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Bright farmers help others navigate towards sustainability

Published on
December 11, 2019

For agriculture to be able to feed the world in 2050, rapid improvements in sustainability are needed. That’s the message Rogier Schulte will be sharing in Redesigning Sustainable Foodscapes, his inaugural address at Wageningen University & Research on Thursday 12 December. The traditional format of scientific research – which is to keep making gradual improvements – is too slow in this case, he argues. “My chair in Farming Systems Ecology specialises in identifying the solutions we will need in 2050, and how we can achieve them as quickly as possible.”

To prove that this approach works, Schulte found 11 farmers from around the world who have already escaped the status quo. He calls them Lighthouse Farmers, in recognition of how they light the way for their colleagues. These lighthouse farmers are located all over the world. They include an industrial cattle farm in Latvia, a city farm in Cuba, and a community-based land management system in Ethiopia’s drylands.    

Lighthouse farmers are curious, and they have the unique ability to see their challenges not simply as problems
Rogier Schulte

The farmers may be on different continents, but they have a lot in common, says Schulte. “They're not afraid of failure, and they recognise that in each other. They're curious, and they have the unique ability to see their challenges not simply as problems. They’re even able to turn problems to their advantage. Basically, they are genuine entrepreneurs. Sustainability is not an end goal for them; it’s a way of life, and a way of achieving a livelihood.”

Search for multifunctionality

“Take our lighthouse farm in Latvia,” says Schulte. “It’s an industrial farm with 1,000 cows. The milk is a by-product, because the manure has become the main product. It’s placed into seven anaerobic digesters that produce biogas. The gas is converted into electricity for domestic use, but even that is a by-product. The main product is heat, which is used to heat fish tanks in which sturgeon and eels are farmed. The fish are yet another by-product, because what it's really about is their eggs, or caviar. Caviar is expensive, so in economic terms this is a caviar business, for which cows provide the raw materials. In biomass terms, this is mainly a dairy cattle company. And it’s also an energy company, because it provides electricity to 2,500 households.”

Over the next few years, my chair will be developing ways of designing these business systems, as well as tools for structuring the management of the businesses.
Rogier Schulte

“That multifunctionality is what we’re really looking for,” he says. “Over the next few years, my chair will be developing ways of designing these business systems, as well as tools for structuring the management of the businesses. We will also be supplying students who can help establish these businesses. We won’t be dictating to them what a sustainable business in, say, the Zambian wetlands should look like. We equip them to go there and find out for themselves what might work in that specific situation.”

New networks

Schulte has invited the 11 lighthouse farmers to the Netherlands for his inaugural address. They will meet each other for the first time in the days preceding the address, and will also be meeting 40 young European farmers from the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA). The aim is to build new networks and to facilitate a discussion of the knowledge agenda for young farmers. This would include the topic of how sustainability can be a driver of growth rather than something that curtails it.

Eventually, Schulte hopes to present a contribution to the EU Mission Board on Soil health and Food. This board will be making recommendations on which research areas should receive funding from the EU’s Horizon Europe programme over the next few years.

Inaugural address

The inaugural address will start at 16.00 in the Wageningen University & Research Auditorium, Generaal Foulkesweg 1, Wageningen. As is customary, a procession will accompany the new professor to his inauguration. The procession will remain on the auditorium stage during the inaugural address. Exceptionally, Professor Schulte's 11 overseas guests will also be on the stage. The ceremony is open to the public.