Natural Resources, 2010, 1, 57-68
doi:10.4236/nr.2010.12006 Published Online December 2010 (
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. NR
From Thaer and Thünen until Today: Past and
Future of Agricultural Landscape Use in Germany
Harald Kaechele1, Sunil Nautiyal2
1Leibniz-Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF), Institute of Socioeconomics, Eberswalder, Muencheberg, Germany;
2Centre for Ecological Economics and Natural Resources, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Nagarabhavi, Bangalore, India.
Received October 12th, 2010; revised November 13th, 2010; accepted November 15th, 2010.
This article intends to present the historical development of German agriculture sector over the last several decades
and underlined the benefit of the advancement in agriculture sector to fulfill the growing food demand. At the same time
the article discussed the ecological and socio-economic viewpoint of rapid technological development of agriculture
sector in Germany. It would facilitate the debate on technological advancement in agriculture sector, which rapidly
developing throughout the world, in the perspective of ongoing climate change and corresponding limit of sustainable
socio-ecological development.
Keywords: Agricultural Landscape, Energy Efficiency, Sustainable Agriculture, Technological Development, Climate
1. Introduction
When Albrecht Daniel Thaer purchased the estate at
Möglin in 1804, it was his intention to lay the founda-
tions of rational agriculture. The highly successful physi-
cian had realised quite early that the low productivity of
the agricultural and silvicultural land use of that time
could be overcome by means of appropriate management
systems [1]. Thaer criticised the poor soil culture of the
agricultural lands. For years he had been sustaining the
double work burden as physician and agronomist. But
from 1804 on he devoted his activity exclusively to agri-
cultural matters having in mind the improvement of the
art of field husbandry by overcoming the deficiencies
found in the way land was being managed. His ‘Princi-
ples of Rational Agriculture’ (1809-1812) published in
four volumes, are generally regarded as the very founda-
tion-stone of modern agricultural sciences [2]. Thaer
perceived agriculture as an industry which would have to
be performed in a sustainable and profit-orientated man-
ner [1,3]. Thus he postulated two criteria which even 200
years after him have not lost any of their validity: Effi-
cient agriculture, as we understand it today, is defined, to
a considerable degree, by economic success. Furthermore,
the idea of sustainability as demanded by Thaer, deter-
mines the current debate on land use even when this
concept has experienced a significant impetus over the
past decades. Thaer insisted on the long-term and durable
perspective in farming which this concept implies. But
today, against the background of the dramatic decline of
the natural bases of life, the ecological dimension of our
actions has increasingly come under public scrutiny. In
principle, this does not question Thaer’s demand for a
rational agriculture, but is just made more precise in the
light of recent developments and findings.
The evolution of agricultural land use has, since Thaer’s
times, revealed a hitherto unprecedented dynamics.
Whilst until the mid-20th century not even 10 people
were fed by one agricultural worker, this ratio was 1:126
in 2004! Since 1950 labour productivity in farming hence
has been rising at an annual rate of over 6%. Which have
been the factors contributing to this unparalleled boost in
productivity achieved over a few decades which allowed
to overcome the deficient soil culture stated by Thaer?
And how does the outcome of a 200-year evolution look
like under the perspective of the sustainability postulate
introduced by Thaer? This paper is intended to help an-
swering these questions, i.e. to make a contribution in
terms of reflecting the developments of Central-Euro-
pean agriculture starting with the situation as encoun-
tered by Thaer and further on until today’s highly effi-
cient agricultural production. It was at Möglin over 200
years ago where the foundations were conceived and
later on deepened and further developed by the pupils of
From Thaer and Thünen until Today: Past and Future of Agricultural Landscape Use in Germany
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. NR
Albrecht Daniel Thaer, like Johann Heinrich von Thünen
and Carl Philipp Sprengel.
2. Fundamentals of Modern Land Use
Land-use change has been recognised as the major driv-
ing force altering vegetation patterns in the European
landscape today [4-5] as cited in Muster et al., 2007 p.
1187 [6]. When addressing the question which factors
proved to be decisive for the enormous productivity in-
creases in agriculture, in a first approach one is, first of
all, inclined to find an explanation within the agricultural
sector. A second glance at history, however, reveals quite
soon that, apart from these endogenous factors, devel-
opments outside agriculture, as, for example, in the trans-
port sector, have helped considerably to bring about this
change. Therefore, the following considerations will fo-
cus on developments outside the agricultural sector. In
addition to endogenous factors of influence, these had a
decisive bearing on it, the implications being discussed
as well. Along with these factors very strongly domi-
nated by technological developments it has been found
that the policy interventions do likewise play an important
part. Unless this role is properly understood, the change in
agricultural land use will not be grasped. Political trans-
formations which had a strong impact on landscape use
were quite diverse. They range from the agricultural re-
forms of the mid-19th century – as those in Prussia – via
the foundation of the German “Reich” in 1971 [7], the pe-
riod of collectivisation on the territory of the former GDR
being included, to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)
in Europe which, in turn, is subject to a continuous, partly
very drastic change. Not to go beyond the scope of this
paper, in essence the impacts of the European Union’s Ag-
ricultural Policy during the initial years of the European
Community until today will be focussed.
