Sustainability city

In Berlin, sustainability is a lifestyle, a community and an increasingly profitable business. Learn more about how Berlin's urban gardeners are changing the way we think about food, then check out the opening of ECF Farmsystems on Friday, March 6!

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ECF Farmsystems. Photo by Erica Löfman

Welcome to Berlin, 2015, where we eat organically, grow locally and get our hands dirty.

When it comes to food, Berlin is embracing the same zeitgeist as every big city in the Western world: local, sustainable, organic. Here, however, ‘sustainability’ is more than a catchphrase: it’s a lifestyle, a community and an increasingly profitable business. As German environmentalism and global trends converge toward local, organic solutions, we’ve never been more conscious about what’s on our plate.

“Berlin’s relationship with food has developed quite well,” says Dr. Annette Piorr. “It has to do with the history of Berlin, the city at the centre surrounded by a large agricultural area. Organic farming developed here after the Wall fell.” The senior researcher from the Leibniz-Zentrum (Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research) is currently working on the EU-funded study FOODMETRES, meant to investigate innovative solutions for “Sustainable Metropolitan Regions”.

According to her, “The consumer in Berlin has a lot of power, and this can change a lot of steps in the whole food chain.” What we now call organic farming was pioneered by the German founder of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, who began developing biodynamic agriculture in the 1920s. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Germany has the largest market for organic food in Europe today (and the second largest in the world after the USA), with one in five people buying organic products at least once a week. In spite of Berlin’s notorious poverty, our consumption is on par with the national average – about 600,000, or 17 percent of Berliners, regularly buy organic. All across town, we see bio everywhere we look, from burgers to currywurst to beer. Organic aisles at local supermarkets are ever-expanding, and organic chains and farmer’s markets have taken over the city. Now even the shabbiest corner grocery stores seem to offer bio milk and local honey.

While most Germans continue to consume huge amounts of ultra-cheap, factory-farmed meat purchased from discount supermarkets, we Berliners are champions of veganism – the most sustainable diet. Veganz, Europe’s first vegan supermarket chain, opened its first store in Berlin. Now it’s got two locations here and a third on its way, with plans to open 60 stores in Europe and North America. A vegan Christmas market, a vegan street fair and vegan trade fair have all sprouted out of the concrete in recent months.

Even our leftovers become part of the sustainable food chain thanks to organised initiatives like Foodsharing. Its 3000-strong team of volunteers claim and redistribute excess food from chains like the Berlin-founded Bio Company and even their own fridges.

Politically, we take to the streets to demand change in agricultural, environmental and food policy. On January 17, 90 tractors driven by farmers from across Germany drove through Berlin in the fifth “Wir haben es satt!” (“We’re fed up!”) demo. The march, organised by a vast Berlin-based network of non-profits, saw an estimated 50,000 people speak out against industrialised agriculture, factory farming, genetic engineering and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the 2015 trade agreement that threatens to undermine EU bans on GM food and other dubious methods employed by American agribusiness. Attendance was up 20,000 from last year. It is no coincidence that Berlin has been a massive stronghold of Green Party support for decades.

And we’re eating ever more food grown closer to home. A random survey of vendors at the organic market on Kollwitzplatz one Thursday found all three doing trade with nearby regional producers. Tofumanufaktur Soyrebels sources soybeans from Lower Saxony and uses local, seasonal ingredients. “A lot of people want to know where their ingredients come from,” says Soyrebels’ Letitia Kötter. Poultry farmer Andreas Rebotzke’s chickens are fed 50 percent on his own fruit and veg in accordance with Bioland certification laws, the rest bought from suppliers as close as possible.

Many local producers – including those who supply beef, chicken, cheese and produce to of-the-moment locally and seasonally inclined restaurants Berlin-wide – come from our primary hinterland Brandenburg. The region has the highest share of land under organic production nationwide but is nonetheless straining to feed carbon-footprint-conscious Berliners. Says Prinzessinnengarten co-founder Marco Clausen, “There’s a huge demand for seasonal, organic food, but Brandenburg can hardly keep up with it! So we have to support the small-scale producers more.” He recommends community-supported agriculture projects like SpeiseGut in Brandenburg. Another solution: urban gardening.

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Gardens grow back

There’s a huge demand for seasonal, organic food, but Brandenburg can hardly keep up with it! So we have to support the small-scale producers more.

