Berlin protests focus on farming and food safety

Thousands of people have been demonstrating in the streets of Berlin as politicians and policymakers discuss changes to global agricultural policies.

'Politicians don’t respect enough the environmental issues'

Over the weekend crowds protested in the streets of Berlin over global agricultural policies and food safety issues. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Thousands of people braved the cold and demonstrated in the streets of Berlin as politicians and policymakers met to discuss changes to global agricultural policies.

Under the slogan, "We are fed up," the protesters called for an end to food scandals, genetic engineering and animal cruelty in industrial livestock farming. 

"We are from the Friends of the Earth and we demonstrate for the peace of animals, small farmers, ecological farming, non-genetic produce animals and non-genetic food," Viola Wagner said, as she marched and chanted.

Demonstrators marched through Berlin's shopping and government districts. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

"We got up at 4 o’clock to come six hours by bus. I’m here for my children and my grandchildren, to make sure they have a future and good food."

More than 120 groups representing farmers, industry, and animal rights and environmental activists organized the demonstration. It was timed to coincide with International Green Week, the Agriculture Ministers' Summit and the Global Forum for Agriculture, which are all taking place in Berlin this week.

'I’m here for my children and my grandchildren, to make sure they have a future and good food.'—Viola Wagner, demonstrator

The event also comes as another scandal in Germany has shaken consumer confidence in the safety and quality of the country’s food. Animal feed fats contaminated with the carcinogenic compound dioxin has again been discovered in the food chain, causing some countries to block German pork and egg imports.

Organizers said 22,000 people came from all over Germany, although police estimated turnout closer to 15,000.

CBC in Berlin

Karen Pauls is in Berlin to enhance CBC's European coverage at a time when the continent is struggling through one of the most unpredictable periods in recent history. Germany's prosperity is being closely watched as the ongoing fiscal crisis puts the European Union under great strain. Pauls has covered national affairs in Canada for CBC Radio, and has previously been posted in London, U.K., and Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @karenpaulscbc.

Following about 50 tractors, they marched from Berlin’s main train station, along one of the main shopping streets, through the government district, and ended with a rally in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s offices.

"The current dioxin scandal has suddenly highlighted the backlog of reforms in agricultural policy," Hubert Weiger, chairman of BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany), said in a speech.

In her weekly video message on Saturday, Merkel said the government would tighten controls in the animal feed industry.

Meanwhile, some demonstrators also called for changes to Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is responsible for approximately 40 per cent of the total EU budget. Policymakers are currently deciding how to reform the CAP, which expires at the end of 2013.

"The politicians don’t respect enough the environmental issues," said Moritz Steinbeck, of Young Friends of the Earth.

Demonstrators want changes to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, which expires at the end of 2013. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Factory farms disregard animal welfare, and the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is harming the environment and threatening biodiversity, he said.

"We want to send a message to the German politicians, but also to the European Union because the CAP reform is now being discussed. I hope [they will listen] and I think they do because if you look at the anti-nuclear movement, it was quite powerful in Germany and had an effect on the politicians and the politics that were made."

Across town, more than 80 agriculture ministers, representing 70 per cent of the world’s population, discussed new strategies for global food security.

The main issues included reduced resources, a growing population, and the problem of one billion undernourished people around the world, German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said.

German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner says the world food supply is alarming, when considering population growth. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

"We try here at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture — together with representatives from the political, economical realms as well as regular citizens, to find solutions on how to best deal with investments into agriculture and rural regions for better solutions on how to supply food to the world," she said, adding CAP is not on the agenda. 

"We will not be discussing European agriculture politics here."

CAP is of interest to countries like Canada because, in the past, it has been an export subsidy for European agricultural products, providing direct payments to farmers based on how much land they had in production in a base year, said Harald von Witzke, a professor of agriculture economics and president of the Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture.

The original idea was to help farmers make up for the competitive disadvantage of having to meet stricter quality and environmental regulations than other countries, he said.

Moritz Steinbeck says politicians don't care enough about environmental issues. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

"Now the question is whether the level of these subsidies should be reduced because the CAP is the  single most important budget item of European Union. And the second is whether it should be more equitable because now the West European member countries get higher payments than the East European member countries," he said.

"But the most controversial is the so-called "Greening" – idling for environmental reasons of 7 per cent of the acreage, and this during a time of very high agricultural commodity prices. This will drive up prices even more."

No one from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is attending the meeting, but the department is monitoring the CAP discussions, a spokesperson said in an email.