Sacrificing the environment for profit

The government's new agriculture package promises farmers greater yields and profits, but some worry about the impact of increased use of fertilizer and more lenient pollution regulations

Farmers can look forward to a more profitable 2016, after the government passed 30 new agricultural regulations to renew growth in the sector.

But while food and environment minister Eva Kjer Hansen says the new regulations represent a “green boost to the environment”, others argue the opposite is true and that Danish agriculture needs new and better ideas to survive in the global market.

“My hope is that farmers and banks now can start investing in the future with a good conscience,” Hansen stated in a press release.

Boosting yields

Danish agriculture is under strain due, in large part, to its collective 360 billion kroner of debt, which is roughly half of the yearly state budget of Denmark. According to Landbrug og Fødevarer,  10 to 15 percent of all farms are in danger of going bankrupt.

Martin Merrild, chairman of Landbrug og Fødevarer, supports the government’s new regulations which, he argues, will be a boost to the sector’s competitive ability.

“The biggest change is an increase in the production and quality of Danish crops. That means more profit to farmers and more value added to the whole production, which in turn means more jobs, more export of agricultural products and fewer imports of other products such as protein enhancers from South America,” says Merrild.

He acknowledges the potential environmental impact of the new regulations, such as increased nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into waterways, but argues that the issues can be overcome.

“The Minister has even suggested a number of possible solutions such as placing rocks that were once fished out of the lakes back into the water to remove some of the extra nitrogen,” he says.

“I think it is important to understand that the Danish agricultural sector will still be very strongly regulated in terms of the use of nitrates – we will still have what I believe are the strictest regulations in the EU on the use of nitrates.”

Lack of vision

The National Organic Society (Økologisk Landsforening) doesn’t share Merrild’s enthusiasm for the new regulations, however, and their singular focus on increasing production.

“The problem is that we actually should be developing new products that match the modern, international market,” Chairman Per Kølster says. “Danish agriculture should be much more interested in how to create new value in goods, rather than increasing the amount of goods produced.”

Kølster adds that the strategy is pointless and only presents a short-term solution.

“To be quite frank, the government’s strategy can be compared to pissing in your pants to stay warm. If you just produce more goods, then prices will start dropping and then farmers will just start going bankrupt.”

Food and agriculture expert and journalist Kjeld Hansen argues the last thing the Danish agriculture sector should be given is a mandate to use morefor fertiliser for the sake of increasing yields.

“Danish agriculture has been roaring forward for many, many years. We are the country in the EU with the largest percentage of land being farmed, around 60 percent. So the fact that we have the strictest rules on nitrate-emission into nature is not a point of pride – it is just necessary because we work our land so hard,” Hansen explains.

Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers are added to crops to help their growth. But if too much is applied it risks being washed out into rivers and onwards to the sea and lakes where they promote the growth of algae. These algal blooms can consume vast amounts of oxygen, rendering waterways unable to support animal life.

Denmark has yet to live up to the environmental standards for its rivers, lakes and fjords that are outlined in the EU water framework directive from 2000. A main issue is agricultural runoff into rivers, which the former centre-left government attempted to combat by introducing 10-metre no-spray zones from waterways. This restriction has now been lifted.

“This government has the cruel intention of not fulfilling the EU directive – they obviously believe the directive goes too far,” says Hansen

“The greatest crime is that we, the Danish tax payers, have been paying billions of kroner for a better water environment for the past 30 years. My research shows water quality has improved, so it’s mad that this government, without hiding it, has decided to backtrack on that positive development.”

Hanson also argues the new regulations will fulfil few of the promised benefits – for example increasing GDP by one billion kroner – while simultaneously creating problems for the future.

“For the farmers, it will not be the aid package it is made out to be. The farmers who are already rich will become richer, which is not at all the point,” says Kjeld Hansen.

“Environmentally, the government is cheating the rest of us because we’re going to pay for the help given to these farmers, while we are also the ones who will pay to clean environment when it becomes more polluted. The government is mocking us twice.”  M


By Joshua Hollingdale

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