A robotic harvester rides between strips of lettuce and potatoes. Meanwhile, the farmer explains to a group of children why his pigs are rooting around in the sand outside and eat food residues such as unavoidable household waste. If it is up to the team of food thinkers of the Animal Production Systems chair group, led by Imke de Boer and Evelien de Olde, the Netherlands will have a circular food system by 2050; a system in which healthy food is produced with respect for our planet.
“Our current food system needs an overhaul, because it places too much of a burden on the environment. Pesticides are polluting our water and biodiversity is being lost,” says sustainable food systems researcher Evelien de Olde. “Together with farmers and nature organisations, we sketched a target for 2050: a food system that is healthy, nature-inclusive and circular. Our vision, called ‘Re-rooting the Dutch food system: from more to better’, earned us a place among ten finalists for the Rockefeller Food System Vision Prize. There were more than 1,300 entrants in the competition.”
The researchers advocate a circular food system in which arable farmers grow mixed crops in strip or mosaic cropping systems. These cropping systems make more effective use of the nutrients in the soil and, with crop rotation, diseases and pests are less likely to spread to other strips planted with the same crop. De Boer: “In 2050, we will only be growing crops for human consumption on our fertile fields. Animals will be kept under animal friendly conditions and mainly eat grass and food residues not fit for human consumption, enabling us to make optimum use of natural resources such as land and water. Feeding animals mainly on residual streams and grass means that we will also be producing, and therefore consuming, less animal products. Recent research has shown that rich countries like the Netherlands need to eat about half as much animal products.”
Roof top vegetable gardens
If you take a walk through a Dutch city in 2050, you will see roofs covered with vegetable gardens or solar panels, while in the shops you will mainly find products that were produced in the Netherlands. “Why would we import potatoes from Israel when we can just as well grow them here?” asks De Olde. “Moving these products around the world is unsustainable and extracts tonnes of nutrients from the system that are badly needed in the place of origin.” “Moreover, we will only import food end products: instead of cocoa beans and unroasted coffee beans, we will only import fair trade chocolate bars and coffee,” adds Kawire Gosselink, coordinator of the re-root our food movement. “That is better for the country of origin, where the local industry will process the cocoa or unroasted coffee beans and ensures that the profits stay in the local area.”
According to the researchers, this alternative system of food production will also require consumers to change. “Consumers will need to become more aware of what they buy. They need to understand that what they eat has a major impact on their own health and that of the planet,” says De Boer. “You can contribute to changing the food system on a daily basis with the choices you make on your plate. For example, some consumers are forming community farm initiatives like De Herenboeren.” “The members of De Herenboeren decide together what they want to eat and all the crops grown on the farm are shared among them,” explains Gosselink. “They can see with their own eyes what growing a head of lettuce involves, so they are less likely to throw out food.” “We were inspired by practical examples like these,” adds De Olde. “They prove that alternative ways of producing food are possible: and that is the strength of our vision.”
The team is using the prize money (150,000 USD for the finalists) to take a number of substantial steps towards a sustainable food system. “Agricultural organisations can submit their plans for contributing to the food vision to us and we will use the prize money to support a number of these initiatives,” says Gosselink. “We challenge initiators to collaborate in this, because only together can we really make a difference. Some people think we are too idealistic, but this vision of the future is really possible: there are already so many inspiring examples in the food system. Our vision will contribute to a sustainable and circular future.”