Mansholt lecture 2018: circular agriculture on the European agenda

Published on
September 26, 2018

The transition to a circular agrofood system will mean a fundamental change of the European agricultural system. No longer will the system be based on maximisation of yield per cow or per hectare; a circular agriculture is about optimising the system as a whole. Wageningen University & Research (WUR) Executive Board President Louise O. Fresco presented her vision in Brussels during the third Mansholt lecture on 19 September 2018.

After the Second World War Sicco Mansholt and his European colleagues brought about an unprecedented leap in agricultural productivity in Europe. "But now”, says Louise O. Fresco, “we have to conclude that this policy has become a victim of its own success. Because we pay a price for this leap in productivity: pollution and loss of landscape and biodiversity. Society is concerned: there are protests about animal welfare and our food system is associated with unhealthy food and obesity.”

Prevent waste

The support for Mansholtian agriculture is declining, Professor Fresco concludes. "And we need to do something about this." Circular thinking is the core of a new agriculture. “It’s no longer about maximising yield per cow or per hectare, but about optimising the system as a whole. The chains of animal husbandry and arable farming are integrated in this kind of circular system. Losses are minimised, because the efficient use of nutrients and the prevention of waste are at the centre.”

New way of thinking

During the Mansholt lecture Professor Imke de Boer (Animal Production Systems) argued that circular thinking essentially means we say goodbye to the established 'footprint' approach, in which the ecological footprint of individual products is determined. According to De Boer, we must move towards a system approach, where the value of residual flows is taken into account. “In this kind of approach food-feed competition is avoided. And we use animals again for what they are good at: recycling waste and residual streams.”

Professor Martin van Ittersum (Plant Production Systems) also emphasised that a circular approach requires a completely new way of thinking. “It’s no longer about maximising the harvest. We have to look more closely at the quality and quantity of the entire crop, including the straw and leaves. And we need to move away from homogeneous crops to mixed crops. This will impose new requirements on how we harvest crops, using robots for example.”

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Space needed for initiatives

The discussion during the Mansholt lecture made clear that the momentum already exists for a circular agriculture. "We young farmers are very much aware that we can’t keep on just increasing productivity," said Iris Bouwers of CEJA, the organisation for young farmers in the EU. Hugo de Vries of INRA, the national French research institute for agriculture, pointed to the gap that has grown between farmer and consumer: “In the current linear approach, the farmer is at the beginning of the chain and the consumer at the end, with many links in between. In a circle there is no beginning and no end; all links are equally far apart." Jose Ruiz Espi of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Agriculture pointed to the new European framework programme. Circularity will be an important concept in this, he predicted.

In the discussion it was argued from various sides that legislation is still an obstacle to a circular agrofood system and farmers are being pushed in a different direction. “Young farmers would like more space to develop new sustainable initiatives”, Iris Bouwers stated. Jose Ruiz Espi slightly nuanced the criticism. “Yes, it’s true that legislation sometimes inhibits innovation. But this legislation is there for a reason - to protect us. And legislation can be adjusted, although not as fast as we would like.”

Solve questions together

In her closing speech, Louise O. Fresco concluded that there are important tasks ahead: “Not only must legislation be adapted to make circular agriculture possible. We also have to look carefully at the policy. How can we incorporate the right incentives in it?" According to Professor Fresco, the scale on which cycles are closed is another important theme. “Not all cycles can or should be closed locally. What is the optimal scale? This depends on so many factors. It will require continuous fine tuning. These are questions that we will have to solve together. Not only science, but society in the broad sense. All kinds of new smart technology will help us with this.”