3. Developments inside Agriculture
Until far into the last century the possibilities for agri-
culture in Central Europe to thrive were impaired by
relatively tight restrictions. The farms were strongly
bound to the site conditions of the natural space. Region-
ally adapted farm animal breeds and crop varieties
evolved. This formed the background for the abundance
of different local crop varieties and farm animal breeds to
which has given birth the traditional farming sector in
Central Europe. On-farm organisation was bound to the
organic character of production. It was only through
livestoc k farming or a wide crop rotation sequences that
soil fertility could be enhanced. Livestock and crop
farming were thus closely intertwined. A comprehensive
formulation of this ‘organism theory’ was undertaken first
by [8] in his work “Ökonomik des landwirtschaftlichen
Betriebes” (Economics of the agricultural holding). Pro-
ductivity increases were possible to a modest extent only.
The influence of transportation costs on land use had
been described already by Johann Heinrich von Thünen
in his main work “Der isolierte Staat” (The isolated State)
[9]. In his second paragraph, Thünen says that the trans-
portation worthiness of commodities depends on their
durability and on the ratio of the commodities’ value to
their volume or weight. This led Thünen to conclude that
easily perishable or transport-unworthy commodities
must be grown near the consumer market whilst those
goods whose transportation costs prove relatively low in
relation to the realizable price, can be produced on loca-
tions more remote from the market. Thünen derived from
this finding his famous ‘Thünen circles’ or ‘rings’ with a
view to explain the distribution of land use around a
market (see Figure 1). Because of expensive and, above
all, time-consuming means of transport agriculture had
been tied to local and regional, i.e., isolated markets.
Furthermore, until the start of this century the farming
sector had been embedded in an economic system that
was characterised by hand labour and a productivity level
attainable on that basis.
This form of land use proved decisive for the conver-
sion of natural landscapes into man-made ones. Thus it
also shaped the ecological heritage on which the modern
form of land management is founded. In the following,
the major development trends in modern land use will be
discussed in regard to the utilisation and modification of
ecological resources of the landscape.
3.1. Soil Fertility
In 1826, Philipp Carl Sprengel disproved the hitherto
generally accepted humus theory of his teacher Thaer,
see Sprengel 1828 [10]. As early as three decades before
Justus von Liebig (1803-1873), he maintained that the
soil’s yielding capacity, i.e. soil fertility is not necessarily
bound to the provision of organic matter. It was Liebig’s
merit that the theory of mineral fertilisation had been
widely recognised and ultimately made its breakthrough
in farming practice [11], which, according to [12], oc-
curred around the year 1880. The starting point of the
mineral theory was the finding that the yielding ability is
determined by the availability of certain nutrients. This
created the basis for breaking up the production cycle of
a farm and to increase the productivity of a field by the
supply of mineral nutrients, irrespective of the intra-farm
relationships. This allowed to abandon the compulsory
linkage between crop production and livestock farming
(which so far had been the only source of nutrients). It
was only thanks to Liebig’s findings that agriculture has
been able to develop production systems that could re-
linquish livestock farming.
From Thaer and Thünen until Today: Past and Future of Agricultural Landscape Use in Germany
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. NR
Animal husbandry
Three-field crop rotation
Coupled use
Rotational cropping
Free economy
Source: J. H. von Thünen “Der isolierte Staat in Beziehung auf Landwirtschaft und Nationalökonomie” (1826).
(Beschriftung Abb. 1, von oben nach unten)
(Livestock farming, Three-field rotation, Paddock farming, Crop rotation, Forestry, Free economy, Miles)
Figure 1. Thünen’s model (circles or rings around the isolated market).
3.2. Plant Health
Likewise the origins of the modern phytomedical re-
search date back to the mid-19th century. Anton de Bary
who has been mainly devoted to the study of fungal dis-
eases, presented his first work in 1853 [13]. Julius Kühn
published some years later his comprehensive work “The
Diseases of the Cultivated Plants, their Causes and their
Prevention” [14]. Both men are considered as the foun-
ders of the phytopathological sciences. Sulphur and Py-
rethrum were the first plant protection substances to be
applied for the control of grape mildew and insect pests,
respectively [15]. Previously, crop protection could be
practiced only by means of duly adapted crop rotations or,
as in the case of weed control, by costly hand labour. The
inventions in the field of chemical crop protection al-
lowed to reduce the formerly wide and multi-link rota-
tions to the more profitable crop species. The use of
cropprotection substances made it possible to free a rota-
tion of those links which did not yield any or only small
revenue contributions (e.g. fallow), but proved necessary
for the sake of plant health. The rotations became nar-
rower, with the share of market crops being increased
and the impact on plant health being made up for by
means of chemical methods.
