“We finally need to take action!”
Interview with Dr Franz Ehrnsperger, Chairman of the Qualitätsgemeinschaft Bio-Mineralwasser (Quality Association for Organic Mineral Water) and Senior Manager of Neumarkter Lammsbräu
Under the banner “Organic delivers!” the main congress theme of BIOFACH 2020 will highlight the positive impacts of organic production methods. This seventh conversation in the BIOFACH interview series deals with the positive effects of the organic system on our water.
Water is the basis of all life. As drinking water, a habitat for plants and animals and integral part of our eco-system it is indispensable. In addition, it is an important economic factor as a source of energy, a transport medium and a raw material. But how do we treat this valuable asset? Water is often being contaminated or even poisoned; it is being wasted and is increasingly in short supply in many areas of the world. There is no substitute for water. This is why it is high time to make sure that this resource is effectively protected and preserved. And this is precisely what Dr Franz Ehrnsperger – organic pioneer and Chairman of the Quality Association for Organic Mineral Water – has considered his calling for more than 40 years. Ehrnsperger is convinced that organic farming is the best method of keeping water pure and clean and he campaigns for this in a number of areas. “We finally need to take action,” he says.
At BIOFACH 2020 from 12 – 15 February there will be numerous presentations on the topic of water, as well as the premiere of a special show with the title “Water – is the basis of life endangered?”
Increasingly we are hearing terrible news about the contamination and shortage of water. Yet it ought to be clear to everyone that without water life on the blue planet is not possible. Dr Ehrnsperger, is it a question of ignorance or lack of awareness about how to treat this elementary component of life?
We at Lammsbräu already had good reasons to start protecting our water over forty years ago. Water is not only the most important raw material for beer, but is also by far the most important food for people and animals At that time a lot of people didn’t understand this, because for most people water is the most natural thing in the world. Today we have reached a point where the natural system is at risk of collapse and is urging us to do something.
Regrettably, however, there is still a lot of ignorance around. Moreover, a lack of awareness plays an astonishingly large role. Many people really do not understand how the cycles of nature work. People simply accept these gifts of nature with the mind-set: “I am entitled to it, after all”, “I have no obligations whatsoever” or “it’s not my responsibility”. It shows a lack of consideration towards nature and the present, but primarily towards the future and the generations to come when, for example, all we do is demand higher yields from farming as we try to extract the absolute maximum from our fields.
What is the situation with water as a resource?
If you want to describe the status quo of our most important food, you need to make a distinction. Here in Northern Europe we are still one of the more fortunate regions, simply in terms of the available amount. But even in this part of the world, water is already massively compromised. And this refers to the quality. More than a third of German groundwater today is already chemically contaminated according to official studies. This is also why the European Court of Justice has handed down a ruling that obliges Germany to finally take effective measures to keep its groundwater clean. However the first Fertiliser Ordinance was a paper tiger. The new draft legislation prompted fierce protests on the part of farmers. Ultimately, these woes are not the fault of the farmers. They only did what agricultural ministers and associations recommended that they do, which simply corresponded to typical farming practices in Germany. Only a few have seen through this perverse system of chemical enhancement and the fallacy that this has created.
In the international context, the industrial nations – and their way of treating nature, which has been exported to all corners the world – are guilty on several counts: Firstly, by being a major contributor to climate change, which is leading to steppe formation and desertification in the Global South. Secondly, we have often destroyed stable structures for food production that had been adapted to local conditions. This has led to a massive rural exodus and the destabilisation of political systems. And the current global catastrophes are the end result. However, it is simply a matter of supporting nature and not working against it. We can also create access to clean water in the Global South using natural methods, as initiatives like SEKEM in Egypt have clearly shown.
You have authored two “black books” investigating the state of our groundwater and drinking water. What is the greatest threat to our most important food?
This overview and the consideration of the broader context in the black books on the state of groundwater and drinking water clearly show the negative impacts of industrialised agriculture with intensive livestock farming and biogas plants. It’s frightening to see the percentage of our water resources that already contain poisons like nitrate, pesticide metabolites and pharmaceutical residues according to official data. Our soils are also being destroyed by far too much chemicals, slurry and fermentation residues. And there is also a very close connection to water here. Firstly, the soil loses its infiltration and water retention capacity as well as its cleanability. Good, humus-rich soils can easily absorb 30 - 40 litres of rain an hour; in healthy soils up to 150 litres are possible. A corn field that has been farmed industrially for many years, on the other hand, will scarcely manage more than 20 litres. The precious water runs off the surface, producing erosion and flooding.
Secondly and equally essential is water retention capacity. For each 1 % of humus a soil can store up to 400 m3 water per hectare – that’s a huge amount. A dry period of 3 - 4 weeks will not affect such soils. Our organic farmers have proven this during the dry summers of the last decade, when their harvests were good.
