Solidarity from Brandenburg farmers in times of corona
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
Julia Bar-Tal is an activist with AbL Brandenburg [AbL ist short for Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft, or working group for rural agriculture]
Why this article?
I decided to write this article in an attempt to bring a voice of encouragement and cohesion, as well as a voice from the farming community, to the table, given the fear and confusion now being experienced by so many.
There is a simple explanation why I am writing as a farmer: when we as a society come under such enormous pressure that it raises existential questions, like the spread of the COVID-19 pathogen is doing, we have to reflect on what we really need in such a crisis.
We must think about how we can act in solidarity and for everyone's benefit, even in difficult times. The most essential things to my mind are above all medical care and the supply of healthy and sufficiently abundant food, as well as a transparent flow of information that is comprehensible for everyone.
I will deal among other things, with possible reasons for the outbreak of epidemics such as corona, initially raising structural questions and then offering practical considerations. In this context, I will deal with how we can help each other and what is important from the point of view of regional agriculture, the main task of which is to contribute to the food supply.
It is about the questions I think we need to be addressing. It is infuriating when powerful people in politics, business and government use the crisis to advance their personal political agendas.
At the same time, it comes as no surprise. Economic aid is swiftly promised to large corporations, while at the same time the burden of lost work is borne by workers. It could be a political agenda directed against the population – even after corona – to prop up a system that does not provide universal health coverage, as in the USA, for example.
That, coupled perhaps with a lack of labor-law protections, means that many people do not dare to get themselves tested, or they continue to work despite being sick. Repressive regimes and some neoliberal western governments have often denied the onset or downplayed the danger of the coronavirus outbreak in their countries, thereby helping to spread it on a much larger scale without taking any action.
To disclose my political agenda up front: even though I personally am an organic farmer, this article is explicitly not about promoting the kind of organic farming I support, but rather about all of us in regional agriculture.
A crisis like the one with which we are now confronted shows us incredibly clearly that much of what we have taken for granted can quickly falter. It is high time that systemic relationships are questioned. Anyone who has not yet understood this may be able to see clear evidence of it right now during the current crisis. If they can’t understand this, they are beyond help.
Farmers have been drawing attention to their precarious economic situation for years. The loss of several thousand mostly medium-sized family farms in Germany every year for decades and the trend towards increasingly concentrated agricultural units, as well as towards the upstream and downstream sectors, are developments that we as a profession have so far been facing largely on our own and for which we receive little social attention.
The “grow or perish” principle affects our industry on a large scale and has long been a bitter reality. For many of us, this means loss and poverty – and countless personal fates of farmers. In France, an average of one farmer a day commits suicide.
We know that our markets are incredibly dependent on a flow of goods that must constantly grow. The free-market economy creates an intensification of agriculture to which farmers fall victim – and nature, the environment and biodiversity right along with them.
As our regional agriculture in Europe, Germany and Brandenburg has increasingly lost the character of small-scale farming, we farmers have consequently lost our existence. This means that we have been forced into a situation in which many of my colleagues can only survive if they switch to this type of production and go along with the trend towards intensification. Agriculture in our region is increasingly geared towards farmers producing for the world market instead of for regional supply, with all the disadvantages that this entails.
Buyer prices are now so bad that even farms with a few hundred dairy cows can no longer be maintained. Land cultivation in Brandenburg hardly yields any profit; a lack of processing structures in the region means that there is no purchaser for many products, or that a few retail customers can simply set the lowest prices thanks to their market power.
Wherever this kind of market concentration happens, farms automatically take a hit – as does biodiversity. There can be no broad and diverse crop rotation in the fields of Brandenburg unless there is also an equally broad and diverse purchasing structure.
Instead of strengthening our regional agriculture, we have relied on imports. Much of what could be cultivated here is imported more cheaply from elsewhere. Much of what we take for granted in stores is brought to us every day in containers by sea, road, rail and even by air.