3.3. Breeding Progress
The chance to make use of mineral fertilisers and crop
protection chemicals also raised new challenges to plant
breeders. They were now called upon to breed new crop
plants which would be capable of meeting the new re-
quirements. The fundamentals of modern plant breeding
make use of the findings of the Austrian monk Gregor
Mendel (1822-1884) [2]. By way of combination cross-
breeding, mutation and hybrid breeding techniques it was
possible to markedly enhance the potential productivity
of crop plants [2]. The new varieties proved generally
less robust. But under a well adjusted regime of the new
production factors they were capable of greatly out-
yielding the conventional varieties. Agriculture was en-
abled to better adapt the sites to the crops whilst in the
preceding centuries plant breeding was forced to adjust
the crops to the site conditions of the respective region.
3.4. Progress in Mechanisation Technology
Due to the complete substitution of draft animals by mo-
torised traction about one tenth of the farmland area for-
merly needed to feed draft animals was set free [16].
Market crops were grown now on these fields. The en-
ergy required for animal traction performance had not to
be produced any more on the farm, but could be intro-
duced into the system from outside. Properly speaking,
the larger part of the problems discussed in this paper
have been solved outside the farming sector, i.e. due to
the contributions made by progress in engineering
4. Developments outside Agriculture
Two developments outside agriculture have had a deci-
sive impact on the change in land use: the advances in
the transport sector and the continuous rise in labour
productivity of other branches of the economy.
From Thaer and Thünen until Today: Past and Future of Agricultural Landscape Use in Germany
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. NR
4.1. Impact of the Modern Transport Sector on
Land Use
Thünen’s assumptions were fundamentally altered by the
technological progress in two aspects. On the one hand,
the haulage of commodities was becoming increasingly
faster and cheaper. The second aspect which has caused
Thünen’s premises to be substantially changed, relates to
the area of conservation technology. Commodities that
formerly used to be transportable over a short time and
hence small distances only, can be moved nowadays over
almost any distance.
4.2. Influence on the Distribution of Land Use
around a Market
Thünen has demonstrated that the distribution of land use
forms within a region will depend, first of all, on the
possibilities of, and the resulting cost for transportation.
He enlarged the former model of the circular arrange-
ment of the agricultural landscape under the assumption
that cheaper and faster means of transport become avail-
able, as, for example, that provided by a navigable river.
Thünen’s circles or rings are converted into bands under
this assumption (see Figure 2).
Transportation and conservation techniques have al-
lowed that the premises described by Thünen for the dif-
ferentiation of land use around a market may increase-
ingly lead to the formation of bands of equal land use
forms (e.g. belts in the USA). In Germany, the most im-
portant impulse concerning transportation systems
traces back to the second half of the 19th century, when
the railway system was developed. German railway-sys-
tems cover app. 550 km in 1840 and were expanded to
11,660 km in 1860 and 37,650 in 1885. The all-time high
was reached in 1912 with a length of 58,297 km. Motor-
ways in former time did not play a comparable role. In
1935, Germany only possessed 108 km highways, but
highway network was developed up to nearly 3,900 km
in 1943 a level that was highest up to the late 1960s.
4.3. Influences on the Markets
The developments in the transport sector referred to
above have also caused Thünen’s assumption on the ‘de-
gree of isolation’ of a market not to apply any more.
When commodities can be exchanged cheaply between
regions, countries and even continents this also implies
that markets become virtually internationalised. This
results in two significant changes of the traditional rela-
tionships between producers and consumers. The range
of commodities offered to the consumers is markedly
broadened by new products originating from other re-
gions. Furthermore, the traditionally offered goods are
now also made available by producers other than re-
gional ones. The consumer may now choice between more
products, and among the individual traditional products,
between several suppliers. This causes the local produc-
ers to face competition on two levels. On the one hand,
their products must compete with novel products attract-
ing the purchasing power of the consumers, and, on the
other, they must also compete with their own traditional
Abb. 2: Thünen’s circles become bands under the assumption of cheap transport facilities
source: J. H. von Thünen “Der isolierte Staat in Beziehung auf Landwirtschaft und Nationalökonomie” (1826).
(Livestock farming, Three-field rotation farming, Small town with its surrounds, Paddock farming, Crop rotation farming, Forestry, Free economy,
Free economy, Forestry, Crop rotation farming, Paddock rotationalgrazing, Three-field rotation farming, Livestock farming, Miles))
Figure 2. Circles of Thünen’s model become belts.
From Thaer and Thünen until Today: Past and Future of Agricultural Landscape Use in Germany
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. NR
products that originate from other manufacturers This
forces them to make consistent use of comparative cost
advantages and economy of scale effects.
4.4. Utilising Comparative Cost Advantages
The enterprises specialise in those products they can
manufacture at a comparatively lower cost than the
competitors. Economically, this phenomenon is called
‘comparative cost advantage’. The theory of ‘compara-
tive cost advantages’ was already maintained by Ricardo
(1772-1823), a contemporary of Thaer [17]. Using the
production of wine and cloth as examples he showed that
it is reasonable for two countries to concentrate both on
the product that they are capable of producing in the rela-
tively cheapest way. Ricardo was able to prove by the
examples of England and Portugal that this conclusion
even applies when one country (Portugal) could produce
both commodities more cheaply than the other one. In
the light of the questions raised here, Ricardo’s finding
can be interpreted insofar that macro-economically rea-
sonable developments tend to lead to an impoverishment
of the diversity of productions in the respective regions.
