Ausgabe 4/2008

Our Hungry Planet The Choice between Food and Fuel

Part 2: The New Chinese Appetite for Meat

A debate is taking shape over how human beings will be able to secure the basis of their livelihood, and whether they should use genetic engineering, for example. What represents the most effective use of valuable agricultural resources -- as a source of food for the world or as fuel for our cars and trucks? Bread or gasoline? Or is it possible to have both: a full belly and clean-burning cars?

German farmers derive a certain sense of satisfaction from the current debate. Until recently, they were seen as a dying breed. They were ridiculed as the notorious recipients of Brussels' welfare bureaucracy, and as the beneficiaries of a peculiar market logic: The less land the farmers farmed, the more money they collected. Now, for the first time in many years, German farmers can enjoy the pleasant sensation of being in demand. In fact, they are even respected again -- and able to make money.

Farmers are investing again, taking out loans to buy additional farmland, build storage buildings and put new machinery in their barns. Food production -- still Germany's fourth-largest industry after automobile manufacturing, machine tool production and chemicals -- is suddenly turning into a growth sector. Gerd Sonnleitner, the president of the Germans Farmers Association, welcomes this "new form of liberation for farmers," now that supply and demand rule the market and buyers are setting prices once again.

Farming Has a Future

"I even got calls asking if I had any grain left for sale when I was sitting on my combine," says Hans-Jürgen Sandvoss, 57, referring to last year's harvest. He and his wife have been running their farm in Honerdingen, a bucolic little 17th-century village in the northern German state of Lower Saxony, for the past 26 years. The family has owned the farm for generations, and Sandvoss hopes that his son will keep the tradition alive. The son, 19, plans to complete a training program on a farm after he finishes high school, and then follow in his parents' footsteps and study agriculture. "Until recently, I advised him against becoming a farmer," says Sandvoss. But now he is encouraging his son to pursue his plan after all. Farming has a future once again.

Today's farmer can also act as a businessman. His portfolio consists of crops like wheat, rapeseed, rye, brewer's barley, corn, potatoes and sugar beets. The key to a farmer's success is being able to predict the demand for certain products and plant his fields accordingly, taking the requirements of crop rotation into account.

Most crops are rapidly becoming more dear.

Most crops are rapidly becoming more dear.

The price of farmland has jumped considerably. The Bodenverwertungs- und Verwaltungsgesellschaft (BVVG), an agency in Berlin that leases and sells government-owned farmland, is reporting record profits. In the first half of 2007, the average market price of a hectare (2.47 acres) of agricultural land in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt was €7,400, a 23-percent increase over last year's price. Prices are even higher in western Germany. In the state of North Rhine Westphalia, for example, the asking price for a hectare of farmland can be as high as €25,000 -- and there are buyers to be found.

The cost of leasing farmland has also increased in the state and €1,000 per hectare is no longer a rarity. "Any farmer who enters into leasing negotiations nowadays has my sympathy," says Rüdiger Fuhrmann, an agricultural expert at NordLB, a major bank based in Hannover. Johann Kalverkamp, an agricultural consultant in Lingen, a city in Lower Saxony, has also noticed a rapid increase in land prices. "Land is the scarcest resource on earth," says Kalverkamp.

'Shortages Will Intensify Dramatically'

The fact is that arable land cannot be increased at will. Over the past three decades, the amount of arable land worldwide has stagnated at about 1.5 billion hectares (3.7 billion acres). While new agricultural land is being added in Russia or South America, more and more land is lost to residential and industrial development in Asia and Europe. In China, eight million hectares (20 million acres) of land under cultivation have vanished within a decade. For comparison, just under 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of land are currently used for agriculture in Germany.

These spatial limitations would be tolerable if the world's population wasn't growing at such a breathtaking pace. A person born in 1950 has experienced mankind more than doubling its numbers from 2.5 billion to 6.6 billion people today. If the population grows to nine or even 10 billion by 2050, "the world will see an enormous need for additional biomass produced in agriculture," warns Franz Josef Rademacher, a mathematician in the southern German city of Ulm. Rademacher, a member of the Club of Rome, believes that "shortages will intensify dramatically."

At the same time, millions of people are changing their lifestyles and eating habits. The new middle class in Shanghai, Hanoi and Jakarta, no longer satisfied with a diet of rice and beans, has a growing appetite for pizza and pasta, burgers and pork chops. Meat consumption has doubled in the last 25 years and continues to grow. Meat production, though, requires large amounts of feed. A hog farmer needs three kilos of feed to produce a kilo of pork, and for beef the ratio is even higher: seven to one. Vast amounts of water are needed to produce the grain that goes into feeding livestock. It takes about 900 liters of water to grow enough corn for one kilo of feed.

Feeding a Quarter of the World's Population

The impact of new eating habits is especially significant in China. In Mao's day, the Chinese diet was predominantly vegetarian. With growing affluence, the Chinese have expanded their menus considerably, adding large amounts of meat to dishes like their traditional noodle soup. The huge country will not be able to even remotely satisfy this growing demand with domestic resources. The People's Republic already lives well beyond its means today. China has a quarter of the world's population to feed, and yet it has only about 10 percent of its arable land. As a result, the country is steadily buying up the world's food resources. China now imports more than seven times as many soybeans as it did only a decade ago. Corn shipments from abroad increased by a factor of 15 in 2006 alone.

Paradoxically, it wasn't too long ago that China was an important exporter of food products. But that was when crude oil was still affordable and climate change was a topic that interested a handful of meteorologists at best. Nowadays, with the energy and climate crisis at the top of the political agenda, the Chinese, and the rest of the world, for that matter, see plant-based fuel as a way out of the environmental trap -- but at the price of agricultural commodities becoming scarcer and more costly.

Governments spend billions to promote the production of plants that can be used to produce fuel and the development of production capacity. Growing amounts of rapeseed are being refined into biodiesel while corn and sugarcane becomes ethanol. On Wednesday, the European Commission examined ways to implement its ambitious climate resolutions. Marian Fischer Boel, the European Union's agricultural commissioner, is convinced that if Europe hopes to achieve its goal of a 20-percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020, "there will be no getting around biodiesel and ethanol." The demand for plant-based alternatives to fossil fuels increases along with the price of oil -- with far-reaching consequences for consumers. The EU is calling for fuels to include at least 10 percent biofuels by 2020.


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