In other words, we import the fruits of others' exploited labor every day while at the same time sacrificing our own operating structures. To name just two examples familiar to most non-farmers: instead of growing enough legumes at home, we import three million hectares of soya for livestock farming each year from Latin America alone. Instead of relying on domestic oleaginous fruits, there are hardly any products that do not contain palm oil.
Regarding COVID-19, there is a heated debate whether it was pangolins or bats that brought us the virus. But simply looking for the original host that transmitted the virus to us falls far short of the mark. The questions are: why are these types of infectious diseases becoming more common, and why are they able to spread so rapidly across the globe?
The mode of transmission is already well known and probably requires no detailed explanation here. We know that our planet is circumnavigated millions of times each day by travelers and goods.
It is precisely here that the links with infectious diseases, such as those that are increasingly emerging, cannot be denied.
Some types of disease are transmitted by animals in agricultural production: these include not only avian and swine flu, but also MERS-CoV and other coronaviruses that have existed in the past. I mention both because it is important to me to argue objectively without making sweeping statements.
MERS-CoV was originally transmitted to humans from dromedary camels and was not the result of intensive animal husbandry. However, this also meant that this dangerous and fatal disease did not spread very rapidly and that the number of cases remained relatively low.
Avian and swine flu are far more dangerous in terms of disease propagation, because they are spread by animal species that are intensively farmed and bred, in conditions that hardly guarantee the genetic resistance or health of the animals. Intensive livestock production poses a great danger, not to mention the moral implications.
Recently, it has also become increasingly common for dangerous infectious viral diseases to be transmitted to humans from wild animals. But here too, the way we farm globally and the way we treat land and natural habitats play a central role.
One example of such an infectious disease is the Nipah virus, which caused a dangerous epidemic in Malaysia that killed 70% of those it infected. It could only be contained with drastic measures: culling more than a million pigs, over half of the Malaysian pig population.
Like many other pathogens, the origin of the Nipah virus can be traced: in this case, to bats. However, the actual habitat of these bats was the primary forests of Indonesia. After Indonesia cleared three-quarters of its forests for palm-oil production, the bats that lost their habitat moved to the fruit-tree plantations of neighboring Malaysia.
Here, pigs were infected and, primarily via workers in slaughterhouses, other people were infected as well. By endangering the vulnerable balance of ecosystems, humans also alter the transmission chains of viruses.
As evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace1 explains well, the outbreak of COVID-19 is not an isolated incident. The sudden increase and spread of this type of virus is closely linked to the way we organize our global food production, which in turn is linked to the profitability of multinational corporations.
An elementary component of their functioning is the rapid flow of goods and people around the globe. As Wallace goes on to describe, it no longer takes a long time to go from bats in the hinterlands of one continent "to killing Miami sunbathers.”
Infections transmitted by wild animals often only come to humans from pathogens that were previously hidden deep in natural habitats, because humans penetrate them. Genetic diversity is increasingly limited due to industrial agriculture’s intensification of genetic monocultures of specific species and breeds, as well as the destruction of naturally biodiverse habitats, with the result that there is a dwindling restraining effect to slow the spread of these kinds of viruses.
Professor Rodolphe Gozlan2, head of research at the IRD (Institute of Research for Development) in Marseilles, has noted: "Biodiversity is not something that humans can look at from the outside. Man is part of this diversity, whether he likes it or not. We scientists are aware of one thing: the protection of the environment or of biodiversity is not some romantic ideology; there is a very concrete link with the fight against infectious diseases.”
In short: global environmental protection is also global health protection.
In my view, the only answer to this can be real solidarity. The origin of the disease, the speed with which it can spread across the globe, as well as our means of countering its spread, can only be tackled together. It cannot be in our interest to look at and study individual outbreaks and regions only reactively and in a sensationalistic way.
For me as a farmer in the region, the facts that we produce too little for the region locally, that many well-trained specialists in our profession often only earn between EUR 1100-1300 net a month for a fulltime job in agriculture, and that farms are financially crippled even despite this self-exploitation, all go together.