4.5. Utilising Economy of Scale Effects
Not least the facilities created by the modern means of
transport likewise allow to utilise scale effects in agri-
cultural production. With regionally limited markets
bound into the organic character of agricultural holdings,
it was not possible to set up large structural units. Above
all livestock farming was restricted due to these relation-
ships. Under the new framework conditions it now be-
came possible to also make use of so-called cost degrees-
sions achievable in larger units of production. Behind
this the phenomenon is concealed that the costs per unit
of output first tend to fall as the installation grows in size.
It is only from a certain critical size on that this phenol-
menon is reversed.
5. Societal Labour Productivity
The various sectors of a national economy are inter-
twined through the labour and capital markets. In this
context, the sector with the highest productivity exerts a
kind of absorbent action vis-à-vis the other sectors Dur-
ing the pre-industrial phase, the productivity in all sectors
was determined by the crafts sector. Industrialisation
allowed labour productivity to be raised enormously.
Over the times, the wages and incomes derived from
employment in the industrial sector were continuously
rising and, consequently, attracted outside labour. Con-
siderable out-migration from the agricultural sector since
World War II has been a clear evidence of this trend.
Whilst after World War II 4.8 million people were still
engaged in German agriculture, this figure has declined
to under 0.9 million by 2004 [3]. As has been outlined
above, agriculture was capable of achieving a relatively
high degree of mechanisation. Modern agriculture re-
places human labour by technological or chemical proc-
esses. Unlike the pure service-rendering sectors the agri-
cultural sector is unable to share the general welfare
growth by continuously raising the commodity prices,
but due to the technical premises is obliged to achieve
higher revenue claims via increased labour productivity
as is the case with other sectors of the manufacturing
industry. The pressure to implement productivity-raising
measures, has been and still is quite substantial. As al-
ready mentioned before, agriculture has responded to this
challenge by boosting labour productivity at an annual
rate of more than 6% over the past 45 years.
6. The Role of the Early EEC Policies
The course of the future Common Agricultural Policy of
the European Community was set just a few years fol-
lowing World War II. It was then the priority task of
policy-making to ensure adequate food supplies to the
population affected by several years of starvation. Food
demand had to cope with a farming sector that was
largely still in the stage of mixed farming (‘Kop-
pelwirtschaft’). The major items of know-how required
for a substantial productivity boost in agriculture was
available on large scale (see preceding sections). The
manufacturing industries proved willing and, above all,
capable to provide the necessary inputs (machinery, fer-
tilisers, crop protection substances) at competitive prices.
The transport networks had been improved considerably
in the second part of the 19th century and before the war-
time period. It was now the task of policy to create the
framework conditions for matching the enormous de-
mand with an adequate supply of commodities. Right at
the beginning, the European Economic Community had
to provide the agricultural sector with incentives so that it
would utilise the still idle potential to increase productiv-
ity. Consequently, the agricultural sector was being pro-
tected from international competition by means of a whole
range of import levies, import quotas and commodity
prices kept artificially above the world market level.
Productivity was growing at a very dynamic rate. 30 years
following EEC foundation farmers were able to meet 100
per cent of the food demand.
7. The Sustainability of Agricultural Land
Use against the Background of the
Developments Described
The factors described determining the productivity boost
in land use may be grouped in three main trends of de-
velopment. These are: Firstly, the continuous increase of
the specific intensity; secondly, specialisation within
From Thaer and Thünen until Today: Past and Future of Agricultural Landscape Use in Germany
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farms and among regions, which ultimately results in a
substantial expansion of international trade. In the sec-
tions following, these parameters will be summarised
with their impacts on the ecological dimension of sus-
tainability being outlined. A detailed debate on this sub-
ject was held in the mid-1980s inter alia by the German
Expert Panel on the Environment and documented in a
final expertise [18].
7.1. Increasing ‘Specific Intensity’
The term ‘specific intensity’ describes the sum of activi-
ties performed by an agricultural enterprise with regard
to one unit of output. The use of the so-called production
factors designed to increase and secure yields, as for
example mineral fertilisers, and crop protection sub-
stances, has caused and still causes increasing amounts of
substances to be introduced into the biosphere. These
cannot be metabolised or degraded. Apart from these
matter inputs there have also been increasingly physical
interventions in landscapes, inter alia due to drainage
measures, abolishment of landscape-structural elements
or the employment of larger and heavier machinery. The
resulting ecological consequences are those described in
the following section.
7.2. Elimination of Particular Sites
The increased application of mineral fertilisers has caused
nutrient-poor sites to be over-fertilised or even eutrophi-
cated. Elsewhere, wet locations were drained using mod-
ern techniques, and made accessible to crop cultivation.
