After two years of interruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic, from 19 to 29 January 2023, the International Green Week (IGW) could take place again in Berlin as a face-to-face event in the usual setting. The world’s largest trade fair for food, agriculture, and horticulture is accompanied by an extensive conference program. In addition to the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA), this also includes the Future Forum on Rural Development organized by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), which took place on 25 and 26 January for the 16th time. Under this year’s motto “Land.Kann.Klima” (Countryside.Can.Climate), at 32 specialist forums, several hundred participants discussed the opportunities and challenges arising for rural areas in adapting to climate change and what contribution rural areas can make to achieve the climate goals.
Rural areas are at the heart of efforts towards climate protection and adaptation
Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Cem Özdemir opened the event in the presence of his colleague Steffi Lemke, Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Protection, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection, as well as Heather Humphries, Minister for Rural and Community Development of the Republic of Ireland –this year’s international partner country of the event. In his speech, Özdemir pointed out the good cooperation with the Ministry for the Environment and the joint support of rural regions in the fight against the climate crisis. He emphasized the potential of the rural regions in this task: Innovation and inventiveness are at home in the countryside. The energy transition for example will mainly take place in rural areas.
Environment Minister Lemke explained the tasks for climate protection and adaptation that are to be found in rural areas. In particular, the conservation of ecosystems makes a major contribution to climate protection. The restoration and rewetting of drained peatlands is important for the creation and maintenance of CO2 sinks as well as the conversion of forests into near-natural forests. A national water strategy and a national climate adaptation strategy that Lemke’s ministry is currently developing will point in this direction.
The ministries expect a major breakthrough for the expansion of renewable energies from innovations in the field of agro-photovoltaics, which will allow the simultaneous use of land for energy production and agricultural cultivation. It is important, as Özdemir emphasized, to involve farmers and citizens from rural areas in all measures. His Irish colleague Heather Humphries agreed with Özdemir. Above all, a transformation to low carbon must be fair and socially acceptable, and rural communities must be supported in this task. Humphries further mentioned that new working styles such as remote working which have emerged during the pandemic not only help to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of employees, but at the same time help to make rural areas more attractive for well-trained employees.
These issues were then addressed in 32 specialist forums, designed and organized by regional authorities, scientific institutes, associations, and NGOs. Participants were able to gain an insight into the impressive initiatives that are already being implemented in German rural regions. Because of the large offer and eight events taking place at the same time, one was spoiled for choice (see full program). Here is an impression of two events that the author of this article attended.
Germany's vision for climate-positive rural areas
The panel “Climate positive spaces: Our vision for 2045”, organized by the Bauernverband (German Farmers’ Association), Landwirtschaftliche Rentenbank, Thünen Institute, Central Association of German Crafts, and others, began with a keynote speech by Christian Holzleitner, Head of Division of the EU Commission for Climate Action. Holzleitner presented the various measures that the EU will promote in the context of climate protection, including the restoration and rewetting of peatlands, carbon farming, and agroforestry practices, but also innovative technologies such as BECCS (Coupling of Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage), and innovative natural building materials that turn buildings into carbon sinks. The implementation of these measures is subsidized by EU funds, e.g. from revenues from emissions trading, but also through calls for tenders worth billions, such as the innovation fund.
In the panel discussion that followed, Sophia Stemmler (Rentenbank), Andreas Engel (founder of the NGO Renewable Energy in Citizens’ Hands), Ludger Schulz (energy manager, biogas) and Ingo Böhm (mayor of a northern German rural community) discussed how climate transformation can succeed in rural areas. The panelists largely agreed that a carbon-neutral energy transition can be achieved and offers great potential for the development of rural areas, provided that it happens in harmony with nature and that the local people are not only involved in the decision making, but can also make use of the renewables energies they generate.
The Slido surveys, which were conducted among the participants in the meantime, drew a similarly positive mood: Although two-thirds of those who took part in the survey were skeptical that climate neutrality in the countryside could be achieved already by 2040, 90 percent were rather positive about the future prospects for the rural regions and their contribution to climate protection.