In 2002, Berlin had no community gardens to speak of, but by 2013, with over 100 (nearly all of which now have waiting lists), we had arguably become the world capital of urban gardening. Allotment gardens – small plots leased to individuals or groups – are also making a comeback. Teacher and writer Susanne Thiel shares an organically gardened plot with six friends, all in their thirties, in the Baumgarteninsel community in Köpenick. “For me it was nostalgic because my family always had a Schrebergarten. I just love being outside in nature,” she says. Coming into her fifth season, she’s starting to feel a part of the island community. “There’s this younger generation interested in old-fashioned, traditional skills. That said, on the island we have quite a mixed membership, from young people like us to people who are the third generation there.”

Dr. Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen of civil network Allmende-Kontor (which runs the diverse community garden on Tempelhofer Feld) suggests Berlin’s sluggish economy is partly responsible for the dirt under our nails. “Just one-third here have full-time employment. With community gardens and urban agriculture, the people have something meaningful to do, and sometimes, it helps them survive.”

This combined with the current ‘back-to-the land’ zeitgeist might explain the surge in new urban farming projects in the past five years. Take Max von Grafenstein’s crop circles – not an alien conspiracy, but Bioland-certified circular vegetable gardens in and around Berlin. “A field is too big,” the organic agriculture graduate says. “The circles reduce the scale and make it more human.” Inspired by his own childhood on his father’s organic farm, Von Grafenstein started Bauerngarten in 2010. He developed the first two sites in Havelmathen to the west and Mette to the south; Bauerngarten now boasts four employees, 500 plots on three sites since adding land in Pankow through an agreement with the city-owned Grün Berlin in 2012, and a community of at least 1000 gardeners. In exchange for a fee of €230-390 per plot per year, farmers mulch and maintain the soil, do the watering and the first sowing of the year, and supply all the organic seeds and seedlings for subsequent plantings throughout the growing season. Von Grafenstein’s team also holds an annual summer fiesta and runs 10 workshops per season. “With us, people take responsibility for their crops, not just with money but with investments of time, knowledge and love. We have students, young families, several nationalities, from professional gardeners to people who had never seen a carrot come from the ground.”

Von Grafenstein says right now their sites are limited to five-year leases. “It would be preferable to buy the land, but that’s not always easy. It’s subject to speculation and usage designation changes for things like housing, as well as considering the pre-existing relationships with established farmers… but if someone came and said, ‘Would you like to buy some land?’ I’d do it!”

Looking for support

On a smaller scale is the community garden Himmelbeet near Leopoldplatz in Wedding: 300 plots shared equally between the organisation and private individuals. The raised beds are contained by pallets and adobe, the contents identified with little signs like ‘edible flowers’, ‘perennial herbs’, ‘medicinal plants’, and serviced by the garden’s own bees – with one of the four hives surprisingly active even in mid-January. The project has had help from Wedding’s district council, which “was always involved and liked the project,” says Felix Lodes, a member of the Himmelbeet staff who studied horticulture.

Like most community gardens, they sell their produce and run public education programmes, sharing knowledge about things like woodworking, cooking, plants and organics. But they struggle with financing and the length of their lease. “We need €20,000 for water and electricity for our kitchen,” says volunteer Alice Hillebrand, “But we can only stay here till the end of 2017.” Lodes continues, “The question is, if we don’t know how long we can stay, can we make infrastructure investments? It’s quite hard to get money from a broke city.”

While gardens juggle short-term leases, Berlin’s city government earns bags of filthy lucre from selling off public land and writes press releases that bask in the reflected glory of citizen initiatives. The Senat’s Agenda 21 sustainability programme (“Preparing Berlin for a Sustainable Future”), signed onto in 1994, was not formalised until 2006; its most telling aspect is that it is non-binding. Its “City of Green Trends” web page touts the good news of organic markets and supermarkets, community gardens and the “desire to preserve and expand green oases” as if it were something to do with their own good work. Tell that to those whose allotment gardens in Treptow were destroyed to make way for the A100 autobahn extension, or those who in 2012-13 had to run an extensive ‘Let it grow!’ crowdfunding and petition campaign to win a five-year reprieve for Kreuzberg’s beloved Prinzessinnengarten.

“Up till now, they were blocking us,” Meyer- Renschhausen says. “Though it’s not as bad as it was in the past. The question is how to work and who to work with, which is different from Bezirk to Bezirk… it depends on how informed people are, and it can take time for people to understand what is possible.”

