Rewe, Edeka, Aldi and Lidl supply almost 90% of the German population with its groceries. Devastatingly, the cheap transport costs, competitive pricing and a culture of convenience have seen supermarkets steamroller traditional market culture. As a direct consequence, 30% of Berlin’s independent butchers and bakeries have been forced to close over the last 10 years. However, market traders continue to play a fundamental role in the supply chain. Berlin’s market traders buy up any “faulty” goods rejected by large supermarkets to save them from landfill and sell them at one of the city’s 100 weekly food markets. But still, market culture in Berlin is suffering, recent decades have seen a decline in the number of traders and convenience has triumphed. But with the interest in regional and organic produce on the rise, is there a glimmer of hope for the future of market culture?
Out of Berlin’s 100 markets, 12 are planned, organised, structured and carried out by Die Marktplaner. aware_ dropped by its headquarters to sit down with CEO Nikolaus Fink to find out why, after 35 years in the job, he’s still optimistic for the future of market culture, the impact of food transport on the planet and what regional produce really means.
aware_: As a company what is your mission? What is your position on environmental issues within market culture?
Fink: Our mission as a company is to protect market culture and the market traders. In an organic supermarket you can buy a carrot from Israel, but our markets strive to promote local produce, with a decreased environmental impact.
In terms of the environment, we prioritise authenticity. When we say something is regional or organic, we stand behind that claim 100%. As a company we lay great emphasis on trust. The larger a farm is, the more difficult it is to market regional products regionally, as mass production and regionality are not compatible. The more you produce the further you have to export. 30% of the pork produced in Germany is exported. That’s absurd.
aware_: How is the supply of regional producers for the city of Berlin?
Fink: Unfortunately, we have a shortage of regional producers in Berlin and Brandenburg as we are still seeing the effects of a country once divided. The relationship that has been cultivated over generations between West German cities and their surrounding countryside just doesn’t exist in East Germany in the same way. The GDR encouraged large scale operations which weren’t compatible with regional production. There are a number of young people who want start growing regional produce for Berlin but it’s missing the fundamental infrastructure, which takes generations to build. The main issue is that the number of direct market traders continues to decline. This is partly due to the land surrounding Berlin becoming increasingly expensive. Foreign investors are buying land and therefore the price continues to rise. We need governmental support in order to regulate this and so the land is affordable to growers.
There are people who have energy to do this, have the qualifications in agriculture, but to begin a farm you need capital, which is challenging when the price of land is also expensive. Let’s hope the minister for agriculture in Brandenburg can make a difference.
In order to encourage the sale of regional produce, in each of our 12 markets we include as many as possible. For example, the market at Maybachufer – which currently holds approximately 170 stands – has traders selling regionally sourced wild boar, organic eggs and organic bread. These independent, small market traders don’t sell their produce to the supermarkets as that would result in a financial loss, it’s more fruitful for them to sell directly at markets but then the audience and location has to be right. You can’t sell an egg for 70 cents anywhere. That placement strategy is a big part of our job.
If we hear on the grape vine of a regional producer then we get in touch immediately. We also get applications, if there is a direct producer in the list we screen the farm immediately to see if there’s a way to include them in the market.
aware_: What does regional produce really mean and how do you control this as a company?
Fink: Up to approximately 100km away, sometimes up to 150km. For Berlin that could meet produce coming from west Poland, we really value our Polish suppliers. The question is how we determine what is regional, if the bread is made in Berlin of course it’s regional bread, but if the flour is sourced in Hungary, is it still regional? In my opinion, if you can source these ingredients inside Brandenburg and choose not to, then it’s no longer regional. Unfortunately, there are many products that can no longer be found in Germany, as a consequence of globalisation.
aware_: Has the appreciation of both regional produce and market culture changed in recent years, both from the customers’ and the sellers’ point of view?
Fink: Yes, definitely, but there is a difference between awareness and action. If you do a poll, roughly 80% of people are prepared to spend more money for higher quality groceries but when they get to the counter in the supermarket the cheaper prices prove harder to resist. If awareness would really be turned in action then Aldi and Lidl would no longer be providing 50% of the population with its food – which is the case now.
aware_: Is organic always better?
Fink: Logically, yes but when it’s organic food that is not seasonal, and not regional, it should be viewed very critically. As market planners, it’s actually very difficult to regulate. A market stand can say that everything is regional or organic, but a trader can place just one box of apples from anywhere. All of the traders have to show us their organic certification.
aware_: Are you worried about the future of the market culture in Berlin given the increasing power of the big supermarkets, particularly in light of the pandemic?
Fink: Edeka and Rewe are the real profiters from the pandemic. It was difficult as the rule came in that only food could be sold at the markets, whilst supermarkets were permitted to sell everything. I know someone who works at Netto, they reported that the have never made as much money as during the first few weeks of lockdown. But since May 2021, when the rules were lifted, many of the traders saw increased earnings. For the market traders who work transparently, stay true to our code of ethics, have great produce which is fully traceable, they are making more money than ever before. The restaurants were closed, and people began to learn how to cook. We want to launch mobile cooking stations at the markets to show people how to cook, if the generation of tomorrow learn how to cook from fresh, not supermarket meals. We need to increase demand.
The most impactful way to increase the amount of local produce is to raise the price of transporting food from abroad, to incentivise people to think locally. Of course I don’t want to close the boarders, just in terms of this industry, and its environmental impact, we have to start thinking more locally. The young people have energy to make a change and get into the countryside, they need support, there I have some hope. There are grants, financial support that exists, but we need to the politicians to become more involved and support the movement. I can recommend FÖL – Association for the Promotion of Organic Agriculture Berlin Brandenburg – to learn more about the importance of regional produce.
– By Eliza Edwards