For me, any discussion of solidarity must also include the fact that poorly paid cleaning staff working for a Charité Berlin subcontractor had to stop their strike because their work is so incredibly important – especially during the corona epidemic. Their strike was stopped for security reasons.
Nowhere in the discussion about corona and its consequences do I hear anyone advocating for all of these people, who are there every day to care for us, to immediately receive much higher salaries in recognition and, in the case of this outbreak, possibly even hazard pay.
The neoliberal restructuring of our health system on the basis of flat-rate payments per case, which has led to a situation in which a country as prosperous as Germany may not now have sufficient surplus capacity, is no different than what we see in agriculture and in many other working environments.
Whether it is overworked, tired, poorly paid caregivers who are accused of being unfriendly because they barely have the strength to respond to the many people they must care for, or farmers who across the board are accused of poor treatment of animals or nature – in essence, it's the same problem.
In reality, the sick and the elderly are often treated unkindly, and it is also true that animals, soil and nature are often treated negligently. All of this happens within labor and marketing contexts that feature invoicing down to the euro/cent. The people who work in this sector are of course also affected. There is therefore no getting away from asking questions about the bigger connections and, as we do so, we should start from a basis of solidarity.
Our anger is not directed at workers, but at who sell us ever-increasingly intensive production as the only alternative, who make us dependent on large corporations. They and their demands are the ones responsible for making us all – whether in the global North or the global South – struggle for a world market that clearly brings us nothing but suffering and misery at both regional and global levels.
The agricultural industry is so blindly profit-oriented that even the "collateral damage" of short-sighted decisions inevitably made under the sole criterion of profit maximization can be as devastating as we are currently experiencing: a virus has emerged – and not by chance – a pandemic that could cost an incalculable number of people their lives.
COVID-19 is already having economic consequences that are raising comprehensive questions about these profits and – much more importantly! – everything that affects our lives. As long as "the shop" ran undisturbed by the virus, the externalized costs were borne virtually uncomplainingly and unnoticed by the animals, the environment, the agricultural workers, the consumers, the state, the healthcare system, and many more.
They have never been included in agricultural operating costs, and those responsible have never had to pay for them. Had that happened, this form of agricultural industry would not exist at all. Even now, with the immense costs caused by the coronavirus outbreak, that will not be the case. In the end, we will have to shoulder those costs.
This is all the more reason for us to see the current crisis at least as an opportunity to challenge these injustices once and for all and to look for ways to bring about profound change – together.
Racist exclusions cannot have any room in this discussion. Those who would allow them have not understood anything structurally, let alone the fact that they condone the violence racism represents. Healthy living conditions, good food and medical care are a universal right. In addition, the virus does not know these boundaries.
Anyone who would discriminate against and exclude others has therefore not understood that the risk of falling ill increases exponentially the worse these "others" are provided for in our global society. When it comes to diseases and epidemics, marginalized people have always been and are being stigmatized, victimized and – in the systemically unavoidable, barbaric competition for increasingly scarce resources – presented as a threat.
To put this briefly into context in relation to some of the infectious diseases of recent history: anti-Chinese racism related to the coronavirus epidemic is as wrongheaded as it is right to recall that the various avian and swine flu epidemics originated in Europe and the US, and that here, too, the governments covered for the agribusiness that was responsible. Regionally widespread diseases such as Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil were greatly exacerbated by post-colonialist poverty and dependence on multinational exploiters.
Our own government resists with all its might a supply chain law that would make exploitation by German companies abroad a criminal offense. Conversely, this means that products produced under such conditions will continue to dominate our market, and that domestic producers will have to compete against these cheap prices while at the same time being economically ruined by them.
