Corn vs. Marshes: German Wetlands Are Increasingly Yielding to Agriculture

By Kim Bode, Katharina Fuhrin and Christian Schwägerl

Even as Berlin demands that developing countries preserve their rainforests, the country is doing little for biodiversity back home. Bogs and marshland in Germany are increasingly yielding to corn farming -- resulting in the release of huge quantities of CO2.

Photo Gallery: Germany's Endangered Bogs Photos
DPA

It's hard to tell just by looking at Rhinluch, a region northwest of Berlin, that an ecological drama is playing out here. Lush green vegetation stretches out toward the horizon and cranes glide across the sky. The countryside around the small river Rhin seems like an idyllic rural landscape.

But Andreas Piela, a nature conservation expert for the Environment Ministry in the state of Brandenburg, doesn't look happy. "We're destroying this ecosystem," he says, as serious as if he were gazing into the deep hole of an open pit coal mine. "Things are similar all over the country."

Piela's expert eye catches what the casual observer doesn't see -- and he knows that this landscape is missing a rich layer of peat. Farmers have drained these wetlands for decades, turning marshy areas into pasture. This allows oxygen to penetrate the peat bog, sometimes a meter or more thick, and material that has built up over the course of millennia out of reeds, sedges and mosses begins to decompose, largely into the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The drying of wetlands also spells a loss of habitat for many animal and plant species.

Meanwhile, the German government is lecturing the rest of the world on preserving ecosystems. Last Tuesday, during the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan, German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen called on countries in tropical regions to preserve their rainforests, since clearing these forests releases enormous amounts of greenhouse gases and wipes out species. Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to the world to take action, even if this would have a "deep impact on our way of life and our economy." The UN Climate Change Conference starting at the end of November in Cancún, Mexico, will set the stage for similar appeals. The question is how much credibility Germany has on the global stage when its own bogs are disappearing.

Endangered Orchids and Rare Birds

To illustrate the destruction here in Rhinluch, Andreas Piela tromps over to a drainage gate, originally built to direct water from the meadows into the river. Since then, a thick layer of the ground has decomposed, causing the bog to sink, and the river now lies higher than the surrounding land and is held back by a dike. "If we opened this gate," Piela explains, "the river would flow back into the floodplain."

The type of bogs found in Germany, primarily in river valleys, rank among the most species-diverse habitats in the country. Endangered orchids and rare birds such as common snipes, curlews and corn crakes make their homes here. They act like sponges, providing protection against floods. Their soil layers, up to 10 meters (33 feet) thick, act as important storage sites for carbon dioxide.

Marshlands once covered huge areas of the country, but they are disappearing on a large scale. "Bogs, unfortunately, are often unprotected and subject to intensive use," criticizes Beate Jessel, president of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation. A warning cry is sounding especially in the states of Lower Saxony, Brandenburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Bavaria.

"Around 5 percent of Germany's greenhouse gas emissions comes from bogs drying out," warns Alois Heissenhuber, an agricultural economist at Munich's Technical University and advisor to Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner. He sees corn cultivation as the greatest culprit. "Corn leads to overfertilization and drying out," he says. The amount of land used for corn nationwide has nearly doubled -- to 1.9 million hectares (4.7 million acres) -- since 2002, often expanding into marshlands. "Corn is fatal to bogs," Andreas Piela says.

A Glass of Fresh Milk

Johann Hustedt, a farmer in the village of Wechold, Lower Saxony, has managed to hold out so far against the industrialization of his hometown and the increasing reliance on corn farming. He's always preferred green pastureland, and while Hustedt does use a small portion of his farm for corn cultivation, the majority of his land is pasture. Every morning, he sends his 38 cows out onto 47 hectares (116 acres) of land. His day most often begins with a glass of milk fresh from one of his cows.

Hustedt's method of dairy farming -- running a relatively low number of dairy cows on large area of land -- makes it possible to preserve bogs. But distributors and consumers demand cheap milk, with the result that cows are disappearing from pastures into barns, while marshlands are plowed into cornfields producing animal feed. Corn is also increasingly fermented into biogas for use as an energy source.

Now 65, Hustedt plans to retire and give up his farm. The buyers offering the best price for his land are biogas producers looking for land for new cornfields. "They take everything they can get," Hustedt says. Since cropland fetches nearly twice the price of pastureland, the dairy farmer plans to do precisely what conservationists most fear -- after decades of living off grassland farming, he's going to plow his pastures into cropland.

Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) doesn't plan to stand by and watch biodiversity ruined in the name of biogas and cheap milk. NABU member Uwe Baumert, a colonel who took early retirement, is fighting the advance of corn cultivation. Corn has taken over half the agricultural land in his home region of Rotenburg, Baumert says, and one field near his house is the scene of a veritable ecological crime. Once a bog, then a pasture, the land was plowed up for crop cultivation three years ago. "Now environmentally harmful gases are escaping," he adds.

Revival

Agricultural researchers like Alois Heissenhuber are calling for a campaign to protect the bogs. "In terms of climate protection," he explains, "in most cases it would be both cheaper and better to flood the bogs and let them regenerate, rather than producing biogas from corn." The farmers, he adds, should of course be compensated for flooding their land instead of draining it. The northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has even developed a business model of marketing bogs as natural systems for CO2 containment and introduced "bog futures." Buying these ecosystem "stocks" helps fund wetland restoration and simultaneously allows buyers to offset their own CO2 emissions.

As long as the layer of organic matter in a bog is still thick enough, it is often possible to revive these habitats. Huge areas of dried out bogs have been systematically returned to their natural state in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, once part of the German Democratic Republic, since German reunification.

The most successful of these projects is in the Peene River Valley, home to one of Europe's largest bog regions. Project director Frank Hennicke, standing in a region known as Grosse Rosinwiese, delights in the creative power of nature. On land that until recently was used for intensive agriculture, stands of reeds and open stretches of water now extend as far as the eye can see.

"It's incredible how quickly it transforms back," Hennicke says. At first, a recovering bog produces the greenhouse gas methane, but in the long term, its climate impact is positive. "Biodiversity is also recovering," Hennicke adds. "We have 750 plant species, 40 mammal species and 160 breeding bird species." White-tailed eagles, marsh harriers and egrets all live here.

Profits over Protection

Since 1992, the Peene Valley Countryside Association has spent €27 million ($38 million) to restore more than 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of bog land. The reward is a 100-kilometer (60-mile) stretch of river valley that functions as a bog all along its length.

Many experts see the low-impact form of farming known as "extensive agriculture" as the answer. "That means harvesting just once, in fall, and grazing only a few cows per hectare," explains Günter Riegel from the Allgäu Bog Alliance, a group of farmers and conservationists in southern Germany. The alliance's biggest question is whether farmers here can make a living with cows grazed on bogs, or whether they will need to shift to corn production.

The Bog Alliance markets straw for livestock stalls grown on these meadows and is considering introducing an eco-fee for tourists. But that alone won't be enough. "It needs to be profitable for the farmers to use their land as habitat," Riegel says. This is where things depend on the customer: "If there's bog-fed milk in the supermarket and it costs more than corn-fed milk -- who will buy it?"

The country's national biodiversity strategy calls for permanent restoration of reclaimable bogs by 2020 and the federal government is willing to foot the bill. "We need to take action back home that matches our talk here," Environment Minister Röttgen declared in Nagoya.

At the moment, though, things in Germany are playing out much the way they do in the rainforests of developing countries -- the interest in profits and the existence of wrong-headed subsidies see to it that short-term corn is winning out over long-term bogs.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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Graphic: How bogs store CO2. Zoom
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Graphic: How bogs store CO2.



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