Rediscovering old varieties to protect biodiversity
Champagne Rye, Laufener Land Wheat, Swabian Dickkopf and Ostmost were the stars at the “Old Plant Varieties: Diversity, Climate Adaptation and regional value added” forum, organized by the Nova Institute and the Information and Coordination Centre for Biodiversity of the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE). They presented projects that were funded as part of the AgroBioNet project of BMEL and BLE. As Arno Todt from the Nova Institute explained in his introduction, the projects showed that the commitment to the preservation of old varieties and breeds offers great opportunities for the preservation of the cultural and culinary heritage of rural regions. Projects support the regional identity and increase the attractiveness of the regions for culinary tourism. For rural farms and companies, specializing in old varieties and breeds offers the opportunity to create income opportunities beyond the mass markets. Finally, it is expected that the preservation of agrobiodiversity is of great importance for adaptation to climate change. For example, old grain varieties are often much more robust during droughts and also cope better with poor soil and low fertilizer supply. The Nova Institute has identified seven factors that are critical to the success of projects to protect old plant varieties. Successful projects need innovative and committed entrepreneurs, availability of seeds, processing structures for smaller quantities, economic and operational benefits of the products, good communication with the media and consumers, as well as coordination and networking in the region.
Johanna Wider from the Information and Coordination Centre for Biodiversity (IBV) of the BLE presented the international and national programs such as the Agrobiodiversity Strategy of the BMEL (2007), which promote the preservation of old varieties and breeds, as well as national specialist programs for plant genetic and animal genetic resources. The IBV supports these programs by documenting the plant and animal genetic resources in Germany and the Federal Information System Genetic Resources (BIG) and coordinates the cooperation of the BMEL on these topics. This includes the coordination of German contributions to European cooperation programs and Germany’s participation in international bodies such as the FAO and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. The IBV is also responsible for providing national data for genetic international information systems such as the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity Services, the FAO World Information and Early Warning System of Plant Genetic Resources (WIEWS), and the European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources (ECPGR).
The Scientific Advisory Board for Biodiversity and Genetic Resources and the research institutes affiliated to the BMEL, which among other things manage the gene banks, also play important roles in research. For example, the German fruit gene bank of the Julius Kühn Institute (JKI) in Dresden-Pilnitz conserves more than 800 apple varieties, of which only about 25 percent are currently used commercially, while most of the varieties are on the “Red List of Endangered Native Crops”.
In the second part of the event, four projects funded by AgroBioNet gave insights into the practice of rural regions and companies that have specialized in the preservation and marketing of old varieties. Eva Lehmann from the Oberlausitzer Heide- und Teichlandschaft biosphere reserve presented her experiences with the cultivation of champagne rye, an old variety that used to be one of the most common winter rye varieties in the Mark Brandenburg region, but which has been forgotten since the 1960s. In the 1990s the Verein zur Erhaltung and Rekultivierung von Nutzpflanzen (Association for the Preservation and Recultivation of crop plants) VERN e.V. brought rye back from the gene banks to the field. Today, farmers grow champagne rye on 250 hectares in the biosphere reserve. The old variety has proven to be particularly suitable for the dry, poor soil there and is also resistant to plant diseases so that fewer pesticides have to be used. Due to the positive experience, farmers in the region are also cultivating other old grain varieties from the red list of endangered native crops, including varieties with such evocative names as Dr. Franck’s Awning Imperial Barley, Heine’s Goldthorpe, Old Pomeranian Dickhead. The marketing is done in cooperation with local bakeries and breweries.
In Swabia, the Veit Bakery, in collaboration with Professor Sneyd from the Nürtingen University of Applied Sciences, has recultivated Swabian Dickkopf wheat, a type of wheat that was widespread in southern Germany until the 1950s. Here, too, experience has shown that the old variety delivers constant yields even on poor and dry soil. The bakery cooperates with the “Slow Food” movement and makes the products from Swabian Dickkopf wheat known during campaign weeks and at food festivals. In cooperation with Prof. Sneyd, the bakery also supports the recultivation of the 3000-year-old Binkel wheat variety. The Berlin based start-up Streuobstwiesen Manufaktur has specialized in the marketing of juices and ciders made from old apples and other types of fruit harvested from meadow orchards. Under the Ostmost brand and with attractive bottle labels, the drinks are primarily marketed in clubs, trendy bars, and organic shops. Together with the “Apfel und Konsorten” association, Ostmost promotes the sustainable management of meadow orchards and pays farmers higher prices for their fruit so that this type of management becomes profitable again.