This is one prime example of how more unites us than divides us, across all borders of the globe and all differences in living and working conditions. The countries and people of the global North have long been the winners of these exploitative conditions, but the plight of the farmers and the people who are increasingly forced to slave away in precarious working conditions here as well shows that this injustice is also growing rapidly in the global North. Playing off marginalization against marginalization is a blatant ploy to divide us. We will not allow this to happen.
It is the same governments that, with the help of the employers' organizations, have for years prevented the supply chain law and pushed for free trade agreements like Mercosur, who now, as part of the planned agricultural package, want to immediately enforce regulatory measures against farmers without giving them sufficient time or creating a framework to enable them to make the changes they need to make.
Protection against over-fertilization and a high use of chemical pesticides is essential for future-oriented agriculture. That is beyond question. However, it is cynical when politicians do not call into question the system that they have installed over decades in the interests of the agricultural industry, and expect farmers to be able to fix it on their own.
To take a regional example and put it in the context of the coronavirus crisis:
How do we intend to deal with a situation in which certain products are now becoming scarce, but we as a society know that short-term protection against the spread of the coronavirus is best achieved if people and products are not constantly moving from region to region?
In our region, a whole range of products have not been grown for a long time because there is a lack of processing capacity: fruit, vegetables, root crops like potatoes. We import the majority. Germany grows only 27% of its own vegetable requirements, because growing vegetables requires manual labor, often in combination with intensive use of pesticides, and all this can be done much more cheaply and with far fewer restrictions abroad.
We have created a system in which everything is simply imported if it increases short-term profits. These exploitative structures already impact the marginalized workers who toil in southern Spain for a large part of European vegetable production, including for German supermarket shelves. Due to the coronavirus crisis, the pressure on them to work is increasing immeasurably, with 15-hour-plus workdays being reported.
Labor struggles by the trade unions were interrupted there precisely because of the coronavirus, as were those at the striking Charité hospital in Berlin. Protective measures at work in terms of proper distancing or masks do not exist, even for workers in the packing halls. If they fall ill, the solidarity we have lacked for years could affect us in the form of a stagnating flow of goods or increasing numbers of infections. If the people who are in contact with the products we need to live are sick, our risk of getting sick increases.
Our region will also be severely affected by the losses that will occur in our special domestic crops due to unavailable (cheap) seasonal workers from abroad. The federal government has recently adopted an agricultural package that acknowledges the relevance of this workforce while at the same time further relaxing worker protection.
It is now permitted to employ seasonal workers for up to five months without making social security contributions. What is needed is a package that would financially support companies in employing people properly.
When will there be a change in thinking so that working people finally receive recognition and solidarity? How are we, as regional farmers, now supposed to quickly create structures to ensure our region is supplied? And yet that is our task, which we want to and shall fulfill with pride and passion.
We must try to ensure that, even in a crisis situation, all members of the population have access not only to durable dry goods but also to fresh produce rich in vitamins. Above all, fruit and vegetables provide vital immune power, which means that we need them more than ever.
If imports fail, these products will become scarce, and this will hit the poorer segments of the population first and foremost, who will lose access to them. We need to discuss how we can ensure that we do not just decide who gets what based on a profit motive, but that we create structures that are also based on solidarity.
Surely the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear by now how important regional agriculture is. The crisis must be used as an opportunity to ensure that farms are provided with all necessary means to continue to exist and operate in the short term. This must be implemented in part through guaranteed purchase prices and the creation of processing and distribution stations.
Transport drivers and sales staff involved in distribution must be properly remunerated. They are among those who – like those working in cleaning, emergency services, medical care and many other areas – are ensuring that we all get through these difficult times.
In the long term, it must become clear that it is regional added value that protects us all. It must be understood that the basis of our food supply, the agricultural land, belongs in the hands of regional farmers and not in the hands of investors and supra-regional or non-agricultural companies. This must apply to our region as well as to all other regions of the globe (or: all other regions worldwide). Agricultural land must not be an object of speculation, neither here nor in the global South.