This kind of practise has done away with an increasing
number of particular sites. Their disappearance is accom-
panied by the loss of the habitats of many plant commu-
nities adapted to these specific site conditions. Species
extinction is largely attributable to this factor. Every plant
species extinct implies the disappearance of another 40
associated animal species. The extent of species extinct-
tion caused by farming activities is thus still multiplied.
8. Input of Pollutants into the Biosphere
8.1. The Nitrate and Phosphate Problem
The fertilisation of crops is generally related with the risk
of nutrients being leached. The nutrients leached are
bound to result, on the one hand, in increased groundwa-
ter loads, and, on the other, due to surface runoff, in the
eutrophication of surface water bodies. When transported
by surface waters the nutrients reach the oceans. The
consequences of surface water eutrophication constitute a
complex system which cannot be made further reference
to in this paper.
8.2. Phytosanitary Products in the Biosphere
The biosphere is unable to fully degrade crop protection
substances. Furthermore, a smaller or larger part of these
products are likely to drift due to air circulation and are
then introduced into ecosystems away from the cropland
areas treated. These two phenomena cause crop protect-
tion substances and their metabolites to accumulate in the
9. Consequences of Growing Mechanisation
9.1. Soil Degradation
Higher intensities of cropland use also involve the em-
ployment of ever more and more powerful farm ma-
chines. The increasingly mechanised land management
has resulted in the development of larger and heavier
machinery. Consequently, soil compactions lead to plant
growth problems because the crops can hardly root in the
compacted soil layers. In addition, soil compaction tends
to enhance the risk of erosion caused by the action of
water. Furthermore, wind erosion may occur, which is
also caused by the removal of structural landscape ele-
ments by farming [19].
9.2. Removal of Structural Landscape Elements
Land management using large, powerful machinery re-
quires an adequate spatial shaping of the agricultural
landscape. Consequently, land consolidation schemes
have caused structural landscape elements to be removed
during the past decades. Large, uniformly shaped fields
have emerged. Nevertheless it should be borne in mind
that spatially large structured landscapes must not be
seen as something negative in general. North-east Ger-
many, in particular has traditionally had such largely
spaced landscapes. There, species communities typical of
steppe landscapes were able to establish. However, as
development has proceeded, often such spatially large
landscapes were completely stripped of their structural
elements. This factor and land consolidation in small-
structured landscapes has contributed and still contrib.-
utes to species extinction and to the enhancement of ero-
sion processes on such areas.
10. Intra-Farm Specialisation
In addition to raising the specific intensity, intra-farm
specialisation has been a feature notable over the past
decades. This has caused the formerly indispensable
combination of livestock farming and crop husbandry
(mixed farming) to be abandoned. Today, on good arable
locations farms can do without keeping farm animals.
The nutrients required for the soil are made available by
purchasing mineral fertilisers. The previous role of for-
age growing in the cropping plan in terms of plant health
for other crop rotations links, has been taken over in
modern farming by crop protection substances.
From Thaer and Thünen until Today: Past and Future of Agricultural Landscape Use in Germany
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On the other hand, farms have emerged that are almost
entirely engaged in livestock production. Such intensive
livestock operations largely rely on purchased feedstuffs.
In relation to their farmland area, they are overstocked,
i.e. they keep more animals than would be ecologically
sustainable. On such operations, it has become a problem
to dispose of the large amounts of livestock excreta pro-
duced. Such operations are likely to add considerably to
the climate degradation because they emit greenhouse
11. Specialisation among Regions
In the meantime, agriculture has also come to specialise
among regions. Ricardo’s theory of the ‘comparative cost
advantage’ can be demonstrated today when looking at
the spatial distribution of agriculture. Arable farms
without livestock have emerged, for example on the out-
standingly fertile lands around Hildesheim and Magde-
burg. They are contrasted by livestock-intensive farms,
inter alia, in north-west and south-east Germany. The
situation in the young federal states appears to be differ-
ent. In all of them livestock farming has gone down to a
historical low (see introductory chapter).
The specialisation among regions has resulted in a
further impoverishment of the diversity of cropping on -
the various locations. Furthermore, the problem of farm-
yard manure disposal inside the livestock-intensive re-
gions tends to be aggravated because the transfer of
farmyard manure from livestock operations to arable
farms will be feasible only when such farms are located
not too far from each other.
12. Increased International Trade
Today’s modern means of transport allow to exchange
commodities in considerable amounts not only between
the various regions. In 2005, the total value of commodi-
ties of Germany’s agricultural primary production amounted
to 38.1 billion €. In this same year, Germany imported
food products (including those for further processing) to
the value of 38.0 billion € whilst Germany’s food exports
reached a volume of 27.3 billion € [3]. Hence Germany
imports food products equivalent to the value of agricul-
tural commodities produced in this country and exports
processed or unprocessed food items to the value of 75%
of Germany’s agricultural primary production. Likewise,
the upstream sector (prior to agricultural production) is
exchanging between regions or continents ever more
commodities which are used in the agricultural produc-
tion process. The importation of feedstuffs (without ce-
reals) into Germany from non-EU countries has risen, for
example, from 1.26 million tons in 1995 to 2.02 million
tons in 2005 [20].
