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FARMING

OPINION: Why the Chinese pork embargo could kill off the German family farm

Over the weekend China announced it was stopping all imports of pork from Germany. Jörg Luyken argues that family farms, which are already disappearing en masse, will be hit hardest.

OPINION: Why the Chinese pork embargo could kill off the German family farm
Photo: DPA

This article first appeared in HochHaus, a twice weekly newsletter on German current affairs.

For years now, Germans have been eating ever less of their favourite meat – pork. But at the same time production has been going up. How has this happened?

In one word: China.

That’s right, the booming Chinese middle classes aren’t just buying German cars in abundance, they also can’t get enough of German pig products. Last year the Chinese imported a whopping €1.2 billion-worth of German pork. (The business is especially lucrative since the Chinese buy tidbits like ears and tongues that Germans won’t touch.)

But on Saturday China slammed the door shut. Any pork arriving from Germany as of the weekend will either be burned or marked “return to sender.”

READ ALSO: China halts imports of German pork after swine fever case

Culpable is a single wild boar that was found dead on the German side of the Polish border last week. Tests on the carcass revealed that the boar had died of African swine fever, a highly infectious and deadly disease in the swine world (rest easy… it is harmless to humans).

After spreading for years through eastern Europe, the disease has finally made it over the border.

The Chinese have been trying to eradicate African swine fever from their own stock for years and are particularly careful about whom they import from.

Their cautiousness is understandable. The disease can survive for more than 100 days in the processed meat of an infected animal. One confirmed case in your country is all it takes for the Chinese to order an immediate import stop.

'Höfesterben'

For a long time, Germany actually profited from this tough line. As the Chinese burned millions of their own pigs, they had to look abroad to sate that rapidly growing domestic market. Germany stepped into the void. By 2016, every fifth pig killed here was being sent to the Far East.

Now, literally overnight, all that meat has become surplus to requirements. On Friday the price of pork on the German market collapsed as buyers bet on the impending Chinese ban.

When I was researching this article, one number stuck out to me. While profits were swelling over the past decade, 10,000 small pig farms sold off their land.

READ ALSO: Meat production drops 'significantly' as Germans spurn the sausage

In a phenomenon known as the Höfesterben, these family-owned farms were gobbled up by companies that rear animals in conditions more like factories than farms.

In the same period, the number of mega farms that hold 5,000 or more hogs has grown by almost 70 percent. These farms are highly specialised, with some solely there to produce piglets and others focused on fattening up hogs.

Source: Destatis and Agrarheute

Small farmers say they can’t afford the investments needed to meet the latest standards set out by the EU on animal welfare. The German agriculture ministry freely admits that the cost of adapting to new regulation means that it only makes sense to build sites that hold 2,000 to 3,000 hogs. 

Fed up with Berlin’s agricultural policies, small farmers started driving their tractors into city centres last year to call attention to their plight. It is these farmers, already living on the brink of bankruptcy, who will be hit hardest by the collapse in the pork price.

Quality over quantity

Photo: DPA

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Surveys repeatedly show: Germans care about animal welfare, but they also hate industrial farming. Parallel to the death of the family farm, domestic pork consumption has been dropping since 2010, while the market for meat substitutes is booming (although still tiny in comparison).

It’s highly ironic that EU standards on animal welfare are leading to the demise of a way of farming that Germans find ethically acceptable.

If the lesson hasn’t yet been learned from Trump’s war on the German car industry, the Chinese pork embargo shows the risk of chasing profits abroad while ignoring domestic consumers. 

Giving family farms the financial means to meet EU food standards would help save a traditional way of life and encourage Germans to fall back in love with Bratwurst and Schweinehaxen.

This article first appeared in HochHaus, a twice weekly newsletter on German current affairs.

READ ALSO: Five new swine fever cases found in German wild boars

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FARMING

Chilly weather leads to soaring asparagus prices in Germany

Every year the Germans seem to be driven wild by an unlikely hero: white asparagus. But this year, the cold and damp spring means customers have had to fork out a bit more to get their hands on some stalks of this ‘edible ivory’.

Chilly weather leads to soaring asparagus prices in Germany
A Spargel farmer hands a batch to a customer in Bickenbach, Hesse. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

It is now more than halfway through Germany’s famous asparagus season, which traditionally ends on June 24th, also known as Spargelsilvester (Asparagus New Year). However, poor weather means this year’s harvest has already been compromised.

The main reason for the low yield was the cold start to the year. “When there is no sun, the ground doesn’t warm up” explained Simon Schumacher, the spokesperson for the Asparagus and Strawberry Farmers’ Association of Southern Germany.

According to Franziska Rintisch, the head of the Franconian Union of Asparagus Producers,  “if we didn’t have polytunnels, there would be almost no asparagus yield”. 

Without warm earth, the asparagus simply will not grow. At the halfway point of the season, this means supply of Germany’s precious crop is limited and prices are on the rise. 

At the moment, a kilogram of white asparagus will cost you between €12 and €14 in the local supermarket. For the good stuff, or Sonntagsspargel, Schumacher says you’ll be down an additional €2 or €3 per kilo. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Spargelzeit

Those who can live with imperfect asparagus, meaning heads that are broken or not perfectly white, can get their hands on it for a much lower price, especially from direct sellers. 

There is still about a month to go until Spargelsilvester on June 24th, when the season traditionally comes to an end. Up until now, the majority of growers have not been too disappointed with how the season has played out. 

READ ALSO: Only in Germany: McDonald’s begins offering ‘Spargel Burger’

The weather has been somewhat of a double-edged sword. “It feels as if we’re in the middle of the fifth wave of cold weather” complained Fred Eickhorst of the Association of Asparagus and Berry Growers of Lower Saxony. The chilly start to the year actually meant that the season began later than normal, which Eickhorst says explains the low yield up until now. 

“The amount is not what we would wish for, but the higher market price makes up for it”. 

Growers around the country echo these views. “We are content,” said Petra Högl of the Abensberg Association of Growers of High Quality Asparagus. 

Anke Knaup of the Lippe Society of Asparagus Growers even went as far to say that she is “very content”. 

A basket of Spargel in Kutzleben, Thuringia marked the start of this year’s season on April 14th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Martin Schutt

Home-cooked Spargel

She notes a further advantage of the weather: as people are not having as many barbecues, more asparagus is being cooked at home. All in all, the demand has been relatively high, although the hospitality industry has played a smaller role this year. 

In 2020, growers harvested 117,563 tons of white asparagus, less than in the four years before that. During the pandemic, many farmers struggled to recruit enough pickers to help with the spring harvest, as many of these workers would normally come from abroad. This has been less of an issue in 2021, suggest the growers’ unions. 

The effort made by seasonal workers was certainly made greater by Covid-19 hygiene measures. According to Peter Strobl of the Southern Bavarian Association of Asparagus Growers, the measures meant that farmers encountered around €1,000 in extra costs per seasonal worker. 

The number of asparagus farms has been sinking year on year, with 1,598 now operating. In total, white asparagus is grown on almost 25,900 hectares across the country. 

Farmers differentiate late varieties of asparagus from the earlier crop, which can be harvested from the end of March until May. Harvest of the late varieties generally begins towards the end of May. 

The switch from early to late varieties can be really great for consumers, as at this point the harvest will often overlap, meaning the supply is much higher and the price of asparagus goes down. 

The slow growth this year may actually be a good thing. “It means the asparagus can grow evenly” says Schumacher, meaning the taste is better.  

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