Iron Curtain and farmland biodiversity
We wanted to know more about the costs and benefits of organic farming and landscape structure on biodiversity as well as on farmers’ profit. Therefore, we contrasted organic and conventional farms in the former East with the former West Germany along the former Iron Curtain.
The first germ of an idea to contrast East with West can be traced back to my first visit to Germany, to the city of Göttingen, in 2003. This famous and attractive university city is situated less than 15 km from the former Iron Curtain, which divided not only Germany, but the whole of Europe for nearly half a century. Prior to this visit I already had some experiences with agroecology in the frame of an EU-project, called EASY, where I encountered the already by that time well-known Agroecology group of Professor Tscharntke. These experiences were, however, all within my home country, Hungary, a post-socialist country, where forced collectivisation and clearance of landscapes led to large-scale agriculture with typical field sizes of some tens of hectares. Most agricultural regions of former communist countries, such as Eastern Germany, underwent the same changes followed by a privatisation process, resulting in similar landscape structure. This visit to the landscapes of Göttingen, especially at that time when I was not a frequent visitor to the West, was therefore a kind of culture shock for me, since my eyes had to adjust to the heterogeneity of many tiny fields just one, two or three hectares in size, instead of seeing a few very large ones.
Winter triticale with bird vetch in a large-scale agricultural landscape, in the East (photo credit: S. Fusaro).
Five years later I joined the Agroecology group, and studied like many others the biological effectiveness of organic farming or effects of landscape structure on various organism groups. During this time the idea crystallized that I, as an Eastern researcher, would lead this study on East-West contrast. A closely related parallel idea, conceived by Laura Sutcliffe, who was at that time a Western European PhD student doing research in Eastern Europe, was the organisation of the so-called “East meets West” workshop (https://eastwest2013.wordpress.com/). To this workshop we invited agroecologists from East and West, but also other parts of Europe, to discuss the transfer of conservation approaches between Eastern and Western European landscapes. We came to the conclusion that the great amount of knowledge gathered on agri-environment schemes in the West cannot be simply copied to the new Eastern and Central EU member states without potentially causing serious harm to (Eastern European) biodiversity. We therefore called for targeted research and monitoring of the still biodiversity rich low-intensity farmland in the East, to create locally appropriate conservation strategies (Diversity and Distributions, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ddi.12288/full).
In the current study, however, we focused on intensive agricultural regions on both sides of the former Iron Curtain nearly 25 years after German reunification, when organic agriculture also became well-established in the East. Having only worked with private organic farmers in the West, the first surprise for us was that there were much fewer organic farmers in the East, but that farm sizes were a magnitude of order bigger than in the West. This, coupled with some logistic challenges, made it necessary to extend the study region further into Eastern Germany. Alongside our complex study design and performing extensive biodiversity sampling, one of the major developments was to ask questions quite different from those we originally planned. Namely, how this huge landscape contrast and opposing farming practices (organic vs. conventional) can be translated to cost and revenues and ultimately to profit for farmers. Such economic coupling with biodiversity data is still quite rare, thus our small project is a pioneer. By creating a spontaneous cooperation with Professor Mußhoff, an agroeconomist from our university, we were able to study the economic and ecological trade-offs of organic farming in these contrasting agricultural systems.
In summary, we showed that large-scale agriculture in East Germany reduced biodiversity, which has been maintained in West Germany due to >70% longer field edges compared to the East. In contrast, profit per farmland area in the East was 50% higher than in the West, despite similar yield levels. In both regions, switching from conventional to organic farming increased biodiversity, halved yield levels, but doubled farmers’ profits. In conclusion, EU policy should acknowledge the surprisingly high biodiversity benefits of small-scale agriculture, which are on par with conversion to organic agriculture.
The paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution is here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-017-0272-x
Part of the field member team – from left to right: Róbert Gallé, Anne-Kathrin Happe, Dorottya Molnár (photo credit: R. Gallé)