13. Summarising
As late as 200 years after Thaer, numerous developments
inside and outside the agricultural sector have corrobo-
rated his ideas on the rational land management. The
productivity of current land use in Germany has attained
an unprecedented level. This applies to productivity per
unit area, as well as to labour productivity. Whilst the
former has risen fourfold over the past 100 years, labour
productivity has even been increased 12.5 fold. Interna-
tional trade has grown dramatically. At present the
commodity value of the food products imported into
Germany is almost equivalent to the value of the agri-
cultural primary production. Along these lines it was
possible to feed more and more people, and this with a
far greater reliability than in previous times. As an indi-
cator for the success of this evolution might serve the
fact that Central Europe has not experienced any famine-
like food shortages since the 1950s with the population
still growing. Productivity had risen so sharply that the
mid-1980s saw considerable agricultural surpluses. This
then has actually made about 10% of the agriculturally
usable land redundant for food production.
It became evident that these successes were achieved
above all by breaking up the organic character of agri-
cultural holdings. They were also possible because of the
massive input of exogenous energy and substances.
Whilst agriculture during the pre-industrial period had to
operate more or less within closed matter cycles, now
substantial amounts of exogenous substances and energy
are introduced into the agricultural system. Among other
things, this has caused energy productivity to decline
considerably as against unit area and labour productivity
levels. Both developments, changes in terms of energy
input (see Figure 3) and the declined energy productivity
in Germany’s agriculture (see Figure 4) were highlighted
as major findings in the Report by the Commission of
Enquiry of the German Federal Parliament on the “Pro-
tection of the Earth’s Atmosphere”, presented in 1994
[21]. Because of the intensification of agricultural pro-
duction the farming sector increasingly operates merely
as a ‘processor’ of fossil energy sources.
Moreover, it was shown that the increase in specific
intensity and the growing specialisation of farms and
entire regions also result in considerable ecological con-
sequences. To what extent all these negative external
impacts still come up to the criteria of sustainable land
management as postulated by Thaer, has to be seriously
questioned. The findings allow to suggest that the grow-
ing dependence on finite energy sources and substantial
negative external effects with regard to the ecological
impacts of modern agriculture will constitute the price to
be paid – at least for the time being – for high and stable
From Thaer and Thünen until Today: Past and Future of Agricultural Landscape Use in Germany
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. NR
food supplies.
The adaptability of the current system of agricultural
production to the forthcoming scarcity in energy and raw
material supplies and the imminent climate change will
be major subjects to be dealt with by agricultural re-
search over the coming years. The knowledge of the his-
torical relationships and factors forming the basis of the
current productivity level could provide clues to possible
corrections in terms of the future of agricultural land-
scape use. Ways to address these problems could be
found, in particular, with reference to specific intensity,
in the specialisation on farm and regional levels, as well
as in regard to transportation costs.
Finally, some considerations are presented with refer-
ence to the ongoing debate on, and the major medium-
term trends in agricultural landscape use. The data we
have presented with the Figures 3 & 4 is the current
trend of the agriculture sector in Germany which is con-
tinued and need to be evaluated in terms of energy effi-
ciency in a proper ways that lead to visualize the actual
net energy consumption even after post harvesting of the
agricultural produce.
Source: Enquete-Kommission “Schutz der Erdatmosphäre” des Deutschen Bundestages “Schutz der Grünen Erde”, 1994
Figure 3. Share of energy input of production factors in total energy input of German agriculture from 1880 to 1975.
Source: Enquete-Kommission “Schutz der Erdatmosphäre” des Deutschen Bundestages “Schutz der Grünen Erde”, 1994.
Figure 4. Efficiency of energy input (Joule gross land production per Joule energy input) in German agriculture from 1880 to
From Thaer and Thünen until Today: Past and Future of Agricultural Landscape Use in Germany
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. NR
14. Determinants of Medium-Term
It would go far beyond this survey paper to give a com-
plete overview of the currently relevant determinants
which, in line with the available knowledge, will in fu-
ture influence agricultural landscape use. Therefore, ref-
erence will be made only to three factors which have
proved crucial in the current debate: The impacts of EU
agricultural policies, of the climate change and of genetic
engineering, respectively.
15. Impact of EU Agricultural Policies
In view of foreseeable surpluses the agricultural policy of
the European Union has been undergoing a fundamental
change in the mid-1980s – leave behind the system of
incentives to enhance productivity increases and move
towards the reduction of surpluses. With a view to
reaching this aim, on the one hand, the instrument of land
set-aside was introduced and, on the other, commodity
prices were gradually lowered to approach the world-
market level. According to the common economic con-
siderations, a commodity price reduction is expected to
induce a distinct decrease in specific intensity. In making
use of this instrument the EU has embarked upon a road
entirely opposite to the one chosen 30 years before when
agricultural output was being stimulated.
