Topic: Does populist agricultural policy drive the German energy transition?
Keywords: bioeconomy, farm diversity, agricultural policy, populism
Achievement of a low carbon economy involves transition to bioeconomy accompanied by European, national, and federal state policies and characterized by conflicts over land. The German Renewable Energy Act supported agricultural biomass production for energy purposes reflected in the excessive silage maize cultivation for biogas. The biogas boom has caused increasing land rental prices in rural spaces and land competition, thereby endangering participation of small farms in bioeconomy value chains.
Farm diversity is a societal demand and a policy objective at EU and national level. Current institutional settings fail to govern land use for energy production purposes in the light of incomplete implementation of existing regulations. According to the current discourse on land markets, non-agricultural purchasers of land and non-local investors have a competitive advantage and drive family farms out of the market. The political discussion on bioenergy triggered agricultural policy design changes reflected in the Agricultural Structural Protection Law drafted by the federal state of Lower Saxony in 2017.
We explore the content and rationale of this law issued by the then government of Lower Saxony namely a coalition of the German Social Democratic Party and The Green Party. The analysis shows that the drafted law restricts the expansion of large farms, prioritizes land access for local farmers, discourages non-agricultural buyers from entering the market, and seeks to prevent the entry of shareholding companies into agricultural land markets. For example, the proposed policy defines land purchase as disadvantageous land allocation if the buyer is a non-farmer or owns more than 25 percent of the agricultural area located in the respective municipality, thereby preventing land sale or land lease to large-farm owners.
According to our analysis, the drafted law involves populist elements. Populism focuses on the antagonism between the masses and the enemy and/or its symbols. Following the current discourse, external non-agricultural investors constitute symbols responsible for structural changes caused by increasing land rental prices in the wake of the biogas boom. External buyers are also associated with unsustainable farming practices and negligence of agro-ecology in favour of benefit extraction. The drafted law gives rural residents higher purchase priority than external buyers by considering rural residents better managers of the land without explanation.