The number of insects is decreasing, farmland birds are having a tough time, soil life is diminishing and plant species are becoming extinct. In the last years it has become painfully clear that biodiversity in the rural areas of the Netherlands has come under pressure.
The Living Planet Report Natuur in Nederland (Nature in the Netherlands) of the World Wide Fund for Nature has concluded that the country does not yet have a grip on this issue. The positive exception is the ecological quality of our surface water and the plants and animals that are part of this system. We have made great progress in this area in the last decades. However, this makes the contrast between the biodiversity above and below-ground even more stark. Biodiversity is the foundation of life: it safeguards flexibility and resilience.
All studies up until now have shown that the most important causes for this loss of biodiversity can be found in the combination of the fragmentation of landscapes, nitrogen emissions, desiccation and the use of crop protection agents. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) believes that the key to combating loss of biodiversity lies in reducing the environmental pressure caused by agriculture. Through the sheer size of the agricultural sector in the Netherlands, agricultural activities place a great deal of pressure on the environment. This is despite an efficient production and low environmental pressure per unit of product (according to the PBL).
A significant opportunity for the sustainable restoration and conservation of biodiversity is expected to be found in combining the functions of agriculture and nature in the rural areas of the Netherlands. Nitrogen produced by livestock farming enters natural areas which causes plants to disappear. Birds and insects cannot live in natural areas alone, but also need agricultural land to survive. The current division between agriculture and nature is thus no longer sustainable for the restoration of biodiversity.
What is the ecological intensification of agriculture?
The search for opportunities to combine the functions of agriculture and nature indicates the shift towards the ecological intensification of agriculture. In short, this is agriculture that is focused on ecology instead of on economy with biodiversity as its basic principle. ‘We have to start taking better care of our agricultural land,’ explains Anne van Doorn, researcher at Wageningen Environmental Research. ‘This is our natural capital. The ecosystem is at the very foundation of our existence.’
The key for farms is variety: variety of crops, species, functional agricultural biodiversity and landscape elements. For arable farming this includes measures such as expanding the building plan to include more different types of crops, no-till farming, green fertilisers, soil covers in the winter and flower-filled field edges. For dairy farming this approach would involve herb-filled grassland, pasture grazing and rough manure.
Wageningen University & Research has released two publications outlining the measures farmers can take to let nature do the work for them. One publication deals with the measures that can be taken for grassland, arable land and in and around the sheds and stables. The other, produced in collaboration with the Louis Bolk Institute, outlines the effects of nature-inclusive measures for arable farming, dairy farming and the landscape.
Three aspects are important to the ecological intensification of agriculture. Firstly, biodiversity on a farm is a natural prevention to diseases and pests and ensure pollination, water and air purification, natural soil fertility and a good soil structure. Worms recycle dead material and keep the soil aerated, which means that water runs through it more effectively and the soil can ‘breathe’. In soil with worms, plants grow much better than in soil without them. This example falls under the term functional biodiversity. This means that less fertilisers and crop protection agents are needed and the soil needs to be less worked.
The second aspect is the closing up of cycles. A farm will then make more efficient use of raw materials. This minimises the negative effects of farming activities on the environment, both locally and on a broader scale. Artificial fertilisers would no longer need to be produced and feeding with concentrates or using crop protection agents, as well as CO2 emissions would be reduced.
Thickets and wooded banks
Finally, a farm that works with nature-inclusive methods by creating and maintaining landscape elements such as thickets, wooded banks and ponds, cultivates a green infrastructure on the farm that is important to plant and animal life. This, in turn, also supports the functional agricultural biodiversity - mentioned above - on the farm.
‘Of course there are stakeholders who say that this cannot work and that we cannot feed the world this way,’ states Van Doorn. ‘But they forget that many large, modern farms are largely dependent on external inputs and technical aids such as artificial fertilisers, crop protection agents, sprinkling and antibiotics with all the concomitant costs. The costs of this way of working will rise in the long-term, as the risks caused by climate influences, antibiotics resistance and price fluctuations in feed and milk will increase.’
Working with biodiversity on the farm requires different knowledge, different technology and a different way of monitoring. Farmers who want to makes the switch will also need to make short-term investments in machines and the way the farm is set-up. ‘However, we have seen that farmers will reap long-term benefits. Furthermore, measures for soil management and the closing up of cycles are often directly cost-effective as well.’
Van Doorn emphasises that farmers cannot do this alone. The transition to nature-inclusive sustainable agriculture demands a change in the business community, in consumer behaviour and in the strategy of provincial and national governments. This does not only mean subsidies for ecosystem services and agricultural nature management from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, but it also demands the willingness of businesses and consumers to pay more for sustainable products that conserve biodiversity.
Furthermore, a level playing field can be created by factoring in the social costs of the production, such as loss of biodiversity, in the prices (the polluter pays, true pricing) through reducing VAT on certified sustainable products or through international laws.
At the end of October, Dutch ecologists and evolution experts working together in The Netherlands Ecological Research Network (NERN), called for a delta plan for biodiversity restoration. To take the first steps towards a shared vision for biodiversity, NERN is organising a meeting on 21 November where nature organisations scientists and the agricultural sector can come together and to which banks and the food industry have also been invited. After all, this can only work if each sector abandons its traditional assumptions.