18 years ago, Jean-Lou Colling (pictured) went against the tide and quit his job at a bank to take on his father-in-law’s farm
Photo: Matic Zorman
Delano spoke to a former banker about why we may have to accept paying more for our food.
Today most of Luxembourg’s wealth is generated in the urban areas. But 70 years ago, almost half of the population worked in rural sectors. 18 years ago, Jean-Lou Colling (pictured) went against the tide and quit a lucrative career in a bank to take on his father-in-law’s farm. Standing on a hill west of Colmar-Berg, Karelshaff spans 72 hectares of lush, rolling hills set to the sound of clucking hens, the bellow of cows and occasionally, the chatter of schoolchildren.
Karelshaff is one of nine organic demonstration farms, so called because it is used as an educational tool to show schools, consumers and other farmers how organic works and why they should embrace it. Colling is an excellent poster boy given that when he started out, he was no environmental activist, simply a businessman with a long-term outlook. “I looked at the facts to see what kind of farming methods would have a chance of surviving in future,” he told Delano.
Later will be too late
He saw a number of sustainability red flags with conventional farming, notably the contamination of natural water resources through pesticides. “The water we drink today was filtered through the ground 20 years ago. If we continue like that, my children will have even more problems in future […] The problem with people is unless something directly impacts them, they don’t think about it. But today, there are a lot of consequences that will impact later when it will be too late,” Colling said.
The organic movement began in Luxembourg 30 years ago at Schanck-Haff in the north. Farms can obtain organic status by swapping chemical pesticides for smarter crop rotation methods, natural fertilisers and pest treatments, among others. Bio-Lëtzebuerg reported in 2017 that almost 4% of agricultural land in Luxembourg was given over to organic practices, with 132 organic producers and 127 operators. “I think it’s better to grow slowly because it’s another way of thinking,” director of the not-for-profit Dani Noesen tells Delano.
Luxembourg’s sustainability strategy, the Rifkin report, proposes switching the country’s entire agricultural sector to organic methods by 2050, a suggestion Colling supports emphatically. But much needs to be done to make that happen. Conventional farmers, caught in the cycle of having to increase yields to compensate for falling produce prices, must first accept the change.
Getting retailers on board
Subsidies are offered to encourage full or partial conversion to organic farms. But retailers must also be prepared to accept lower profits. “If you look at the food scandals, like Veviba, they are a consequence of a policy of cheap goods. We try with all the means we have to sell products cheaper to make a profit. There are several actors trying to make a profit without taking on any of the risk on the production side.”
While organic products are popular in Luxembourg, they are more expensive and it is also hard to convince the average price-driven consumer, who is accustomed to buying cheap food, to spend more. The difficulties are further compounded by the fact that organic food produced in Luxembourg costs more than in, say, Belgium or Germany because of the small-scale of production and associated transport costs.
One argument that Colling falls back on is that consumers are already paying more for their food through taxes, the proceeds from which are used to undo the collateral damage caused by chemicals used in farming. If these collateral costs were added to the price tag of conventionally produced food, they would likely be more costly to buy than organic produce.