Luxembourg’s agriculture is currently in a state of upheaval. Many farmers are ready to move away from conventional agriculture and existing trade chains and embrace local direct marketing that appeals directly to customers. Sustainable production is also an alternative that is appealing to more and more farmers in Luxembourg, and is meeting with a clientele that is willing to go down this path with them. However, the road ahead is long, as Charel Noesen, an organic farmer from Cruchten in the centre of Luxembourg, points out, because rethinking takes time. And because the pioneers are setting themselves ever more ambitious goals in their quest for quality and sustainable production.
The limits of conventional agriculture
'The 'Trifolie' farm in Cruchten, a village of 600 people in the centre of Luxembourg, has been around for centuries and has been in the hands of one family for at least 150 years,' says Charel Noesen, not without a certain pride in his voice. The farmer by conviction runs the farm together with his brothers Pol and Willy,hence the name of the farm. All three have committed themselves to organic farming, a decision in which Charel Noesen played a considerable part. So why the change?
'I studied environmental engineering,' says Charel Noesen. 'During my studies, I also became more interested in everything related to water. My studies always made me aware of the limits of conventional agriculture.' He does not accept objections that organic production could not produce enough to feed people: 'We have to rethink nutrition. Already today, two-thirds of the world’s land used for agriculture produces fodder for animal farming. Animal products, however, only make up about one third of the diet.' His horror scenario would be if the rest of the world were to consume the same quantities as Europeans do.
'From a scientific point of view, there is no way around organic,' Noesen continues. 'Politically, it is desirable for food to be cheap, but if you take into account the impact on biodiversity, water and soil pollution so-called true cost accounting then conventionally produced food is more expensive than organically produced food.'
Ambitious goals in Luxembourg
And what about awareness? Charel Noesen is optimistic: 'Organic awareness is well established throughout Europe. The EU is clearly taking a pioneering role here , others don’t get it right.' For Noesen, the EU label and the controls associated with it are the main reason why customers continue to trust it, despite many attempts at greenwashing, i.e. companies trying to give themselves an environmentally friendly image without sufficient basis.
True cost accounting is a method of price calculation that not only takes into account the price of raw materials, production and marketing, but also considers the impact on the natural and social environment. Accordingly, many products from conventional agriculture are actually more expensive than organically produced products if one takes into account the damage caused by their production.
But in Luxembourg they are pursuing more ambitious goals: 'The Bio Lëtzebuerg label stands for rules that are even stricter than those that already apply in the EU. One example is livestock farming. The EU label stipulates that animals must have access to the outdoors – but the Bio Lëtzebuerg label says that animals must have access to pasture.'
The label is one of many initiatives by Luxembourg’s farmers. For example, many farms have expanded direct marketing. Direct marketing is a mainstay with potential for farmers,” says Noesen. People get a direct insight into production, and the bottom line is that it’s more for the producers. Many farmers in Luxembourg are also dipping into organic farming, but there is still resistance because of the popular belief that organic cannot feed people. Products from conventional production can also be traded on a world market, which is not always possible with organic. Luxembourg milk, for example, is sold to China, but organic products have their market locally. And these local processing and marketing channels have yet to be established.'
Expansion of assistance, counselling and controls
But is it worth it for the farmers? Because organic farming cannot produce the same quantities as conventional farming. 'Organic farming always involves more effort,' states Charel Noesen confidently. 'However, we need a rethink of production - more and more and cheaper is not the answer.' 'The shift towards more organic farming is very slow,' he explains. 'Many farmers are getting advice, for example from Luxembourg’s Institute of Organic Agriculture and Agronomy (IBLA). And colleagues naturally see that we have a little less yield but don’t apply sprays and fertilisers from a bag, so that makes them curious.'
Does the effort pay off? ' Of course, this also means considerably more effort for the farmers, but Luxembourger farmer are going along with it,' Noesen says optimistically.
'A lot of things are still designed for conventional agriculture today,' he regrets. 'But some things are starting to happen at the moment. For example, aid for organic farming is being increased and extension and monitoring are being expanded.'
Despite much opposition, Luxembourg has committed itself to the goal that 20% of its agricultural products should come from organic production by 2025. Charel Noesen considers this an ambitious goal.
In 2017, Charel, Pol and Willy Noesen took over their parents’ farm together. The three brothers have dedicated themselves to different areas, with the aim of running a sustainable and transparent farm in harmony with nature and with respect for animals and the soil. Charel is currently pushing ahead with laying hen farming, while Willy is dedicated to vegetable growing and Pol to dairy farming. The farm is a member of the Luxembourg Association of Organic Agriculture.