Sustainability as a business model

Meanwhile, more and more for-profit Berlin businesses are seeing the value of ecological, economic and social sustainability, whether taking small-scale initiative or coming up with bigger, more ambitious solutions.

In Rixdorf, Café Botanico’s Martin Höfft combines his career as a manager with his desire to work with the earth. Since 2012, the café he co-owns with Stefano Emili and Massimo Natoli has been putting salad on the table direct from a 1000sqm organic-certified permaculture (self-sustaining) garden in the backyard. “I want to show people that I’m a manager with a lot of responsibility, but I’m able to run a garden to supply a restaurant. That’s only because of permaculture – it’s low-maintenance.”

A geographer who has a minor in sociology and botany, Höfft specialises in wild herbs. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to taste them. I’m growing more than 200 edible species.” Another hat he wears is tour guide: there’s a free tour every Sunday as an introduction to permaculture. “Come and eat with us, and if you’re interested I can tell you more about it.”

Further north on Glogauer Straße in Kreuzberg, Infarm, founded by Osnat Michaeli and brothers Erez and Guy Galonska, grows all kinds of edible plants using hydroponics. Or rather, they focus on developing systems to grow them. Requiring no soil, their stack systems save 90 percent on water compared to field-based growing.

It started when the brothers set up a vertical hydroponic garden two winters ago in their Berlin apartment. “There was snow on the ground outside, and inside we had a jungle,” says Erez Galonska. Their current lab is tiny, containing tiered stacks of a variety of herbs, sprouts and microgreens in a humid, LED-bright atmosphere. “Our teacher basically is nature,” says Galonska. They are selling their scaleable system to trendy local businesses like the Bikini Berlin complex and Katz Orange restaurant, and midyear they will start selling a counter-sized home microfarm requiring plant containers, water and energy supply, lights and a pump – perhaps the leastsustainable component of the setup. They also offer a low-tech starter micro-kit, a transparent, fold-out origami star made of polypropylene with agar-agar as a growing medium for organic seeds. “We’re all busy people, we wanted to do something super easy. You don’t even have to water!”

Going a step further, Berlin’s most ambitious sustainability project aims to raise awareness about food production while running a business with a well-shrunk CO2 footprint – and some serious moolah. Nicolas Leschke of ECF Farmsystems studied international business and management. In affiliation with the EU’s Climate-KIC network, which supports clean tech start-ups, he and partner Christian Echternacht were able to attract €1.6 million of financing from Germany’s traditionally tight-fisted, conservative equity environment. “I worked on our business model for six months. Stumbling across aquaponics, I realised there was a lot of potential,” says Leschke. It is a high-tech, slick operation, but the two are laid-back and chatty. While recounting their slightly mad adventure to Silicon Valley in December 2013, where they won the top prize in the Cleantech Open as Best International Start-up, they haul their two ‘Oscars’ out unceremoniously from a bottom shelf.

In a nutshell, their 1800sqm indoor aquaponic farm complex gathers rainwater, in which organically raised fish swim. Organic feed cycles through the fishes’ digestive systems and the solids are filtered out and recycled. The ammonium-rich water is then converted into a nitrate-rich medium that flows into the drip-irrigation system in the greenhouse, fertilising the vertically-growing plants, all from German-sourced organic seeds and seedlings.

On a January visit, conditions in the lot adjacent to Malzfabrik, not far from the Tempelhof IKEA, were slightly muddy underfoot, as the farm was still in the final stages of construction and installation of high-tech equipment. This month, the first of their pink pike will be swimming in 13 gleaming steel tanks. Fed by four huge water-storage containers, the temperature-controlled tanks will be monitored for cortisol levels, ensuring that fish density is correct to avoid under- or over-population. In short: “They’ll be happy fish.” Most of the rest of the complex will be glass-walled, comprising a shop, offices, control technology and the greenhouses. By opening day on March 6, the glasshouses will be flourishing with 4m stacks of vertical greens. The shop will start selling organic, hydroponically grown herbs and vegetables that day, with fresh organic fish available from the end of summer. The site also functions as a demonstration model for local and international interests thinking about going aquaponic themselves, and Leschke and Echternacht say ECF will be open to the public on certain days to educate Berliners about the cycle, the water, the feed, the fish and carbon footprints.

“There’s a lot of hype about urban gardening and farming – it’s a fancy name, a trend. Actually, our grandparents did it!” says Leschke. “We don’t do it because of the hype. What we’re doing is a good step in the right direction for sustainability.”

This article was originally published in issue #135, February 2015