The common view of a European farmer: EC negotiators gave up too much

November 26, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

HOHENLIETH, GERMANY -- The placid Hans-Georg Lembke seed farm, growing green with winter crops under gray, rain-smeared North German skies, hardly looks like a place where trade wars start.

But Lembke breeds and grows the oilseeds that were at the heart of the fight between the United States and the European Community and involving the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Dietrich Brauer, the managing director and major shareholder in Lembke seeds, says the whole discussion is "stupid."

U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills, Mr. Brauer said, did not have to get so upset. Because of the European Community's agricultural policy, he said, oilseed production in 1993 will fall below what the United States wants, no matter what happens to GATT.

To many European farmers, Carla Hills is the dragon lady of GATT negotiations. She forcefully set forth American demands that European oilseed production be cut back. And she explained how Europeans might get spanked with 200 percent import tariffs if they didn't pay attention.

Farmers everywhere -- French, American, German -- think their negotiators gave up too much in reaching last week's accord.

"The farmers here -- oh, they are angry," Mr. Brauer said.

German farmers did not understand why there should have been any discussion at all. "Because it is well-known that the whole production worldwide will be used," he said.

Ten years ago, farmers around the world produced 180 million tons of oilseeds. Now they produce 220 million tons. "Everybody knows this production is needed," Mr. Brauer said. "We need this quantity."

Oilseeds are milled into the vegetable oils that you put in your salad and that manufacturers make into margarine. The protein-rich meal left over makes excellent livestock feed.

Americans grow mostly soybeans and sunflowers for their oilseed. In Europe, more and more farmers plant rape, a crop that paints the landscape with yellow blossoms in spring. Rapeseed oil turns up on U.S. supermarket shelves as Canola oil.

Mr. Brauer's firm, Norddeutsche Pflanzenzucht -- NPZ, or North German Plant Breeders -- has a worldwide reputation for the development of rape oilseed.

Mr. Brauer praises rapeseed with ardent enthusiasm. He's spent his life growing and breeding rape. The handsomely restored 250-year-old brick buildings of his breeding station house sophisticated, computerized biogenetic labs dedicated to improving the breed.

He confesses a certain astonishment himself: "I started farming 30 years ago with two horses." He has the solid stance and foursquare character of a man who has spent his time behind a plow.

The Lembke family had been farmers since 1627 on the isle of Poel, off what formerly was East Germany. Hans Lembke, a plant breeder and university professor widely honored in both Germanies and throughout the world, began rapeseed experiments in 1897, when he was 12.

When the Communists expropriated his farm in 1946, he stayed on in East Germany, out of loyalty to the land his family had worked for 10 generations.

But his son, Hans-Georg, came West and established the NPZ breeding station here in Hohenlieth. His daughter, Barbara, is married to Dietrich Brauer, who has worked at NPZ 30 years. Hans-Georg Lembke died in 1965, his father six months later.

In January, Mr. Brauer was able to reunite the East and West branches of the family breeding institutions. NPZ turnover is now $25 million to $30 million a year.

NPZ's rapeseed solutions have become, in a sense, part of the GATT oilseed problem.

Mr. Brauer said his breeding station always has sought to produce quality seeds, low in undesirable acids, high in healthful low-cholesterol oils. But they have also improved yields.

According to NPZ calculations, rapeseed produces about five times as much oil as do soybeans, "the enemy" as one NPZ rapeseed loyalist put it.

Rapeseed has an acid that once made it taste far too mustardy to feed to pigs or poultry. NPZ helped develop strains that make excellent livestock feed.

Rapeseed was once a marginal crop in Europe, grown on about 500,000 hectares. (A hectare is a European measure that equals 2.471 acres.) Next year, under EC agricultural agreements, rape will be grown on 1.8 million hectares, nearly half in Germany.

Total oilseed production in Europe is expected to be about 11.5 million tons in this crop year. French farmers produce large amounts of sunflower seeds and rape seeds, and Italians produce soybeans.

All of which makes American farmers unhappy. They assert that huge government subsidies support European oilseed farmers. The EC countries paid farmers $485 billion in subsidies last year. About 12 percent went to oilseed producers.

American farmers and GATT negotiators wanted caps set on the volume of oilseeds Europeans can produce, something closer to 8.5 million tons, compared with the 9.6 million the EC projects for next year. Mr. Brauer said output will actually be lower because the EC subsidy system rewards poorer farmers who produce smaller crops.

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