Future Perfect (B)old Farmer

Josef Sichler has switched his farm to organic. And become an activist: He convinced his dairy distributor to accept milk only from farmers who rear their livestock GMO-free.

Josef Sichler is no fan of experimentation. His farm in Grassau, Bavaria, dates back to 1114 and has been owned by his family for almost 600 years, as documented by a stone plate on the large farmhouse with the flower-laden balconies. He would never gamble away his family heritage. Sichler is a man who wants to be able to anticipate the consequences and understand exactly what he is trying to remedy before he acts. Once he has a clear vision, he can be extremely tenacious.

Sichler convinced the executive board of the dairy company Berchtesgadener Land, which markets his dairy products, to accept milk only from farmers who use GMO-free fodder. For four years, the farmer badgered the executive officer of the company at every board meeting, pleading his case. Initially, the CEO ridiculed the suggestion: he called it completely infeasible. Operating conventionally, farmers would incur an average of 10,000 euros in extra costs annually if they were to forgo imported soy fodder. Yet Sichler would not be stopped. At the end, success proved him right. Since the beginning of 2010, the corporation is Germany’s first large dairy company to certify that all its 1,750 suppliers are guaranteed GMO-free.

A young farmer, rational, suspicious

So is Sichler’s farm, of course. Today, the organic farmer has about 45 dairy cows and 50 calves. He went organic not too long ago; he has been a farmer almost all his life. He had to take over the family farm, the Großrachlhof, at the age of 17 because his father was no longer able to run it. This was no easy task: the region is sparse, the horse breeding done for generations before him was no longer profitable, and he had to feed not only his parents and siblings but other family members as well. Yet Sichler worked hard and graduated from agricultural college at the top of his class. He revamped his farm the way he had learned in class: trending toward more and more technology, artificial fertilizers, and pesticides. “I optimized everything from a commercial perspective. Numbers were all that mattered. That’s all they taught us to do,” the 56-year-old reports today.

“I did not really start looking for alternatives until health problems arose.” Sichler was around 30 when this happened. He began to suffer from asthma and was diagnosed with a cattle hair allergy. Yet his doctor could not help him. His odyssey from one expert to the next brought no relief. Some of them did advise him to switch to organic farming standards. “But I am a rational man, and that was considered charlatanism. The information I got from organic farmers seemed too vague to me.”

Yet the conventional wisdom he had learned in vocational training began to seem increasingly suspicious to him as well. Sichler slowly began to realize that in the long run, the standard approach simply could not work. Conventional farming drains the soil, poisons the water, and causes illnesses. In the early 1990s, the ban of the pesticide Atrazine came as an epiphany to the doubt-ridden farmer. Until then, politics and producers had appeased environmentalists who decried the pesticide’s harmful effect on groundwater. When the government banned the substance based on its toxicity, Sichler suddenly realized that he and all the others had been lied to over a long period of time.

Answers, Conversion, Courage

He did not yet dare to convert his own operation to organic farming, however. After all, he and his wife Sabine had to feed a growing family, and he wanted to provide a good education to his four daughters and one son. But at some point—another epiphany—Sichler met agricultural consultant Christoph Fischer from nearby Söchtenau, who supports sustainable farmers in the region. In Fischer, he finally found someone with concrete answers to his concrete questions, someone who gave him the confidence that his farm would feed the whole family even after going organic. Since 2009, the Großrachlhof has been purely organic. “I am very glad and so is my family.” Sichler’s asthma and allergies are completely gone; health problems that had been plaguing his son also disappeared.

Since then, Sichler has attended many of Fischer’s regular gatherings. It was at one of these meetings, in 2006, that the idea was born to create a working group called “Zivil Courage,” moral courage in English, which radically rejects any use of genetic engineering in agriculture. Anyone can join these meetings, whether they are conventional or organic farmers, citizens or officials. Fischer’s home district of Traunstein is now spattered with green signs that read “GMO-Free District.” Another 118 German regions have followed in declaring their rejection of GMOs as well. This movement is not so much about stopping the cultivation of GMOs, which is illegal in Germany anyway (with the exception of laboratory experiments). Instead, the focus is on the import of fodder.

Modification and Alarm

Today, protein-rich soy, in particular, is fed almost everywhere in industrial livestock farming. The U.S. corporation Monsanto used genetic engineering to develop a type of soy whose only advantage is its resistance to a certain herbicide that is also a Monsanto product. Poison and poison-resistant plants are exported together, keeping the local farmers’ soy fields free from bothersome wild herbs. But the genetically modified seed is dangerous. For one thing, it uncontrollably proliferates onto other fields. And Monsanto charges license fees even to farmers whose fields are invaded by Monsanto plants inadvertently. In addition, the resistant soy plants absorb the substance glyphosate contained in the herbicide. Via the imported fodder, glyphosate also ends up in the bellies of European cows, chickens, and pigs and eventually on European plates and in the milk.

We are told everywhere that this is all completely harmless; after all, Monsanto is not the only producer whose products contain glyphosate; German corporations such as BASF or Bayer do the same, and their products are used in Germany to clear fields from weeds before seeding. But Sichler no longer gives any credence to statements from politicians or businesses; he learned from their flip-flop on Atrazine. In the summer of 2013, at the Chiemgau Alp Farmers Conference, Sichler managed to get Bavarian Minister President Horst Seehofer and then-Federal Minister for Agriculture Ilse Aigner to take a tour of his alpine pasture. Once he had them up there, he got started: “They did not like to hear what I said there about the dangers of genetic engineering and how politicians handle it,” Sichler reports and laughs, satisfied.

Sichler also educates the tourists who come to see the cows being milked, telling them about organic farming as well as the dangers of genetic engineering. As a convinced activist, moreover, he attends panels on genetic engineering organized by students at their universities. Whenever he gets the chance, Sichler sounds the alarm, points out dangers, and triggers debates—he is not someone who passively waits for the catastrophe to occur.