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ENVIRONMENT

‘No food, no future’: German farmers protest against insect protection plans

The German government on Wednesday proposed legislation to halt a dramatic decline in insect populations, but drew immediate fire from farmers who said the new measures threatened their livelihoods.

'No food, no future': German farmers protest against insect protection plans
Tractors protested on the streets of Berlin on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

The “insect protection” law, which aims to restrict the use of pesticides, is the result of two years of wrangling within Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government.

Hundreds of farmers drove their tractors into central Berlin on Tuesday, braving snow and frosty temperatures, to protest against the government's “insect protection” draft law.

“No farmers, no food, no future” read a sign fixed to one tractor near the city's famed Brandenburg Gate. “We are here, talk to us” read another.

The policy package's flagship measure is the phasing out of the
controversial weedkiller glyphosate by the end of 2023.

It also bans the use of herbicides and insecticides in national parks and includes rules for reducing light pollution at night.

“People can't live without insects,” said Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, calling the law “good news for insects and the future of our ecosystems”.

The legislation also limits the use of pesticides near major bodies of water, but the final version of the text leaves it up to Germany's individual states to set out detailed requirements.

READ ALSO: On heels of Bavaria victory, Germany plans insect protection law

“We're not against insect protection, but it needs to be adapted to modern agricultural practices,” 28-year-old farmer Wilke Luers said from behind the wheel of his tractor at the Berlin protest.

The government has argued that urgent action is needed because insects “play an important role in the ecosystem”.

Biologists have long warned that plummeting insect populations impact species diversity and damage the ecosystem by disrupting natural food chains and plant pollination.

'Taken far too long'

The German Farmers' Association (DBV) said in a letter addressed to Merkel that the planned legislation could reduce available agricultural land by seven percent.

It called for “cooperation” between farmers and environmentalists, and measures built around incentives instead of bans.

But Tomas Brückmann, from the Grüne Liga environmental organisation, dismissed the suggestion.

“We've been trying to cooperate with them for 20 years, it doesn't work,” he told AFP.

Archive photo shows a summer bee spotted in Friedberg in Hesse. Photo: DPA

His campaign group has urged the government not to water down the plans in the face of pressure from agricultural firms.

“The government must finally anchor into law the package of measures to protect insects that it committed to two years ago,” the group said in a statement. “It has taken far too long.”

German Environmental Minister Svenja Schulze, from the centre-left Social Democrats, first unveiled the insect protection proposals in 2019.

But the government's sign-off was repeatedly delayed by objections from conservative Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner, who pushed for exceptions to some of the rules.

The final compromise thrashed out between the ministers will be revealed on Wednesday.

Green shift

The gulf between farmers and environmental activists has deepened in Germany in recent years as concerns about climate change have grown, partly because of the youth-led Fridays for Future protests.

The opposition Green party now regularly comes second in opinion polls after Merkel's conservative bloc, and it could well end up in a coalition government following September's general election.

READ ALSO: German bug watchers sound alarm to insect apocalypse

The shift in the public mood has spurred Merkel's government to act on animal welfare, leading to recent pledges to stop the mass culling of male chicks and ending the practice of castrating piglets without anaesthetic.

But farmers complain that they are carrying the cost for the new measures, and that the tougher regulations won't allow them to compete with cheaper agricultural products from abroad.

A large-scale study in Germany in 2017 was one of the first to raise global alarm bells about the plunge in insect populations, triggering warnings of an “ecological apocalypse”.

The study found that, measured by weight, flying insect populations across German nature reserves had declined by more than 75 percent in 27 years.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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