De duurzaamheid van de Nederlandse landbouw : 1950 – 2015 – 2040

Smit, Meino


The purpose of this thesis is:

  • to provide a theoretical model with which the performance of agriculture (summarized in the concept of sustainability) can be assessed;
  • to visualize the development of the sustainability of agriculture in the period from 1950 to 2015;
  • giving an outline of an agricultural system that is sustainable, can provide food security and can meet the climate objectives.

In this thesis sustainability is defined as producing goods and services with as little as possible energy, raw materials and land use and causing as less as possible negative effects on the environment.

Sustainability has been calculated based on the following parameters:

  • the energetic value of the output and input of agriculture;
  • direct and indirect land use;
  • direct and indirect labour.

The energetic value of the output has been calculated based on the weights of the yield of the products and the energetic value of the agricultural products (the metabolic energy). The energetic value of the input has been calculated based on the quantities of the used energy and raw materials and their embodied energy. The direct land use is the quantity of agricultural land in the Netherlands. The indirect land use is the area of land needed for winning, producing and distributing the input. Direct labour concerns the workers on the farms in the Netherlands. Indirect labour is the labour needed for producing the input. Indirect land use and indirect labour can be deployed in the Netherlands or elsewhere. The non-nutritive greenhouse horticulture has not been taken into consideration here.

After formulating the theoretical framework the research questions have been formulated plus the concepts used in this thesis and the methodology and way of working. The theoretical framework is conceptualized based on the production factors land, labour and capital. The performance of agriculture has been measured so far based on the productivity of labour, whereby a number of things are ignored. Measuring the performance based on sustainability, as defined in this thesis, meets these objections. Indicated is that the concepts EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Investment) and Net Energy are important to judge the future energy supply.

The input is calculated based on the following 12 topics: the direct and indirect use of energy, the latter of which consists of mining, greenhouses, other buildings, tractors and machinery, cattle feeder, animal manure, fertilizer, pesticides, electronics, services and transport and infrastructure. For every kind of input also (as far as possible) the indirect land use and the indirect labour are calculated.

Since 1950 agricultural production (output) in the Netherlands has increased. With less people and less farms the production in 2015 is higher than in 1950. The quantity of used input has increased faster than the production (output). The ratio between output and input decreases between 1950 and 2015. In the same period direct land use decreases and indirect land use increases. The same applies to labour: direct labour decreases and indirect labour increases. In 1950 direct land use and direct labour are larger than indirect land use and indirect labour; in 2015 it is the other way round.

The maintenance of soil fertility is important for agriculture and for food quality. Food quality has declined in recent decades. This is because organic matter and nutrients are not reused in a cycle, but are lost due to the way in which residues are processed now. It has been ascertained whether Dutch agriculture can feed its own population. Based on the Health Council directive 2015 the required amounts of food for the Dutch population have been calculated and on this base the required area of agricultural land. It appears that not enough food can be produced. The calculated quantities of animal products have been reduced to 50% and in that situation there would be enough food.

The desirability reusing raw materials has been elaborated by examining whether all residual flows of organic material in agriculture makes a sufficient fertilization level of the agricultural land possible. That appears to be the case, but then there must come a (for a large part) new collection structure for all residual flows of organic materials. This allows the cycle to be closed and a further deterioration of soil fertility and food quality can be avoided.

The social costs of agriculture has partly been calculated on the basis of greenhouse gas emissions in CO2-equivalents. These costs were compared with the social costs as calculated in a number of studies. The orders of magnitude are similar.  The social costs of agriculture calculated here are 4.5 billion euros (based on the FAO price for CO2) and vary from 2 billion euros to 11.7 billion euros (based on the price for CO2 of CPB and PBL). The greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture in 2015 amounted to 39,064,800 tons of CO2 equivalents. Social costs are not only caused by the emissions in CO2-equivalents, but also by other factors. Based on FAO-studies a range is indicated of the total social costs from 5 to 20 billion euros.

Price ratios between labour and energy and raw materials are now such that they opt for replacing labour by capital. This has been worked out in an example. Calculations based on energetic values do not (always) run parallel to those based on money. When making decisions this aspect is often underexposed.  The export balance of food agriculture is approximately 13 billion euros. The net added value at factor costs has been fallen by 21% after inflation correction in the period from 1950 to 2015. In 2015 the calculated social costs of agriculture vary between lower and much higher than the net added value at factor costs, which then amounted to 6.9 billion euros. The question arises then whether the present agriculture is still a useful activity both in a social and economical way.

In order to meet the climate targets, as formulated in the Paris agreement, these have been translated to Dutch agriculture. Subsequently, a number of starting points were determined for agriculture in the future, with as the guiding principle the year 2040 chosen. Based on a number of preconditions, as stated for the year 2040, a drastic reduction of the use of energy and raw materials should take place. This is only possible on a large scale if capital will be replaced by labour on a large scale. Also exports and imports must then be kept to a minimum. In order to visualize this development, a number of data on agriculture for the period 1950 to 2040 have been determined.

