BSE Crisis: Meat-Loving Germany Gets Green Minister to Oversee Farm Revolution ; Schroder Reshuffle Aims to Restore Consumer Confidence in Wake of Scares over Mad Cow Disease and Collapsing Beef Sales
Karacs, Imre, The Independent (London, England)
GERMANY TURNED its back yesterday on the modern farming methods that brought BSE to European consumers and announced an organic revolution in agriculture.
In a direct assault on the powerful farm lobby, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder put a leading Green politician in charge of the revamped agriculture ministry. Renate Kunast, a 44-year-old former anti-nuclear protester, takes over from Karl-Heinz Funke, the dairy farmer swept out of office by the BSE scandal.
"The BSE crisis demands rethinking in agricultural policy," Mr Schroder proclaimed. "Changes that have not been made in the past 50 years will be made now." In her first public statement as minister, Ms Kunast, a Berlin lawyer with no experience of agriculture, pledged to switch farming to "natural production and natural animal husbandry". She announced a thorough investigation of "what went wrong in the past", and indicated that much work had to be done to regain consumers' confidence.
Germany's famously carnivorous population has been deeply shocked by revelations over the past two months that much of their staple diet was unsafe. After the discovery of BSE in the domestic herd two months ago, it has emerged that farmers had been feeding their cattle banned bone meal, and factories have been mixing low-grade beef into sausages.
Opinion polls show nearly half the country has gone off beef altogether, and millions are also shunning sausages. What has outraged consumers most is that their government repeatedly misled them about the threat of BSE.
Much of the ensuing chaos in government ranks originated in the rivalry between the two ministries responsible. Andrea Fischer, the Green Health Minister, was constantly thwarted by Mr Funke, a strenuous defender of farmers' interests. Even as the Chancellor was trying to reach the Agriculture Minister to inform him of his "resignation" on Monday, Mr Funke was telling a group of farmers in southern Germany that the government's reform plans stood no chance.
In the end, Mr Funke acknowledged that he was the wrong person to oversee a revolution in agriculture. He was quitting, he said, to "clear the way for a new beginning".
Mr Schroder, who backed the Green vision last week, was forced to reshuffle his cabinet after Ms Fischer's resignation on Monday. It was clear, however, that no straight swaps would suffice, because the two departments in charge of the various aspects of the BSE crisis were at war with each other. It did not help that the conflict pitted a Green minister against Mr Funke, a Social Democrat.
Mr Schroder resolved the contradiction by removing the Health Ministry from the BSE picture. Ms Kunast thus inherits a mega- ministry responsible for food, agriculture, and consumer protection.
"This is an opportunity for consumers, an opportunity for farmers and an opportunity for the Greens," she said. However, farmers, other than the organic kind, can be excused for not spotting these opportunities at first glance. Supporting large-scale farming has been at the core of German as well as EU policy for five decades. Although some aid has been available to organic farmers in recent years, it is insignificant compared to the vast sums paid by governments and the EU to support factory farming. …