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“Raising public awareness of biodiversity – that’s my main job.”

Prof. Dr. Katrin Böhning-Gaese. Photo: Peter Kiefer

Prof. Karin Böhning-Gaese is a professor at Goethe University Frankfurt. In 2010 she became Director of the city’s Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and has now been appointed to the German Council for Sustainable Development. The 15-member council advises the German government, contributes to the ongoing development of the Sustainability Strategy, publishes positions on individual topics, and is expected to encourage both public awareness of sustainability and the social debate on the subject.

UniReport: Prof. Böhning-Gaese, congratulations on your appointment. What expectations do you have, and what can you as a scientist achieve on the Council for Sustainable Development?

Karin Böhning-Gaese: Unlike many other advisory bodies, the Council for Sustainable Development has a transdisciplinary membership. So it is not a purely scientific advisory body, like the working groups at the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina for example, in which I am active and some of which I lead. The Council also comprises people from totally different areas of public life, such as the president of Germanys Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union NABU, the president of the German Agricultural Society and one of the executive directors of BASF, as well as from towns and cities, such as the mayor of Bonn. Three researchers contribute scientific findings and evidence to the Council’s work. However, its main focus is on implementation, by which I mean that the essential aspects should be disseminated among the general population. It’s not enough for us scientists just to hold meetings amongst ourselves. We also need experts who know how a city, a company or an association functions.

When interests differ, it might be a challenge for the Council to speak with one voice.

Definitely. I have already had dealings with the Council for Sustainable Development in the past. As a member of the Leopoldina, I helped elaborate a position working with Council members who were “mirrored” by an equal number of Leopoldina members. I found the culture of discussion very exciting. We have very different perspectives, positions, types of expertise and experiences. But this is precisely what the Council’s job is: to create a social consensus. To develop ideas for agriculture that on the one hand enable protection of the natural world, but on the other also take account of the framework conditions under which modern agriculture functions and which farms can implement. I hope this will help the positions elaborated by the Council to be better implemented in actual practice, and ensure that they reflect multiple perspectives. Germany has a very large number of advisory bodies. The special feature of the Council for Sustainable Development is that it takes a transdisciplinary view, precisely because it includes completely different social players.

The topic of sustainability has attracted more attention, perhaps partly due to the energy crisis. In your view, what are the sticking points? As a scientist, what to you is the most urgent problem?

The Council for Sustainable Development is committed to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Two of them are “Life on Land” and “Life below Water”. Of course this also comprises the entire field of biodiversity research, which I represent. It is my impression that until now these two goals have been somewhat neglected among the sustainability topics, particularly in comparison with the climate. I would therefore like the topic of biodiversity to be more visible in the political debate, since it is at least as important as the climate crisis. In future, when we speak of the major environmental crises, we should speak of a two-fold crisis: climate change AND the loss of biodiversity. Some climate protection measures implemented in good faith, to the best of people’s knowledge, have had absolutely disastrous consequences for biodiversity.

I can give you a specific example: expanding the use of bioenergy crops was well intentioned – people thought this would enable us to reduce fossil fuel consumption. But now a considerable proportion of our agricultural land is being used to grow rapeseed and maize to produce bioenergy. Amazing quantities of cereals end up in fuel tanks instead of on dining tables. This is fatal given the food security situation. What’s more, these fields are treated with fertilisers and pesticides. The EU has managed to stipulate that 4 percent of agricultural land should be earmarked for protecting biodiversity. But in view of the Ukraine crisis and food insecurity, the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture has pushed that back by a year.

The discussion often focuses on whether other structures have to be created or whether the individual (citizen) has to become more active in supporting sustainability topics. Is this a genuine debate or not?

We have to consider both aspects together! At the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), the German activities were summarized under the heading of requiring a “whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach”. Biodiversity is not just a topic for the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection – it is also one for the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action as well as the Ministry of Finance. We cannot hand out agricultural subsidies from Brussels in such a way that they do not benefit sustainable agriculture. It’s important to identify investments that harm the natural environment. With a target of 30 percent, organic farming is definitely important, as enshrined in the German government’s coalition agreement. But we must also be aware that the yields from organic farming are about 25 percent lower – there are a great many scientific studies on this subject.

We already have an environmental footprint in the Global South that is larger than here in Germany. If we want to avoid making it bigger, we’ll have to change our consumption and our eating habits. This means that every individual has to take action! We have to stop wasting food as we’ve been doing. Here in Germany most of that wastage takes place between the shop and the dinner plate; but of course wholesalers and restaurants also have to pay more attention to this point. We’ll have to eat less meat, for health reasons and to support biodiversity. You could also say we should go back to having just a Sunday roast! Doing so would easily enable us to compensate for the lower yields from organic farming, because it would free up agricultural land. To produce one kilogram of beef I need 160 times as much farmland as I do for one kilogram of potatoes. We could actually achieve a great deal simply by halving our meat consumption.

The universities, as large institutions with numerous staff and students, also have a responsibility here. What do you think is important for them?

The scope of action has to be enlarged. The universities are already looking at separating waste, avoiding plastic, saving energy, operating energy-efficient buildings and much more. However, people are often unaware that the whole agriculture and food system must also be realigned. Refectories and cafeterias, which are generally run by the Studierendenwerk (student services), could offer far more organic dishes, more vegetarian options, fewer meat dishes. Even chicken is better than beef. It’s also important to buy from regional sources. The energy crisis and the high rate of inflation have caused demand in the organic supermarkets to collapse. University facilities should therefore do more in this market segment. This winter, for example, they could use more leeks, potatoes, cabbage, beetroot, parsnips, celery and carrots that are grown in the region.

Questions: Dirk Frank

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