From the "Sound of Music" to the "Taste of Nature"
Austrian Farm BMLFU/AMA Bioarchiv/BegsteigerBy Hans Kordik
Farm policies around the globe try to respect the expectations of both farmers and consumers. Typically, farmers in developed countries demand that their services for society render an adequate income. They also expect conditions that will enable them to manage their farms in the future.
Consumers, on the other hand, expect farmers to produce food abundant in quantity and quality. Above all, this food should be provided at affordable prices. While the above demands are common in most industrialized countries, consumers have expressed additional expectations from the agriculture sector in recent decades. An example of this development is the Republic of Austria.
As a land-locked country, Austria lies in the heart of Europe and has eight neighboring countries. It is comparable in size to Maine or South Carolina, has a population of 8.2 million, and has been a member of the European Union since 1995. Seventy percent of the countryside is covered by mountains and Austria’s tourism industry is making use of those topographic conditions. The tourism sector has been growing continuously and today it accounts for more than six percent of Austria’s GDP.
But it is not only winter skiing that gives this “Land of Mountains” (name of the National Anthem) the third highest per capita income from tourism in the European Union. Additionally, the lush and picturesque alpine pastures, which we all remember from the famous musical “The Sound of Music,” attract over 31 million tourists every year. To maintain the lush pastures in the summer and ski slopes in the winter, farming in mountainous areas is of key importance.
Two thirds of Austria’s 165,000 farms are located in the alpine mountains, where rearing cattle or sheep are most popular. While producing dairy products and beef, the Austrian “mountain” farmers also take over the task of maintaining and preserving the pastures of the Alps. While mountain farming is popular in the West, the East provides ideal conditions for arable farming. The mix of the continental climate and the influence of the Pannonia, which provide cold and wet winters, but especially hot dry summer days and cool nights are ideal for corn, cereals like wheat, barley and rye, as well as sugar beets, rapeseed and sunflower.
In recent years, Austria has emerged as the second biggest soybean producer in the European Union. Pig and poultry production are also popular in the arable regions of Austria. Last but not least, it is necessary to point out that Austria produces one percent of the global wine. The flagship wine of Austria with 37 percent of its vineyards is the Gruener Veltliner.
Based on the expectations of Austrian consumers and existing climatic and topographical conditions, which limit chances for diversifying agriculture, Austria’s farm policy has been successful in promoting “environmentally-friendly” methods of farming. This orientation was based on a decision made many years prior to Austria joining the European Union. Instead of promoting productivity and increased yields, Austrian farm policy introduced in the 1980’s gave quality of food a higher priority over quantity. Quality is considered to be subjective. It could be defined in many ways, for example, as freshness or healthiness of produce. Requesting high-quality and healthy foods is not enough for Austrian consumers.
Today, their definition of quality considers where the food comes from, how it was produced, if the farmers respect the environment by caring for the resources of tomorrow and if farmers take into consideration animal welfare. The pinnacle of the environmentally- friendly method of agriculture is organic farming.
Austria is considered to be Europe’s “organic farming country Number 1.” As early as 1927 Austria registered the first organic farm in the world based on the findings of the famous Austrian researcher and anthroposophist, Rudolf Steiner. Austria was also the first country in the world that established national regulations for organic farming. It did so ten years prior to the first regulations established by the European Union. Today, over 16 percent of Austria’s farmers and almost 20 percent of the farmland are managed under the high environmental standards of organic farming. This demonstrates how in comparison to many other European countries, Austrian philosophy considers organic produce to be more than just niche products.
The objective is rather to make this most ecological-compatible form of land use as widespread as possible so as to preserve the good quality of soil, water and air for generations to come. Today, more than 10 percent of the Austrian supermarket turnover is derived from fresh, organic products. Obviously, with an agriculture which respects the environment by reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, increasing the use of organic substances, promoting crop rotation and continuously increasing animal welfare standards, it is conceivable that Austrian farm policy has no place for biotechnology.
Farm with cattle. BMLFU/AMA Bioarchiv/BegsteigerAustrian agriculture does not believe that genetic engineering can provide any benefits and especially since the Austrian consumer rejects biotechnology. Without irrigation and the use of pesticides, Austrian corn yields on average are higher than in the United States of America. Therefore, the consumer has not yet seen any advantages that biotechnology could provide.
Up to now, Austria has managed to prevent the production of genetically engineered crops in the country and thereby preserve sustainable production. In addition, hormones or other growth-promoting substances as well as radiation are prohibited by a strict “Food-Act,” which guarantees effective controls. Quality and hygiene are characteristic of the complete production chain from the stable to the table. “The Taste of Nature” is not only a preference of the Austrian consumer, but the growth in exports shows that Austrian foods and wines are also treasured all over the world.
For example in the case of cereals, Austria has come a long way from being a net-importer in the early 1980’s to a net-exporter since then. The Republic of Austria will soon be on a par with the European Union’s traditional agricultural exporting countries such as France, Denmark and the Netherlands. Although imports of food are also growing, Austria has managed to reduce its agricultural trade deficit of around $2.2 billion before its accession to the European Union in 1995 to a nearly positive trade balance last year.
Besides the neighboring countries of Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, the United States has become one of the five biggest export markets for Austrian food. For example, in the case of Austrian wine, of which Austria exports around 30 percent of its production, the U.S. is the third most important market. And the U.S. is the only market that grew during the financial crisis.
The most popular Austrian export products to the United States besides wine are energy drinks like Red Bull, cheeses, chocolates, fruit juices, pumpkinseed oil, pastries and jams. While the political debate on agriculture in the U.S. focuses on increasing productivity and allocating a big share of agricultural production to exports, the discussion on farm policy in Austria is characterized by the expectations of the consumers.
Hans C. Kordik is Counselor for Agriculture and Environment at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC. He can be reached at hans.kordik(at)bmeia.gv.at