Interview with Dr. Daniel Kofahl

Dr. Daniel Kofahl

Nutrition sociologist and office manager of the Office for Agricultural Policy and Food Culture (APEK) in Hesse.

1. Mr. Kofahl, we have just witnessed the large-scale protest by farmers in Berlin, the culmination of many regional weeks of action. You get the impression that long pent-up frustration has broken free. For years, farmers have found themselves caught between social and moral expectations. On the one hand, agriculture and food have become an expression of individual lifestyles and political, often ideological convictions. Recently, there have been citizens' councils that make food recommendations, while on the other hand over 80 percent of Germans show solidarity with farmers - is this great interest in the agricultural sector more of a detriment or an opportunity for farmers?

A great deal of interest in agriculture and agricultural issues is first of all pleasing, because food production and landscape conservation are the very foundations of our lives. It also signals that these activities are accorded an importance that justifies them receiving the precious commodity of "attention".

This dedication and investment of attention, even from full-blooded urbanites or agricultural laypeople, can contribute to the connection between the countryside and the city if it is first accepted that there is a lot to learn about agriculture and agricultural topics. Low-threshold educational opportunities such as well-researched journalistic articles, serious podcasts or public science can also be used to get an idea of the issues and developments currently affecting agriculture.

The increased interest becomes problematic when it leads to amateurs trying to solve the complexity of food production, agriculture, agricultural economics, the farming environment and so on off the cuff. The complexity of the issues and all the resulting questions are simplified with everyday wisdom, moralizing or knee-jerk demands. In doing so, people consider themselves to be advisors or experts who, objectively speaking, overestimate their knowledge of the subject matter. A subject that is not easy to decide, even for long-time practitioners or academic scientists who have been working on it for a long time.

2. Why does almost everyone in Germany think they know better than any farmer how agriculture works? Do we believe that this makes us all specialists because we all have to eat every day? Or is the answer too simple?

This question cannot simply be answered "logically" because the phenomenon itself is "not logical". Several factors probably come together here, including a culture of discussion in which nowadays not only does everyone think they are the national soccer coach, but also believes they have something to contribute discursively to everything and everyone. 

However, agricultural topics are also appropriate here because the image that prevails of ultra-modern agriculture hardly does it justice. It's not so much that - as is sometimes said - city dwellers think cows are purple because that's what they've seen in chocolate commercials. But it is the case that there is no idea how complex agriculture is. Figuratively speaking: People assume it's a matter of scattering seeds in the field, waiting, then something grows there, which is then harvested and only needs to be displayed as a product in the farm store or supermarket. The fact that behind all this there have long been differentiated sciences such as agriculture and plant cultivation, agricultural engineering, agricultural ecosystem analysis and modeling, agricultural economics, etc., each with great intradisciplinary internal complexity and difficult decision-making issues, remains hidden from laypeople or they are simply not aware of it.

Since agricultural issues, for example about topics such as ecological environmental protection, animal husbandry or genetic engineering, are also charged with particular symbolism in the media, some people, who may have experience of growing cress on the windowsill, believe that they can now solve complicated decisions as quickly as Alexander cut the Gordian knot in a few Twitter comments. However, the agricultural knot is de facto too thick and the swords of the supposed problem solvers too blunt.

3. Do these diverse expectations of agriculture reflect the differences between a modern urban society with changing values and a more traditional rural population?

It is true that, from an agricultural sociology perspective, the agricultural milieu tends to reflect more conservative cultural positions. This has something to do with the fact that people there have to think, plan and calculate in much longer periods than in the milieu of urban social technologists, who are now used to thinking in terms of the periods of projects that are often time-limited. You could say that the "understanding of time" is different in both areas and this leads to asynchronous demands on development steps.

On the other hand, urban and rural areas are far from being completely culturally separate these days. The rural milieu has a high affinity for technology, high-tech is an integral part of agriculture, and food production and trade are integrated into global processes. Values such as sustainability, environmental protection, animal welfare and so on are by no means controversial. There are fewer conflicts of objectives here than over how they can be achieved and in what time frame. And farmers and agricultural experts are also more aware than laypeople of the new problems that arise when current problems are solved - according to the motto: if you solve one problem, you have three new ones.

4. how can we succeed in de-ideologizing and de-moralizing food and the agricultural sector again, or do we have to live with it because it is also typically German?

You can never avoid a certain basic moralization and basic ideologization if you live in a culturally pluralistic society. And our society is characterized by massive cultural pluralism, which presents it with major challenges at every turn anyway.

However, to defuse conflicts, negotiate and deal constructively with problems, it is necessary to educate people and raise awareness of complexity. It is important to convey that it is not just about conflicts of values, but also about conflicts of substance. A realistic picture of food production and agriculture must be developed among the general public. However, the self-image must also be cultivated and constantly updated within the farming and agrarian milieu, which includes self-reflection and cultural work.

Dr. Daniel Kofahl is a sociologist with a focus on agricultural and nutrition topics. He heads the Office for Agricultural Policy and Food Culture - APEK ( and is a lecturer at the Universities of Vienna and Salzburg. He is the spokesman for the Culinary Anthropology Working Group of the German Society for Social and Cultural Anthropology (DGSKA).