German consumers choose sustainable foods more often

In Berlin, the international food fair Grüne Woche 2023 opened its doors on Friday. In the coming days, hundreds of thousands of visitors will learn about the latest developments in nutrition and food production.

But there is also a change among the visitors themselves. Climate and sustainability will currently be the choice criteria for German consumers, the Dutch agricultural attache in Berlin reported recently. What happens to the neighbors to the east?

Increased awareness does not automatically equate to behavioral change. Nevertheless, some German consumers really have a different eating pattern. The number of vegetarians is approaching 8 million. And the meat consumption in the country of bratwurst and pork loin, according to preliminary figures, will fall to 52.8 kilos per inhabitant in 2022. A decrease of 13 percent compared to four years ago.


The country of bratwurst and pork loin already has almost 8 million vegetarians

In addition to the climate effects of livestock farming, this trend also includes concerns about animal welfare, higher meat prices and declining purchasing power. Nevertheless, market researcher Tim Koch of the Agrarmarkt Informations-Gesellschaft in Bonn is convinced that meat consumption will fall further this year.

Apparently, campaigns from, among others, the consumer organization Verbraucherzentrale are making an impression. It claims that 14 kilos of CO2 are released during the production of one kilo of beef. With one kilo of beans, it is only 150 grams. ‘Anyone who does not eat meat or sausage every day is therefore acting in a healthy way for themselves and for the climate’, claims this NGO.

The attention to sustainability and climate aspects of food is also evident from consumer research. Almost 80 percent of German consumers believe that it is important to put sustainably produced food on the table.

This attitude among consumers does not automatically mean that the supermarket also chooses more expensive varieties. Less than a fifth of those surveyed say they are willing to spend more money on more climate-friendly food. The reason is uncertainty about whether the more expensive variant really benefits the environment, climate and animal welfare.

The German government wants to put an end to this ambiguity. The current coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Left is therefore committed to a statutory labeling of food that makes the production method clear.

The Holland Pavilion at the previous edition of Grüne Woche. The theme this year is also focused on sustainability. © Green Week

Minister of Food and Agriculture Cem Özdemir starts with a meat label that mainly provides information on animal welfare aspects. The bill for this must be considered by the Bundestag. ‘I want the consumer to have a real choice. We can only fulfill that wish for the vast majority of people if all products are labeled and the farmers’ efforts become visible,’ says Özdemir.

Meanwhile, the University of Göttingen is investigating the possibilities of a climate label for food’s CO2 footprint. The government of the state of Lower Saxony wants to introduce it as soon as possible. An amount of 800,000 euros has therefore been made available for this research.

“Protecting the climate concerns us all. But until now, it is hardly possible to see in the supermarket how climate-friendly or unfriendly a product is. I want to change that’, says Agriculture Minister Barbara Otte-Kinast from Lower Saxony and explains her commitment.

Combine labels

The researchers from Göttingen are also investigating whether a climate label can be combined with existing labels for e.g. health and animal welfare. The consumer will then find all information in one place. The first results with such a ‘multiple’ label are positive, say the researchers.

“We see that consumers are able to make rational decisions even when there are different assessments of individual aspects,” says Winnie Sonntag of the university’s food and agricultural marketing department. She expects that the introduction of a multi-label will put pressure on food producers to avoid a negative climate assessment.

Open new roads

Everyone involved emphasizes that providing insight into climate effects is not aimed at farmers and gardeners. It can actually give them support to adapt their business operations. ‘Our farmers and gardeners provide good, safe and affordable food and secure our food supply. A climate label will open up new ways for them to get sufficient income,’ says Minister Otte-Kinast.

That German consumers increasingly realize that their purchasing behavior contributes to other production methods is evident from the sales figures for organically produced food. This is already clearly recognizable in the store, and sales are increasing year on year.

The turnover of organic products in Germany amounted to more than 16 billion euros last year. In 2011, it was still 6.6 billion euros. Organic now accounts for around 7 percent of food spending in Germany, and the share is increasing every year. For comparison: In the Netherlands it is around 3 percent, and growth has stagnated in the past few years. As the most important trading partner, the eastern neighbors account for a quarter of Dutch organic agricultural exports.

The German government has an active policy to encourage people to eat more organically. Governments have set targets for their canteens and catering. The leader is the city council of Berlin. It has established that at least half of the food offered in all elementary schools must be organic.

One argument for Germans to buy organic food is that it is often produced locally. It is connected to the popularity of local food. In recent years, this has already led to a sharp increase in the supply of regional products, both from the processing industry and directly from the farm.

A 2021 survey shows that more than a quarter of respondents prefer regional products when available. In practice, it sometimes goes wrong. The term “regional” is not legally protected. Expressions such as ‘from here’ are regularly used incorrectly, warns the Verbraucherzentrale.

Farm shop

The consumer organization advises to pay particular attention to a specific name of the region of origin. Consumers who want to be sure that the food comes from their own environment would also do best to go to a farm shop, says the Verbraucherzentrale.

Next week there will be several conferences and seminars in Berlin about the future food supply in Germany. An important point of discussion is certainly the vision that Minister of Agriculture Özdemir announced shortly before Christmas. A striking point here is especially the change he wants in the food pattern of the Germans.

‘Our aim is to make a mainly plant-based diet, with a high proportion of unprocessed fruit and vegetables, fibre-rich cereals, legumes and nuts, more accessible. At the same time, we support the reduction of animal food consumption to a sustainable and healthy level,” Özdemir wrote in the preface to his plan.

Discrimination

If it is up to the German rural association DBV, it will be discussed lively. ‘It is positive that the government provides information on nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. But we reject discriminatory treatment of certain foods”, replies Udo Hemmerling, deputy director of DBV.

Hemmerling points out that around 70 percent of the German diet consists of plant products. “We find the government’s campaigns against food of animal origin obscene,” said the spokesman for the farmers’ union.

The youth leaves flesh

Germany has 7.9 million vegetarians and that number is increasing. Together with vegans, this amounts to 10 percent of the population. In the Netherlands, it is approximately 5 percent. Women are overrepresented by 70 percent, as is the age group 15 to 29 years. A study by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung three years ago showed that young people with vegetarianism want to make a political statement for a more active climate policy and improvement of animal welfare. Vega youngsters see themselves as pioneers in the food style of the future.

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