The main conclusions of this research are:

  • the sustainability of agriculture has declined sharply from 1950 to 2015 and should  increase in the period from 2016 to 2050. This necessitates a large influx of labour into agriculture (reruralisation). In doing so the picture of agriculture in 2040 will deviate strongly from that in 2015 and in some respects look a bit like agriculture in 1950;
  • direct land use has decreased by 495.000 ha (21%) in the period 1950 to 2015 and  indirect land use has increased with 2,8 million ha;
  • direct labour has decreased by more than 407.000 f.t.e. in the period 1950 to 2015 and indirect labour has increased with 102.000 f.t.e.;
  • an increase in the energetic value of the input in GJ/ha of 619% in the period 1950 to 2015 results in a relatively small increase of the output in GJ/ha by 12%;
  • all resources deployed in the period 1950 to 2015 to increase production bear no reasonable relation to the realized revenue increase
  • present agriculture must quickly be transformed into a sustainable agriculture.

In order to display the amounts of energy in this thesis the PJ (PetaJoule) unit is used when it concerns large quantities (national level) and the GJ (GigaJoule) unit is used when it comes to energy quantities at company level or per ton or per ha.

Table 92 provides a survey of the most important results.

Table 92 Output in weight and energy, input in energy, land use and labour







population NL






number of farms






average farm size

           5,7 ha

          13,9 ha

          25,9 ha

          28,8 ha

         10,5 ha







direct land use

2.336.766 ha

   2.016.171 ha

 1.867.054 ha

1.841.362 ha

1.800.000 ha

indirect land use

   381.632 ha

   3.413.584 ha

 2.910.840 ha

3.178.688 ha

   250.000 ha

total land use

2.718.398 ha

   5.429.755 ha

 4.777.894 ha

5.020.050 ha

2.050.000 ha







direct labour

520.422 f.t.e.

  223.422 f.t.e.

122.998 f.t.e.

113.099 f.t.e.

583.500 f.t.e.

indirect labour

  85.932 f.t.e.

  192.365 f.t.e.

170.770 f.t.e.

188.416 f.t.e.

100.000 f.t.e.

total labour

606.354 f.t.e.

  415.787 f.t.e.

293.768 f.t.e.

301.515 f.t.e.

683.500 f.t.e.

output,  input total






output (weight)

   16 mln. ton

    33 mln. ton

    38 mln. ton

    39 mln. ton

   10 mln. ton

output (energy)

            65 PJ

           114 PJ

           133 PJ

          135 PJ

           66 PJ

input (energy)

            54 PJ

           215 PJ

           271 PJ

          305 PJ

           30 PJ







output, input per ha






output in ton/ha

   5,91 ton/ha

     6,06 ton/ha

    7,95 ton/ha

    7,83 ton/ha

  5,04 ton/ha

output in GJ/ha

23,886 GJ/ha

  21,028 GJ/ha


 26,821 GJ/ha

31,969 GJ/ha

input in GJ/ha

23,021 GJ/ha

106,530 GJ/ha



16,667 GJ/ha













output/ton product

 4,039 GJ/ton

   3,472 GJ/ton

 3,502 GJ/ton

 3,432 GJ/ton

 6,339 GJ/ton

input/ton product

 3,346 GJ/ton

   6,531 GJ/ton

 7,149 GJ/ton

 7,760 GJ/ton

 2,902 GJ/ton

For a relatively small increase in yields per ha (50% in tons and 12% in GJ) in the period 1950 to 2015, the input per ha increased by 619% and 2.8 million ha of additional land was used elsewhere. For this increase in production land consolidation and land use projects have been carried out over an area of more than 1.3 million ha. The question can be asked whether the costs are not much higher than the benefits. Many costs could have been avoided if the switch to sustainable agriculture had been made earlier. The results for the year 2040 should be seen as an outline for a sustainable agricultural system.

It is not possible to wait until price ratios between the production factors are such that the choice is made for the use of fewer raw materials and energy and more labour. We can’t wait so long, because an entire infrastructure needs to be changed. Additional policy measures must be used to accelerate the transition to a sustainable agriculture. The government must set a good example in its own actions and no longer make any investments that make the climate problem worse (such as roads and airports). Research must also be tuned to achieve a low input agriculture.

By making specific the preconditions that are demanded from agriculture (and society as a whole) because of the climate problem, this thesis shows how agriculture has developed in the period 1950-2015 and how sustainable agriculture with a low input of energy and raw materials and a recovery of the cycle of organic and inorganic substances could be in 2040. With this thesis a contribution is delivered to the way of thinking about the necessary transition of our agriculture. This does not alter the fact that now soon starting a drastic conversion of agriculture is very urgent.