This step was also attributable to the rising tensions
during the negotiations of the World Trade Organisation
(WTO) which were aimed at advancing international free
trade. Ultimately the negotiation parties came to the
agreement during the last round not to allow any more
government interventions which would directly result in
competitive distortions [3]. Corresponding instruments
such as tariffs or direct price subsidies were subsumed in
a so-called ‘Amber Box’. Instruments like area-related
price compensation payments under the AGENDA 2000
or deficiency payments in the USA were grouped in the
‘Blue Box’ as tools partly permissible. Instruments being
also in future fully compatible with the aims and rules of
the WTO were subsumed in the so-called ‘Green Box’
This kind of instruments comprehend. e.g. agri-envi-
ronmental measures, decoupled farm premiums without
any relation to output, as well as infra-structural and re-
gional development measures [3]. With a view to further
ensure the promotion of agriculture and rural areas, the
EU has started setting the course for shifting the support
measures under the ‘Amber Box’ and the ‘Blue Box’,
respectively, to the ‘Green Box’. To this effect, the entire
scheme of domestic agricultural support will be decoup-
led from production until 2013 (decoupling of area-re-
lated premiums). The premiums are linked to environ-
mental standards (Cross Compliance) and funds from the
so-called first pillar (compensation payments for agri-
culture) were started to be shifted to the second pillar
(promotion of rural development). This so-called modu-
lation is expected to reach by 2013 5% of the current
volume of support under the first pillar.
Last but not least substantial changes will result from
the eastern expansion of the EU with her expenditure for
agriculture being capped at the same time. On principle,
it has been decided by the Council of Ministers that the
total agricultural expenditure by the EU will in future be
frozen to a level of approximately 42.3 billion €/year.
The eastern expansion in 2004 by ten member states
alone added another 38.6 million hectares of farmland to
the EU’s agricultural area. This is equivalent to about
one fourth of the total farmland area of the old EU 15. A
complete transfer of the previous support schemes to the
new members is not possible because of the budget
freeze agreed. Consequently, there will in future be dis-
tinctly less agricultural support money available per hec-
On the whole it can be noted that the current agricul-
tural policy of the EU tends towards a decoupling of
production and a long-term reduction of the support level.
Thus the EU’s agricultural policy is likely to impart a
clear impulse for a decrease of intensity in landscape use.
16. Impact of the Climate Change
The imminent climate change will impact the landscape
use in two very distinct ways. On the one hand, the
changing climatic indicators will alter the natural site
conditions for agricultural production. This challenge can
be addressed in two different ways. A shift could be
produced in the range of crops grown towards crop spe-
cies better adapted to the newly emerging climatic condi-
tions. Such shifts are very likely to induce changes in the
composition of the associated wildlife flora and fauna.
Furthermore, plant breeders are currently attempting to
genetically improve the crop species traditionally grown
in a region. This is done to render them better adapted to
the future conditions. These changes alike will imply
corresponding responses of adaptation of the associated
wildlife flora and fauna. This might, inter alia, open ma-
jor approaches for genetic engineering research.
On the other hand, the imminent climate change clearly
shows that an economic system based on fossil energy is
running the risk of collapsing, not only because of the
finite character of the fossil energy sources, but also on
account of the disposal of the gaseous residues, in par-
ticular of CO2. That’s why globally alternative energy
sources are being looked after that would not affect the
climate. Here, agriculture as a producer of renewable
energy (reproducible raw materials) comes to play its
part. It can be assumed that the farmland areas hitherto
not required for food production will be used for growing
From Thaer and Thünen until Today: Past and Future of Agricultural Landscape Use in Germany
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. NR
energy crops. Hence, the release of land previously set
aside will, above all, markedly enhance the intensity of
landscape use.
The current energy and climate policies obey essen-
tially the approach followed by the previous EU policy in
the food sector, i.e. to stimulate output. Apart from the
classical area-related premiums which are also paid for
areas under energy crops and are funded out of the agri-
cultural budget of the EU, currently farmers are eligible
to additional incentives for the production of renewable
raw materials. These are granted under several support
schemes in energy policy (Energy Taxation Act, Bio-
Fuel Quota Act and Renewable Energy Act (EEG)). Due
to the continuous overcompensation of the production
costs for these energy sources, at present the cultivation
of renewable raw materials is competitively stronger
compared to food crops [22]. On account of the profit-
able support framework in Germany, raw materials from
third countries are increasingly imported into the German
market – with partly very serious ecological consequen-
ces in the countries of origin and replace the relatively
dearer German-grown products [22]. These develop-
ments have been the reason for the current debate on the
general revision of the support strategy for renewable
energies derived from agriculture. However, this branch
of the economy will be given, in principle, a markedly
more important role than in the past, even under a
changed support strategy with reduced payments because
the problems related with energy supply and climate
change tend to escalate.
The potentials of renewable energy sources from agri-
culture are currently being opened up step by step and,
according to recent calculations, will come to attain
about 500 to 1,000 PetaJ [1 PJ = 1015 J] by the year 2050.
