rests on Brandenburg’s shoulders. And this despite the fact that 44% of Berlin land would be fit for urban farming and urban gardening, support for grocery store alternatives, such as CSA and farmers’ markets is not being dealt with and organically certifying cafeteria food in civil service is on the agenda. Politically, there are many links to be made but no go-to authorities.

So she has taken it upon herself to establish a coordinating unit of actors in civil society, science, business and even politics and to develop a food strategy for the entire city with this food policy council.

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The opposition took to the idea kindly. Marion Platta of the leftist party, Die Linke, feels establishing such a food council is important to be able to ensure Berliners a healthy, varied, low-waste, fair, regional and seasonal diet in the long run. She spoke in favor of maintaining allotment gardens as an integral feature of an overall plan for Berlin. Further, 16% of Berlin land has been put on the market for development. This must be stopped.

Turgut Altug of the green party, Die Grünen, is attempting to move away from Berlin’s image as a consumer city by combining the lease of 16,000 hectares of arable land within the city limits with organic cultivation.

Because Berliners are living beyond their means, Simon Kowaleski of the Pirate Party suggested avoiding two things on the level of the individual: anonymous binge-buying at the supermarket and livestock production. Politically he supported the elimination of subsidies for factory farms, seas of milk and mountains of butter. This falls under EU law and cannot be decided at the national level. Basically, a radical change in agriculture is necessary and definitely possible. The only problem is one of communication.

The main issue – at least here the opposition agreed – is that the government does not spend any money on interesting projects, preferring instead to bury it in Brandenburg’s sandy soil at BER, the major airport-in-progress. And that the proposals brought to parliament regarding greening the city and its food supply fall on deaf ears.

Irene Köhne, SPD representative and spokeswoman for the state government, had a slew of side blows and jabs coming her way. In her speech she acknowledged that Berlin civil society, with its attractive initiatives, is indeed setting trends. Whereas politics was lagging behind, far away from representing the cutting edge. Her suggestion on the matter was the meaningless phrase: support research in order to make Berlin a powerhouse of innovation. Building codes could also be changed to promote rooftop agriculture. But not in this legislative session.

And here is where the problems of party politics become apparent. They are too slow. Everything has to pass through legislature. It all takes too long. The ideas of the opposition, namely nurturing, not to mention setting, forward-looking trends are lacking in tangibility. They get lost in pointing fingers at a government whose maxim is pure economic productivity. An interdisciplinary approach such as agroecology seems to explode the political horizon. This is a government that has to be addressed as a legislative and funding body when developing a visionary food strategy for Berlin, but cannot be counted on to do anything.

Looking forward, what a sustainable food supply could be for Berlin is not only a question one NGO is posing to a handful of party politicians as a supposed authority. It is instead much more a question all residents of this city should be asking themselves, for everyone can make an individual contribution to a city-wide food strategy.

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Images: Silke Mayer Photography 

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