Kai Niebert: “The legislator punishes sustainable food”

Mr. Niebert, the protection of animals and plants is often discussed from a moral point of view. Instead, let’s look at it economically: why is biodiversity profitable for humans?

Because it depends on the functioning of ecosystems. The last 12,000 years, in which humans developed in their evolutionarily unique way, was a time of very stable climatic conditions with very stable ecosystems. They were the basis of our rise, the construction of cities, our form of agriculture and our prosperity, and they will continue to be the basis of our survival in the future.

Nature could also be viewed in another way, that is, as a threat. Some of the most dangerous viruses have jumped from bats to humans. To put it bluntly: would humanity be better off in terms of health and economy if bats were eradicated?

Did you also play Jenga when you were a child? The wooden tower game where you take out stones and hope it stays? If you choose the wrong stone, everything collapses. You never know what value individual species or even viruses have to an overall system. You can’t just pull out a pebble and expect everything to stay the same. This can go catastrophically wrong. One example: In China, under Mao, attempts were made to drive sparrows out of big cities as pests of crops. They made noise and scared the birds until they dropped dead from the sky from exhaustion. After three days all the sparrows were gone. But with terrible consequences: the main food of sparrows is not cereals, but insects. And that is exactly what spread as a result. The first summer without sparrows saw apocalyptic scenes: swarms of locusts darkened the sky and ate the crops. As a result, more than 45 million people starved to death. Disrupting or even destroying systems that have been in development for millions of years is sheer recklessness. Ecosystems are complex structures with diverse interactions that we only partially understand. If we risk the ecosystem collapsing, we risk our livelihoods.

This complexity makes it difficult to capture the value of ecosystems. Can it still be quantified?

Not in euros and cents, but in principle yes. I was a member of the Future Commission on Agriculture, which Angela Merkel started after the farmers’ protests in 2019. It included representatives of all interest groups related to agriculture. The Commission showed that farming in Germany causes €90 billion worth of environmental damage every year. This happens, for example, due to air and groundwater pollution or the loss of insects and birds. It doesn’t even include health risks. At the same time, the entire sector only generates sales of a good 20 percent of this sum. Marginal corporate profits are thus met with enormous economic costs. This clearly shows that food production based on the principle higher, faster, further and at the same time always cheaper does not work, neither ecologically nor economically. And not from a social point of view either, if you look at the situation of workers in the meat industry or the death of farms.

They choose an indirect way of showing the value of biological diversity: through the damage that occurs when this diversity is destroyed. Is it also possible to calculate the direct profit?

Fruit and vegetable yields would be 50 to 60 percent lower if the number of pollinating insects were significantly reduced. Green roofs store rainwater and thus save sewer fees, and those who manage a river naturally ensure that less nitrate reaches sewage treatment plants, where it would have to be disposed of at great cost. . From my point of view, such examples above all show one thing: nature is the basis of our life, our capital. If we’re smart, we’ll keep that capital and live off the profits. The better we protect it, the more benefit we can get from it. But we are a long way from that, we are attacking the capital stock instead. But we know that if you want to live well in the long run, you have to maintain and accumulate capital, that is, ultimately give something back to nature.

How could this happen?

It currently happens that interventions in nature have to be compensated elsewhere, in technical jargon this is called impairment prohibition. For example, if you build a road and clear a pine forest, you have to reforest elsewhere. However, since nature is now not only under pressure, but overexploited, in my opinion, that is no longer enough. Instead of a deterioration ban, we need an improvement requirement. We must not only preserve the state of nature, but improve it. An ecologically superior mixed deciduous forest would then have to be planted for the logged pine forest.

What is the biggest threat to biological diversity in Germany?

In the way we use the land. The biggest problem is the cattle. In Germany we keep too many cattle and pigs with corresponding space requirements. They are often found in cramped stalls, but there are also areas where animal feed is grown and liquid manure is spread. As a result, we are leaching and poisoning our soils. We will not be able to avoid a more plant-based diet to avoid damage to the climate and biodiversity. Another problem is energy crops: ten percent of the agricultural area is dedicated to the cultivation of rapeseed and corn, which ends up directly in biogas plants. These are often endless monocultures: cleared landscapes that have virtually no biodiversity value, even if the rapeseed blooms so beautifully for just a few weeks. And we have to bring more diversity to the fields: In the northeast of Germany, where particularly large fields were planted in the GDR era, the diversity is considerably lower than in the southwest, where there are small fields that have grown historically.

Who do you see as responsible for ensuring that agriculture is more environmentally oriented: the consumer, who has to make the right purchasing decisions, or the politicians, who set the framework?

As consumers, we can of course influence biodiversity with our purchasing decisions. But the main elements of control are in the hands of politicians. A sustainable policy is already a state goal: There is the sustainability strategy of the federal government and article 20a of the Basic Law, which prescribes the protection of the natural foundations of life. However, politicians have created a whole series of ill-advised economic incentives that are leading to the current riots.

What perverse incentives are you referring to?

A simple example is the cappuccino I’m drinking right now. If I froth it with oat milk, it’s more expensive than if I use cow’s milk: oat milk is considered a processed product, on which a 19 percent sales tax must be paid. Cow’s milk is considered a natural product with seven percent. The legislator sanctions sustainable food instead of promoting it. As a passionate train driver, I’m glad Deutsche Bahn has recently started offering oat milk, even though that’s not the norm. Milk is just one small example, but the principle can be found everywhere in our economic system. Paradoxically, even when values ​​are destroyed, our economy grows. Gross domestic product increases with each car that comes off the assembly line, but also with each car accident, because then there is work for the shop. If the oil also falls into the ditch during the accident, it rises even higher because it has to be removed at great cost.

Let’s stay with agriculture: what incentives should be put in place so that it goes from being part of the problem to part of the solution for climate protection and the protection of species?

You need to set up the system in such a way that externalities are not possible in the first place. In other words, damage must be prevented from the outset and, where this is not possible, it must be included in the price. As a rule, this is not available for free. Fields and pastures are a good example: a large part of them is made up of old peat soils. While peat absorbs CO from the atmosphere, drained soil releases CO. Giving farmers the chance to make money from carbon storage gives them an incentive to rewet the soil.

However, dairy cows can no longer stand on those pastures.

That’s right, it’s too muddy for that. But the farmers have an alternative income with the storage of CO and the climate and biodiversity are also helped. It is also possible to use such areas for tourism or to harvest marsh grass from which cardboard and paper fibers can be produced. I would also consider possible photovoltaic systems on the edges.

How optimistic are you that the stoplight coalition will set the course for greater biological diversity?

The fact that the central ministries of agriculture, environment and energy are the responsibility of the same party cannot hurt. At least it facilitates interdepartmental agreements. It’s still too early to see exactly where the journey is headed, but there are things that give me hope. Cem Özdemir and Steffi Lemke want to organize nature conservation and food security together in a friendship between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of the Environment. Olaf Scholz has announced that he too will create a space for fundamental exchange beyond the day-to-day politics at the cabinet meeting. Given that we have to fundamentally change course when it comes to biodiversity, I have a few topics for him to talk about.

Invite him out for coffee.

Good idea! Organic, fair trade and of course with oat milk.

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