Nature and agriculture risk losing out massively because of the political impasse and how problems are discussed. It is high time for clarity and new agricultural and food policy, so the Netherlands can be a green leader again. These are the words of Sjoukje Heimovaara, President of the Executive Board of Wageningen University & Research in the Financieele Dagblad published Saturday 9 September 2023.
If we want to ensure adequate, healthy and tasty food in the future, we have to redesign its production. Our current production methods are responsible for more than a quarter of all global greenhouse emissions, it uses almost three-quarters of all our fresh water and puts huge pressure on biodiversity. If we want to keep the planet liveable, change is vital.
Fortunately, there is good news too: we already know how to make production more sustainable without jeopardising the food supply. But we have to make choices and not get trapped in dogmas.
On the global level, we can see several solutions; ones that, incidentally, also address the nitrogen problem. A third of all the food we produce globally does not end up on our plates; it is lost in the chain. There are good ways to reduce this waste, such as by improving awareness, through better preservation or with smart apps. These lead to direct gains.
We also use more than three quarters of all agricultural land for the production of animal products while they provide only a third of our food. So we lose a lot of resources there. For many, animal products are a good, if unnecessary addition to a healthy diet.
If the rich West could go back to eating the way it did in the 60s, with less meat and more vegetables, we would save a lot of land and water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In a truly sustainable food system, we would keep animals on land that is unusable for arable farming, or the animals we do keep would subsist mainly on waste streams.
We can also help make food production even more sustainable through knowledge development and technological advancements. In doing so, we can ensure that we use less energy, water and other raw materials and develop alternatives required by changing climate conditions.
Curbing waste, a different food menu and innovation: these are three routes to making food production more sustainable. However, implementing these routes is not an easy task. Global food systems are interconnected and and they interact with each other. Food is also very cultural, and it is sometimes even used as leverage in conflicts. Local solutions only make sense if they account for these complex interactions. We cannot achieve our goal through technical ingenuity alone, we will also have to adapt our behaviour, and this will require help and guidance.
What does this mean for the Netherlands? The Netherlands needs to rapidly reduce the environmental impact of its agriculture and, to do so, accelerate the transition of livestock farming, as the OECD pointed out in its recent review of Dutch agricultural policy. To achieve this, however, we need an achievable future perspective. This has been mentioned many times before, but we still have not succeeded. Who is in charge?
For inspiration, let us look to the late 19th century. Dutch agriculture and horticulture was in crisis. Yield and earning capacity were already struggling when cheap grain came to Europe from North America, where early mechanisation had made production and transport more economical and reliable.
Several countries responded by protecting their farmers through import tariffs. But the Dutch government focused on the long-term and international context, and decided to invest in agricultural education and awareness. Equipped with this knowledge and the realisation that things truly needed to be changed, farmers set to work. They worked together to specialise, diversify and establish cooperatives: this marked the beginning of the Dutch agricultural sector as a global player. They bid farewell to what no longer worked, and new powerful sectors emerged.
Need for clarity
Today, a similar kind of long-term global vision is needed from the government: it needs to set a clear and stable course to become more sustainable. Our country is in dire need of clarity. Only then can we invest or not: only then can we remain competitive. However, to arrive at such a vision, the government must first make clear choices between different interests and values.
The problems involved are fundamental. We must first determine whether and how we, as the Netherlands, want to contribute to the European and global food supply. As a fertile country in a temperate climate, we can make an important contribution, especially with climate change making food production more difficult in other European regions. To achieve our goals for food and nature, should we only focus on the Netherlands, or should we also take a look at Europe or even the whole world?
Another dilemma is whether the government is willing to try to influence consumer behaviour in order to meet climate and environmental targets and promote the health of citizens. The Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) argued for a food policy in 2014. If we make our food production more sustainable but not our diets, the production of our food will shift to other countries and so will the burden on the environment. There is no net environmental gain in this case; there may even be a loss.
We also need to determine how we spatially arrange our country. We can opt for more extensive farming methods, where food production and nature are intertwined, increasing biodiversity in our agriculture. The yield per hectare will then be lower, leaving less space for ‘pristine’ nature. Or should we opt for intensification? Per unit of food, that may be the most sustainable, one question is what scale will this be needed on?Or should we go for a third direction and match the intensity to what the environment can handle: more intensive on fertile land and more extensive in more vulnerable areas?
Conducting a clean debate on these choices is complicated by the fact that false dilemmas are also raised. For instance, some object to agricultural sustainability by pointing out the threat to global food security and affordability. But the real threats to this are climate change and conflicts, like the one in Ukraine. We can produce enough healthy food globally, now and in the future, but climate change and fair distribution are the problem.
‘Producing more sustainably is too expensive for consumers’ is another common false dilemma. Let us be clear: we ultimately pay the real price anyway, with our health and our future, either as consumers, or through taxes as citizens. The recent price increases in food are mainly due to higher energy prices and labour costs. We never paid such a small percentage of our spending on food before. At the same time, we also never spent this much on the real costs of food production, such as subsidies and environmental damage.
Several proposals have already been made in the Netherlands for a future-proof food policy that is attractive to nature, farmers and consumers. For example, in 2020, the Broad Social Review (Brede maatschappelijke heroverweging, BMH) already included proposals for the true pricing of meat, and making fruit and vegetables cheaper. For a fair global playing field, we can carefully bring food into the Emission Trading System, thus accounting for greenhouse gas emissions.
Expert researchers, such as those at Wageningen University & Research, have outlined various scenarios for this and are ready to help. It is now up to politicians to set a clear direction with the help of people with a vision, but without interests and dogmas.
Make food policy a priority in the upcoming elections. This is an opportunity: If we persevere, the Netherlands can pave the way forward and breathe new life into nature and agriculture. There are already many wonderful initiatives and examples of what can be done and how great the results could be. Therefore, at the elections, let our future be at the top of the agenda, and decide how we, as the Netherlands, can be an example of a healthy country with a healthy, fair economy. This would allow us to choose positive prospects for all.