Saturday some 35,000 Germans rallied in Berlin as part of Green Week to protest industrial agriculture. In the U.S. most eco-farmers hold up Europe as the benchmark of improved agriculture, but I can assure you that is not the case.
Many say the agriculture there must be far better than in the U.S. because they are much older civilizations so if they were depleting their soils, they would have run out of fertility and productivity long ago. Compared to the U.S., these countries are ancient.
But this belies the truth. Having been there many times, and returning for a 3-country speaking/teaching circuit late this month, I'll offer some points about European agriculture that must be considered:
1. It is far more temperate than the U.S., meaning that it doesn't get as cold nor as hot and has much more consistent rainfall. All of these factors make the soil less fragile and stimulate the ability to grow large amounts of biomass, which is the secret to soil health.
2. Many traditional schemes for protecting soil were followed religiously in these old countries. I have a woodcut from France in a book written in the middle ages by a traveling Crusader who observed "portable chicken houses" dotting the Normandy countryside.
3. Draft power required one-third of all land remain devoted to pasture. All draft animals are herbivores, and therefore require grasses, which generally build soil if they are managed anywhere near correctly.
4. Small farming. Much of this current German protest is over the $6 billion in subsidies going to primarily large industrial German farms. Does that sound like the U.S.? Absolutely. The EU spends more than $68 billion in direct agriculture subsidies but far more go to environmental benefits on farms (a bird nest, a wild flower meadow, etc.). But unlike the U.S., Europe has a remarkable commitment to small farm preservation--probably partly because that's what kept people alive in occupied countries during WWII and that's still vivid and visceral in their memories.
5. Food culture. American food culture is fast food. In Europe, each country has a unique and profound food culture rooted in its indigenous agriculture. It is being lost through EU homogenization of food laws and subsidy policy, but the average European is far more tuned into local food culture than Americans. This mindset inherently moves production toward on-farm species diversity and more balanced-scale protocols, which in turn translate to better soil care.
Finally, I can assure you that plenty of degradation is occurring today, just like in the U.S. People with their radar up know that soil health is in free-fall in Europe, just like in the U.S. There it was historically more nurtured by ancient protocols in a forgiving climate. In the harsher climate of the U.S., it was nurtured by native Americans prior to European arrival. The point is that some climates, or local ecologies, are more fragile than others. The more fragile, the less resilient.
Interesting, the press reports about this big demonstration do not mention anti-animal sentiment. I'm sure it was there, but apparently it was not as pronounced as much of the green agenda is in the U.S. Perhaps people in Europe understand better that livestock can be raised well or poorly; they can build soil or deplete it. It's all in how the animals are managed.
If you were going to protest industrial agriculture in the U.S., what would your sign say?