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Structural changes in agriculture call for structural measures

Published on
November 8, 2018

How does the agricultural sector become sustainable without putting farmers at the mercy of the globalisation of the food market? Student Merlijn Schuurbiers immersed himself for five months in the world of agriculture to answer this question ecologically and economically by conducting an independent research for the Green Left Party of the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament. He was supervised by Professor Hens Runhaar of the Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group.

The agricultural sector is trapped in its current production system. For years, emphasis has been placed on increasing efficiency. Globalisation of free market principles and other developments have caused farmers to be caught up in an international food complex. Put at the mercy of big chain parties, farmers find it more difficult to produce sustainably. As supermarkets and consumers go for the lowest prices, farmers have to take out loans to finance the never-ending process of upscaling, which in turn stretches the limits of the environment.

“A transition will only happen if sufficient pressure is put on the existing system,” says Merlijn Schuurbiers. “I get the impression that society isn’t really motivated yet when it comes to our food system. Despite problems in environment, climate and public health issues related to the present agriculture model, sustainable consumption is slow in picking up. A transition is expensive, daunting and not without risks for the farmer. Therefore, the government has to be the one to bear the responsibilities in areas of public interest, such as clean air, clean surface water and the restoring of biodiversity. The free market will not do this.”

More visions
Minister Schouten came up recently with a vision of agriculture. She envisages The Netherlands in 2030 as leading in the area of circular agriculture. You would think that this is the impetus needed for a transition. Merlijn Schuurbiers: “This appears so, but she is not the first minister who has come up with an agriculture plan.”

Schuurbiers is referring to, among others, the vision document on ‘Food and Green’ by minister Brinkhorst which appeared eighteen years ago. Brinkhorst has already acknowledged then that the agriculture sector was coming up against social, economic and ecological limits. Nine years ago, minister Verburg postulated in her document ‘Sustainable Food’ that we should go towards an agriculture system in which cycles are radically closed. Merlijn Schuurbiers: “And now we have minister Schouten. But a vision alone does not bring about a transition. It requires concretely formulated regulations. I hope that my research report will spark some movement in that direction.”

To Dutch version