The path gone wrong. Notes on German agriculture

Farmers are protesting in Germany and France. At first glance, it looks as if the problems are the same in both countries: Agricultural diesel, over-regulation, environmental restrictions and unfair producer prices. No wonder, as the countries have shared the same European market organization since the Common Agricultural Policy of 1957. However, the backgrounds of the two agricultural cultures could not be more different.

7 mins read

The current problems in German agriculture are numerous. But they are not the real cause of the recent protests. Rather, they articulate a helplessness in the face of structural decisions that were already made in Germany in the 1880s. And that is why the situation is so muddled. At the time, these were not least a response to the challenges of the first wave of globalization. And they led to path dependencies that still dominate agriculture today. In particular, the decisive course for Germany of becoming an “industrial nation” instead of an “agricultural state” was already set during the German Empire. Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard confirmed it after the war. The foundation of the Coal and Steel Community and the establishment of the Common Agricultural Organization, two of the cornerstones of the later European Union, was a balance between French agricultural and German industrial interests. In other words, even during reconstruction, German agriculture was a ” pawn offer” in the truest sense of the word. The farmers were never to forget the setback, no matter how generous the subsidies from Brussels.

Two ways of modernization

Perhaps even more bitter for the majority of the farming community, is the feeling of adhering to a business model that is “yesterday’s news” in many respects. However, the discussion in Germany forgets that primary agricultural production is more multifaceted than the fixation on the price of chopped meat at discount stores would suggest. The fact that agriculture in Europe per se generates too little added value and therefore has to rely on subsidies is not a constant of nature. However, the development path of the German agricultural industry has cemented a model from which there is no easy escape. Despite all the problems, neighboring France shows that things can be done differently. The two countries have reacted completely differently to the challenges of agricultural modernization since 1880. And not so much because of different geographical or cultural conditions, but because of completely different paradigms of scientific theory. Four examples:

1 Agriculture and economy

Albrecht Daniel Thaer Drill-seeding(1804)

In Germany, Albrecht Daniel Thaer had founded agricultural science in the spirit of cameralistics, i.e. princely accounting. To achieve this, the “economy according to the old Schlendrian” had to be broken with. Thaer’s “Principles of Rational Agriculture” (1809-1812) were intended to show “how the highest possible pure profit could be made from this business under all circumstances”. He, the author, proclaimed the “absolutely most perfect … system” in order to “extract the highest yield from the land at the relatively lowest cost”. Initially little received, this purely economic principle then became generally accepted in Germany from 1880 onwards. First as intensification, then as industrialization of production.

The author proclaims the absolutely most perfect system, whereby the highest yield can be obtained from the soil at the relatively lowest cost.

Albrecht Daniel Thaer (1815)

In France in the 18th century, on the other hand, the so-called “physiocrats” had developed the doctrine of nature as the source of all economic wealth. They emphasized the need for high producer prices and pointed to the high returns on luxury products. These were not interpreted as symptoms of decadence, but as a path to social prosperity. In fact, countless winegrowers in Champagne or Burgundy’s Côte d’Or are millionaires today. If you like, a mirror image of the proverbial wealth of Swabian skilled workers who “‘schaffe’ at Daimler”.

2 Dietetics and culinary arts

Justus von Liebig in particular introduced the substance paradigm into physiology and agricultural science. This had a fundamental influence on fertilization and animal feed, but also on our understanding of food. Through Liebig’s students in the so-called Munich School, such as Carl von Voit, the focus in Germany from the end of the 19th century onwards was on substance conglomerates such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats and later also vitamins and fiber, in addition to caloric value. Food, nutrition and foodstuffs were increasingly substantialized and decontextualized (Uwe Spiekerman). In this country in particular, this led to an agriculture and food industry in which quality is still a standardized, certified production process, so to speak. If only the desired substances are made available in the best possible way (hygienically, inexpensively, long-lasting).

Respiration apparatus by Pettenkofer and von Voit around 1860. It served to the energetic evaluation of food and for determining the energy requirements of living beings.

France is also familiar with a completely different concept of food quality. First, in the 17th century, the agronomist Nicolas de Bonnefons in Versailles developed the category of the ” inherent taste of things “, i.e. the idea of an intrinsic, particularly sensory quality of products. To this day, it is the actual “axis of development” of French cuisine (Jean-Pierre Poulain). At its core are the close, constantly re-invigorating supply networks between top chefs and producers of first-class agricultural products throughout the country. In our neighbouring country, this gave rise to a concept of quality that is not based on chemical and material content, but on cultural attributions, or more precisely: a “geohistorical construction” (Vincent Marcilhac). This is due to the knowledge of the excellence of a “savoir-faire local” founded in tradition.