The strong variation of this estimate is essentially due to
the uncertainty whether the arable land released can be
used to grow bio-fuels with an inefficient energy yield or
solid biomass fuels with a distinctly more efficient en-
ergy yield. Compared to the current annual primary en-
ergy demand in Germany of approximately 14.500 PJ,
agriculture will be capable of meeting just 3.5 to 7% of
this demand. Even when it should be possible until 2050
to sensibly raise the efficiency of energy consumption
and to reduce it by 50%, renewable energy sources could
only account for merely 7 to 14% of primary energy
consumption in Germany. These calculations reveal a
broadly perceived misunderstanding as regards the
availability of alternative energy sources derived from
agriculture. Though the respective energy sources are
renewable and thus are entirely different from fossil ones,
they are not infinitely available. They will allow to meet
only a (smaller) part of the energy demand of the indus-
trialised world and are in this sense finite as well.
17. Impact of Genetic Engineering
Plant breeding using genetic engineering techniques is
aimed at producing a new gene combination through the
targeted insertion of alien genes into the gene structure of
a cell or an organism, a procedure not being feasible by
natural crossbreeding and/or natural recombination [23].
Contrary to the use of genetically modified organisms
(GMO) in industry and medicine, being mostly per-
formed in hermetically closed spaces, the application of
GMO in agriculture is just based on their large-area re-
lease into the biosphere. That’s why a broad debate is
currently taking place on the benefits and hazards of
‘green genetic engineering’. No detailed reference to this
debate can be made here.
From the perspective of landscape use and landscape
ecology, the Expert Panel on the Environment [24-25],
however, has recognised a number of potential risks of
GMO being released. But these have not yet been suffi-
ciently studied by scientific research. Even when conclu-
sive findings have not been available until now, it should
be noted that the release of GMO does involve substan-
tial impacts on the ecosystems of agricultural landscapes
which could greatly alter the ecological integrity of these
systems. As regards the practical relevance of green ge-
netic engineering, the acceptance of this novel technol-
ogy by the community of consumers and among farmers
will be decisive. Genetically modified foods are rejected,
according to an opinion survey conducted in 2005, by
79% of the citizens in Germany [26]. A study in 2002
has revealed a similarly high rate of disapproval (70%)
among farmers in Germany [27]. Yet most recent studies
have shown that at least the preparedness of farmers to
use GMO for the cultivation of energy crops is markedly
higher than in food production [28]. In general, it can be
assumed that the very broad refusal of GM food by con-
sumers will be much less pronounced when it comes to
GM energy crops. Given the increased importance of
growing energy crops, as already noted, under the impact
of the imminent climate change and in view of the much
higher acceptance of GMO by farmers in this field, a
substantial expansion of the areas under GMO energy
crops and thus stronger potential impacts on the agro-
ecosystems are quite likely to happen.
18. Conclusions
Since World War II agriculture has been increasing la-
bour productivity at annual rates of more than 6% over
the past decades. This evolution has been enhanced by a
number of technological innovations, but also thanks to
massive support granted by agricultural policies. On ac-
count of this evolution full self sufficiency in food sup-
plies to the population in the EU could be ensured on a
From Thaer and Thünen until Today: Past and Future of Agricultural Landscape Use in Germany
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. NR
durable basis since the mid-1980s. This implied impacts
on the agro-ecosystems. The concomitant changes proved
considerable. They are seen mostly in a critical manner
by ecologists or natural scientists. Whilst technological
progress has been more or less unchecked, agricultural
policy has seen a radical change. Government support
schemes for agriculture will in future be completely de-
coupled from output and, on medium term, be redirected
towards agri-environmental measures and/or measures
for the promotion of rural areas (European Agricultural
Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD)). Thus agricul-
tural policy is designed to provide incentives for a more
extensive agricultural land use. Quite opposite signals are
coming, however, from the German energy and climate
policies. With the climate change being imminent and in
view of the decline of the fossil energy reserves agricul-
ture is coming to the fore as producer of renewable en-
ergy carriers. The current Government support policies in
this sector are basically equivalent to price supports that
have been granted to the food sector between the 1950s
and 1980s. Substantial incentives for a further intensifi-
cation (the stronger use of GMO included) and speciali-
sation of agricultural landscape use emanate from this
kind of policy. As a first step, arable lands laid fallow
over the previous years under set-aside schemes were
reincorporated into intensive management. Moreover, it
should be emphasized that the potential of renewable raw
materials will at the current level just be capable of
meeting 3.5 to 7.0% of the primary energy demand. Hence
this kind of energy supply is reproducible, but proves
quite limited in volume and, hence, finite as well. In view
of the overcompensation in support programmes at pre-
sent the legislative framework underlying this policy is
being revised. Nevertheless, this does not alter the prin-
cipally growing significance of this new branch for agri-
culture and the management of agricultural landscapes.
In summary, it can be assumed that despite the radical
reverse in classical agricultural policy due to the endur-
ing technological progress and the pressure to produce
energy from alternative sources, the evolution in agricul-
tural landscape use as occurred over the past 50 years is
likely to continue. Consequently, a further intensification
of production making full use of technological progress
along with further specialisation among regions can be
reckoned with. The potential consequences of this way of
landscape use – often perceived quite critically – have
been studied and described repeatedly in the past. They
are not likely to change essentially in future.
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