The third function of a good soil is the capacity to clean itself, because all the water that penetrates the soil is cleaned by soil organisms. In dead soils this is not possible. The fourth important function is the feed to the groundwater. Water that does not penetrate the soil is not available to the water reserve. In healthy soils the groundwater is constantly replenished, which allows us to take water out again without lowering the groundwater table to a dangerous degree. This is how a sustainable system comes into being: healthy soil, plants and water mean healthy humans. This is why it is so crucial to nurture our soils using organic methods. In our guidelines for organic mineral water 12 years ago we already stipulated that every producer of organic mineral water has to perform the role of water and climate protector.
For more than four decades, you and your company have made it your business to protect water and keep it clean, given that it is the most important raw material for your products. What were the most important measures that you took?
As far back as 1980 we at Lammsbräu were in no doubt that, along with the conservative management of sources and the avoidance of waste water, organic farming is the best way to protect soil and water. Today we are proud that here in the Oberpfalz and Mittelfranken region we have around 6,000 hectares that have been free of chemical additives for over 30 years. This makes an enormous contribution to protecting our water system. The same idea of protecting water over the long term by supporting organic farming and the sustained protection of sources is also central to the organic mineral water concept that we and our colleagues from the Quality Association for Organic Mineral Water are promoting. That’s why the objective of the mineral springs the association organizes is 100 % organic farming.
In the meantime we are in consensus with policy-makers in this regard. The German government has agreed a target of 20 % organic farming by 2030, while Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg are already at 30 %. You can see that things are finally happening.
Organic farming plays a key role. Is there proof of this?
Here again, it’s worth taking a look at the Quality Association’s black books. For example, thanks to the changeover to organic farming, water resources in Austria have recovered in the relevant regions. These findings are confirmed by metastudies like the new investigation conducted by the Thuenen Institute in collaboration with a number of universities. The direct correlation between nitrate and pesticide application and water quality and the reserves of uncontaminated water is undisputed. If you dump agrochemicals onto the fields, sooner or later you’ll find residues from systemic pesticides, chemical fertilisers, slurry or medicines in the water. Everything is connected to everything else. The only thing that helps is to stop the application of pollutants from above. It really is high time to turn things around!
What is the future vision of your water protection strategy? Do we need a water “transition” and more organic farming?
There’s no question that we need 100 % organic farming that is our vision. This will give us control over the quality of the soils and protection against the contamination of our water. But it is also clear that conventional farmers are in an impasse and that we need to help them find a way out. Regenerative agriculture enables the soils to be rehabilitated gradually and creates a prospect for the farmers who will see that soil cultivation and natural methods really can revitalise soil as a resource in the medium term. It is really great for everyone involved to observe how nature regenerates itself independently if we do not destroy it.
These are genuine light bulb moments and many farmers can scarcely believe it. If you look at India, for example, and how quickly the transition to 100% organic farming is being completed in some states, that is very encouraging and hopeful. On the other hand you have to ask yourself why this is not possible here as well.
We finally have to start accepting responsibility and fulfil the tasks necessary to protect our future. Consider that 1 % humus formation per hectare due to organic farming can also absorb 40 - 60 metric tons of CO2. In addition to reforestation this gives us incredibly effective leverage and does a lot to reduce the burden on the climate.
Access to clean water is a human right. How can we manage this in the future?
Because water is the most important food, it is of course also one of our tasks to take responsibility in the Global South. In this regard, I’ve already talked about the positive effects of increased organic farming. But there also has to be on-site assistance. NGOs like Viva con Aqua, for example, are doing a great job there and are worthy of support in every respect. Apart from building wells, community capacity building (helping people help themselves) for the development of organic structures in local farming is a sensible approach, as is training in how to deal with waste water. Forecasts by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research indicate that failure to comply with the 1.5° target would have devastating consequences, including the impossibility of living in the Sub-Saharan region. Combined with climate refugees due to rising sea levels, this would trigger unprecedented mass migration. In these countries in particular every drop of water counts, and we need to show solidarity and accept our responsibility as soon as possible.
The interview was conducted by Karin Heinze, BiO Reporter International
Vita Dr Franz Ehrnsperger, Chairman of the Qualitätsgemeinschaft Bio-Mineralwasser e.V. and Senior Manager of Neumarkter Lammsbräu
Born in Neumarkt, Germany, in 1946.
Education: Graduate master brewer with a degree in business administration.
In 1971 he became the 6th generation to take over the management of the family company, Neumarkter Lammsbräu.
Since as far back as 1977 he has defined environmental protection as a corporate goal, and is pursuing this objective systematically and with passion, converting the brewery completely to a sustainable business concept and 100 % organic production.
Since 1995 Neumarkter Lammsbräu has produced only organic beverages, including BioKristall, the first certified organic mineral water.
Dr Ehrnsperger founded a producers’ association for organic brewing ingredients that today includes more than 160 organic farmers.
He is the President of the Qualitätsgemeinschaft Bio-Mineralwasser e.V. (Quality Association for Organic Mineral Water) and has received multiple awards for his outstanding commitment, including “Eco-manager of the year” and the German Environmental Award.
In 2018 his son Johannes succeeded him as the 7th generation of the family to manage Neumarkter Lammsbräu.