3 Geography

Agricultural geography and spatial planning in Germany were shaped by the Lebensraum concept of the leading German geographer of the 19th century, Friedrich Ratzel. The “wider” the space, the more intensive the development! Adolf Hitler read Ratzel’s writings “with holy fervor” during his stay in Landsberg prison and inspired Carl Schmitt’s principle of large spaces (“Großraum”). These ideas of order were the inspiration for the “land consolidation” of the young FRG. Executed, for example, by State Secretary Rudolf Hüttebräuker, the “special agricultural leader” in the Ukraine during the Third Reich. He “took the German occupiers’ fantasies of feasibility and ideas of organization from the Second World War into the Federal Republic” (Friedrich Kießling). These preconceptions were seamlessly linked to the credo “grow or die” of Dutch EEC Commissioner Sicco Mansholt, architect of the common European agricultural policy. This led to the abandonment of many small farmers and the dominance of large farms.

“Carte gastronomique de la France” by A. Bourguignon (1929)

French agriculture, on the other hand, pursued a decidedly regionalization strategy in the late 19th century following the geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache. Vidal had become the all-dominant figure in geographic science in France since 1880. He presented the monumental “Tableau de la géographie de la France” in 1903. At the same time, Vidal became one of the most prominent voices for decentralization in France and vehemently demanded “La rénovation de la vie régionale”. In the first decades of the 20th century, his legacy then flowed into the system of the “Appellation d’Origine controllée”, the “controlled designation of origin”. This protected outstanding agricultural products from a wide variety of terroirs. Harmonized throughout Europe as the AOP label in 1992, today 593 French products  bear a protected geographical indication of origin, compared to only 31 in Germany.

4 Livestock breeding

Combinations of germplasm in bastardization. From: August Weismann: Das Keimplasma (1892).

In Germany, the neo-Darwinist August Weismann – “DNA is our destiny” – made applied genetics the leading science at the end of the 19th century. After the Second World War, this led to drastic standardization and more than borderline animal body optimization. Worldwide, only a handful of highly bred clones and hybrid breeds prevailed in the respective areas of agriculture. These were characterized by perfectly realized breeding goals and achieved their optimum performance in standardized environments such as intensive indoor raising and plantation-like monocultures.

In contrast, French biology at the turn of the century before last was “neo-Lamarckian” in character. The idea of the “inheritance of acquired characteristics” had a powerful effect on our neighbors because it postulated a central role of the respective environment, the “terroir”, for the development of animals and plants. This made sense of the great diversity of regionally characterized livestock breeds and plants in France. As is well known, the neo-Darwinists initially prevailed, with considerable consequences for biodiversity also on the left bank of the Rhine. However, epigenetics has recently demonstrated the existence of a second genetic code that is highly susceptible to environmental influences. Even if research here is still in its infancy: In viticulture, for example, this would explain why the use of mass selections of old vines adapted to microclimates and microterroirs often achieves better results in new plantings than the use of breeding-optimized clone material.

The dual path of agriculture

France moved closer to the German mindset through the catch-up modernization of agriculture, first under the Vichy regime and then during the “Trente Glorieuses” from 1945 to 1975. Today, our neighbouring country is also largely characterized by agribusiness. However, and despite all the cultural differences, this is the decisive structural difference: today, the country practices a “bipolar” strategy and explicitly distinguishes between industrialized standard and regional-traditional “haute couture” agriculture in the “dual path” of agriculture.

A German GG or “Großes Gewächs”, the German version of a Grand Cru

In the German agricultural policy debate, the agricultural and food system is confronted with pretty much all socially relevant cross-cutting issues. Politicians are calling for a transformation, particularly in terms of health, the environment, sustainability, climate protection, animal ethics, rural development and economic efficiency – not always to the enthusiasm of the farmers themselves.

A first step towards change would certainly be to become aware of one’s own prerequisites again and to recognize alternatives to a development path that has led to a dead end. A high-wage country, especially one with the population density of Germany, cannot primarily produce cheap products in any sector, not even in agriculture. Instead, the agricultural sector must focus more on the quality of its products – not in terms of process technology, but in terms of taste. The German wine industry has shown how such a path reversal works, having largely aligned itself with French wine law in the 2021 Wine Act. This is not least an economic success story.

Dr. Stefan Pegatzky

The author has written numerous articles and books on the topics of wine, food and agriculture. He reports on French viticulture for the wine industry magazine WEIN+MARKT. A comparative study on Franco-German agricultural history entitled “Agrikultur. On agriculture, origin and taste” is in preparation.

Image Rights

Featured image and GG wine bottle: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images
All others: Public domain


Kießling, Friedrich: Landwirtschaftsministerium und Agrarpolitik in der alten Bundesrepublik. In: Möller, Horst u. a. (Hrsg.): Agrarpolitik im 20. Jahrhundert. Berlin und Boston 2020, S. 367−512.
Marcilhac, Vincent: Le luxe alimentaire. Une singularité française. Rennes und Tours 2012.
Pitte, Jean-Robert: Gastronomie française. Histoire et géographie d’une passion. Paris 1991.
Spiekermann, Uwe: Künstliche Kost. Ernährung in Deutschland, 1840 bis heute. Göttingen 2018.
Thaer, Albrecht Daniel: Grundsätze der rationellen Landwirthschaft. 4 Bde. Berlin 1809–1812.

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