We need an agrarian structure model and resulting consequences, which will lead to the emergence of a large number of young, sustainable and medium-sized farms in our region. We need targeted support for vocational training in the food-processing industry, coupled with the creation of a large number of companies in this downstream sector.
It is unacceptable that a lack of entire product categories in processing should mean that they are scarcely to be found in the region's fields. Nor can it be the case that the market power of a few dairies or slaughterhouses leads to a situation where, in case of doubt, the supply of the population is not guaranteed, or where farmers are operating on the fringes of existence due to the price pressure arising from concentration.
Just as we must act locally and think globally, we must now, against the backdrop of this threatening disease outbreak, manage to act in solidarity in the short term and in the long term.
In the long term, the structural question must be asked and tackled in concrete terms. Otherwise, this outbreak of COVID-19 will continue to be treated and seen as an isolated event. We will endure the pain of loss and grief; we will at best take good care of each other, and afterwards politics and the media will return to the unspectacular everyday life of injustice – until the next catastrophe.
In the short term, we have to see to how we can now act as a community. Local initiatives for mutual support are already emerging in cities and smaller communities. Childcare, shopping, rides and much more are being offered in solidarity.
We as farmers in the region will do everything we can to fulfill our role for everyone during this time. In order to meet our responsibility, we will certainly also need some support here and there.
We need to realize that any further rapid spread of the virus, should it affect us and make us sick, can also lead to job losses in our sector. That in turn would put a strain on regional supply. So in no way is this commentary about us demanding greater protection than anyone else, or being in any way more vulnerable. It is, however, about considering when in doubt how we can minimize as far as possible the risk of infection across entire the value chain: from production on our farms, through processing, to the distribution of food.
It is also a matter of considering how we can keep our businesses afloat when the economy around us is falling apart. All of us in the region have already come under massive pressure as a result of the past several years of drought, not least because of decades of failed agricultural policy.
In Germany, thousands of farms are lost every year. The last few months have been marked by the justified protests of thousands of farmers. We, like the cleaning staff of Charité, will stop our protests so that we can ensure the food supply as we all face this difficult situation.
Many of us who farm have been working in this sector for a long time with a great deal of idealism and self-exploitation. Our work is taken for granted yet in reality this has not been the case for a long time. If food shortages occur due to a lack of imports, we will do everything we can to continue to produce good food for the people in our region.
I hope I speak on behalf of my entire profession when I say that we will not allow ourselves to be provoked by a situation of scarcity in to making our products available only to people with the requisite financial means. We will ensure that food is available to all people equally, regardless of financial resources, origin, education, language or culture. Our work will be driven by solidarity, not by profit.
We will have to consider even more urgently than we are already doing how to address the social issues surrounding food prices and accessibility, but we will need the support of the broader society to do it (with or without the coronavirus).
Greetings of solidarity to all of you:
to those working in the medical sector, including and explicitly also to cleaning staff and those doing vital work in similar areas; to those working in public transport and in transportation; to those in the skilled trades; to food vendors and pharmacists; to people in the education sector who are making sure that education continues to be available online; to people in childcare; to undocumented workers; to poor people; to lonely people; to immunocompromised people; to people with preexisting conditions and elderly people; to people who are trapped in contexts where social distancing for their own protection is not possible, such as in overcrowded refugee camps or in prisons; to children who cannot meet their friends and may not get out to play for a long time – and to their parents; to homeless people; to people in nursing homes, hospitals and hospices who are now without visitors; to people who get sick from the coronavirus and who lose people they love during this time; to people who are plunged into financial ruin by this situation; to people who are mentally ill or have difficulty dealing with the fear that such a situation engenders; to the workers who are unionized and those who are not and, of course, very warmly to all of my professional colleagues in agriculture.
Julia Bar-Tal is a farmer in the Märkisch-Oderland district of Brandenburg and a member of the nonprofit Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft e.V. (AbL: Working Group for Rural Agriculture). This article first appeared in German on the AbL Website. Translation by Julie Niederhauser. Republished with the author’s permission.