Six decisions for a new perspective on agriculture

Published on
October 5, 2023

Societal debate on agriculture and nature often revolves around halving the livestock population or whether we should meet nitrogen targets by 2030 or 2035. But are these the right issues to focus on? A group of Wageningen researchers have identified six dilemmas that are decisive for the future of agriculture and nature in the Netherlands. Their underlying report has now been published.

In the report ‘WUR-perspectieven op landbouw, voedsel en natuur’ (WUR perspectives on agriculture, food and nature), the researchers call for a long-term vision while at the same time not delaying the implementation of necessary nature and environmental policy. Zooming out, they see a number of developments: The global population will continue to grow over the coming centuries. We would like to feed this population of billions in a sustainable manner. And the Netherlands is and remains one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world. At the same time, we in the Netherlands are facing the agricultural, ecological, economic and societal boundaries of our agricultural system. A long-term perspective for agriculture is missing.

It is time to make choices and choose a path. However, those choices are neither simple nor one-dimensional.

The time for patchwork solutions is over, says Sjoukje Heimovaara, President of the Executive Board of WUR, in the report’s introduction. “It is time to make choices and choose a path. However, those choices are neither simple nor one-dimensional.” The researchers analysed a number of studies and visions by Wageningen scientists and arrived at six dilemmas, or six essential issues, each accompanied by difficult choices.

  • The first dilemma is: How will the Netherlands contribute to the global food supply? Will Dutch farmers only produce enough for the Dutch market, in short chains? In that case, the livestock population may decrease sharply. Or will Dutch agriculture be a part of Europe’s food strategy? Following this strategy, the Netherlands would mainly produce what it is good at (such as dairy, vegetables and potatoes) for consumers in the triangle between London, Paris and Berlin. This second role would require a greater agricultural area and high productivity—within environmental limits, of course. In a third scenario, the Netherlands could contribute on a global scale by mainly concentrating on the production of raw materials (vegetable seeds, seed potatoes) and technology and by delivering knowledge. That may well require less territory in the Netherlands, but it would set high requirements for soil quality, the availability of water, labour and crop health, among other factors.
  • Second dilemma: What is the function of animal husbandry in the Netherlands? Will we continue to serve the European or global demand for high-quality proteins with our animal husbandry? Or will our animals become mere processors of grass and residues? In the latter case, we would stop importing animal feed (soy, grain), as a result of which the livestock population would shrink and the surplus of manure would disappear. This would depend on consumers eating less meat; see point 6.
  • Third dilemma: What is the moral position of animals in our food supply? What rights will we grant animals and to what extent may we exploit them for our food supply—and under which conditions? What would a livestock sector that values animals more look like?
  • Fourth dilemma: How many of the future climate and nature goals do we want to meet in the Netherlands? The Netherlands has agreed to drastically reduce its greenhouse gases by 2050. How will the Netherlands compensate for the remaining emissions to become climate neutral? Furthermore, the Netherlands aims for 30% of its nature to be protected by 2030. Will the Netherlands plant a lot of extra trees and demarcate nature reserves to achieve both of these goals (this is virtually impossible)? Or will the Netherlands, as a densely populated delta, trade off climate and/or nature goals with other countries? A trade-off would be conceivable between the Netherlands (with higher agriculture production) and other European countries (with more space for trees) to achieve the climate, nature and food supply goals together.
  • Fifth dilemma: Will we separate or intertwine agriculture and nature in the Netherlands? Separation (nature reserves separated from highly productive agricultural areas) would require different measures and spatial planning than intertwining them (nature-inclusive and regenerative agriculture), and would also have other effects on land use, biodiversity and productivity, among other factors.
  • And finally, the sixth dilemma: Can and will we base our course on consumer behaviour? Will we continue to cling to freedom of choice? Or will we limit the consumer’s freedom of choice to achieve nature and environmental goals and to combat social inequality? In the latter case, consumers would pay a higher price; but could those with lower incomes also do so? Would we need to make agreements on this at the EU level? And would supermarkets then be able to sell cheaper foods from less strict countries?

Well-considered choices

According to the researchers, we must make well-considered choices regarding these six dilemmas, as these choices will determine our future agricultural system, nature policy and living environment. These choices will affect the way the Netherlands is set up, the international position of Dutch agriculture, the role and scope of animal husbandry and the relationship between agriculture and nature. Each choice therefore has its advantages and disadvantages. And delaying these choices will only make the tasks themselves greater. If we do dare to take these decisions, the Netherlands could once again become a guiding country for the food supply of the future.

For the researchers, reflecting on a vision on agriculture and nature is a work in progress; they themselves do not have a final answer. In the coming period, they intend to engage with various parties, both within and outside the WUR, on this topic, on the long-term issues and the connection between matters that are decisive for the future of agriculture and nature in the Netherlands. To be continued!

The report was presented to Guido Landheer, interim General Director of Agriculture of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, on Thursday 5 October 2023.

Download the pdf of the report ‘WUR-perspectieven op landbouw, voedsel en natuur’ (WUR perspectives on agriculture, food and nature)