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05:37 PM

Bee friendly

Bavarian conservatives forced to go green as wildlife campaign breaks records

By: Jean-Michel Hauteville

A petition demanding better farming practices was backed by 18% of voters. That forces the ruling CSU to call a referendum which could upend German environmental policies.


Bee happy.

Bavaria is abuzz over plans to take drastic measures to keep dwindling insect populations from plummeting further.

A record 1.7 million people in the southern state signed the petition, called “Save the Bees,” in just two weeks. The organizers, the Ecological Democratic Party, or ÖDP, comfortably beat their 1-million signature target, or 10 percent of voters. Because the threshold was passed ahead of a mid-week deadline, the state’s conservative government is forced to act.

Under Bavarian state law, the ruling coalition, led by the right-wing Christian Social Union, must put forward a cross-party bill and organize a referendum in the next six months. This is likely to put the CSU at odds with farmers, who have backed the party for decades.

Give bees a chance

Germans are increasingly anxious about environmental issues and Bavarians are no exception. In late 2017, a study suggested that three-quarters of Germany’s insect populations were wiped out in the past three decades. Recent freak weather events, including last year’s drought, have strengthened the public’s concern about the climate.

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Farmers are already asking for €1 billion in domestic aid and consumers may soon complain about the rising price of pommes.

Enter “Save the Bees.” The campaign’s catchy name and the swarms of cheerful activists dressed up as bees greetings passers-by helped it to succeed. However, the petition goes further: The four-page document calls for detailed amendments to Bavaria’s nature protection laws and for fundamental changes to farming practices in the state.

One such amendment demands an increase in the share of organic farmland to 30 percent by 2030, from just 10 percent today. Non-organic farmers will be forced to reduce their use of pesticides. The petition also requires all farmers to create more diverse habitats within their agricultural holdings, to better support wildlife. In particular, farmers are urged to grow flowering meadows, expand natural grasslands, and grow more hedges and trees. They are also advised to create strips of land five meters wide (16 feet) along river banks, again as a protected natural habitat.

Social consensus

Unsurprisingly, Bavaria’s powerful agricultural association opposed the campaign. It warned of the potential costs to the industry and called on activists to “stop bashing farmers.”

On Thursday, Munich was quick to point out that protecting wildlife is a task for everybody who owns land, not just farmers. “City councils have to get on board,” said the state’s environment minister, Thorsten Glauber. Municipalities and even the Catholic Church own plenty of land and should to do their part, he said. “The farmers can’t do it on their own.”

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The CSU, a right-wing party which has ruled Bavaria for over half a century with a combination of local folksiness and political acumen, is allied to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the federal parliament and in the government. It traditionally leads Germany’s agriculture ministry. In late 2017, then-agriculture minister Christian Schmidt, of the CSU, caused a stir by ditching government guidance and supporting Monsanto’s controversial weed killer Roundup in a European vote.

This will now change as Bavarians demand a U-turn on farming practices. Discussions will begin next week in order to prepare for the upcoming referendum. “Our goal is a social consensus,” Markus Söder, the Bavarian state premier, said on Twitter. “We don’t want to protect nature against the farmers, but with them.”

And this is how by an unexpected turn of events, Bavaria, home to BMW, Audi, Siemens, is about to become Germany’s forerunner when it comes to environmental protection.

Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Today in Berlin. To reach the author: [email protected].

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