A more nature-based Netherlands in 2120, but how?

December 21, 2021

In 2020, Wageningen University & Research presented a positive and hopeful long-term prospect for our country in about 100 years with the map and the file 'A nature-based future for the Netherlands in 2120'. It was not long before it was asked: to what extent will we be able to realise these prospects? This has led to the report: 'From vision to action - a perspective for action for the Netherlands 2120', which was created at the behest of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. This report describes what needs to happen in order to realise the prospects with regard to the food production on land and at sea.

The NL2120 prospect includes several food challenges that we, as a society, must find a solution for. How much will we be eating in 100 years and what will the food be? What is the size of the area on land and at sea that will be required to produce this? What is the best (safe, responsible, sustainable) location for production? How do we prevent food from becoming more expensive as a result of circular agriculture? What financial and other kinds of security can we offer food producers in the long term? How can we make consumers more aware of the value of sustainable food?

To answer these questions and realise a green future, we will describe six action points that the government, food producers, and citizens can start on.

Stimulate multifunctional land use

Making agriculture more sustainable, expanding the food production at sea, protecting and strengthening nature, water management, power generation: different functions come together in the same environment on land and at sea. This means that smart multifunctional land use is required. However, in practice, policy and regulations often stand in the way.

This includes policy makers and researchers who often still approach spatial conflicts as a design challenge, without sufficiently weighing the impact on nature or the often opposing interests of the relevant parties. The government has not yet – or insufficiently – incorporated nature-inclusive criteria into tenders such as for offshore wind energy (‘provide for the cultivation of seaweed, crustaceans, and shellfish around wind farms’). The focus is therefore mostly on the lowest price.

To support multifunctional land use, policy choices and regulations should be tested more often and better for their impact on nature and biodiversity. This will immediately provide food entrepreneurs with more clarity about what they can and must do — something they have an urgent need for.

A sustainable revenue model

The high prices for agricultural land make it difficult for the primary food entrepreneurs on land to engage in less intensive and more nature-inclusive cultivation. For many food entrepreneurs, long-term loans from the bank also limit the room for manoeuvre. What they need is a revenue model in which they receive a true and fair price for their products, a price that includes payment for their efforts towards CO2 reduction, biodiversity, soil fertility, water quality, and animal welfare. This could be done by providing a reimbursement for the ecosystem services they provide. 

Food producers at sea also require financial flexibility and long-term security to allow for reducing their fleet, relocating, or making their production more sustainable, and/or experimenting with innovative, nature-inclusive activities.

Increased regional collaboration and room to experiment

A system in which healthy food is produced for all with respect for our planet and all people and animals on it is only possible if everyone understands this and works together to achieve this. Room for experimentation will stimulate innovative entrepreneurs on land and at sea to make nature-inclusive considerations and to enter into forms of collaboration with social organisations and citizens. In general, although innovative initiatives from the regions often receive support in policy documents, the operational support required for further distribution and scaling up of pilots is subsequently lacking.

Eat what the earth can offer us sustainably

Awareness and behaviour change form a complex process that takes time and attention. There is an important role in this for media and education, just as for food producers, retail, and hospitality businesses. They must provide clear and honest information about food and the necessity of sustainable food production. Consumers can often make a more sustainable choice — eat fish with a quality label, organic vegetables from local producers, reduce consumption of meat, eat more protein-rich food from the sea — and they must be encouraged to do so. They must also focus on and be motivated to prevent food waste.

More national government control

The spatial planning required to realise NL2120 are literally far-reaching — they are not restricted to municipal or provincial boundaries. However: both the Wet ruimtelijke ordening (spatial planning act) and the postponed Omgevingswet (environment and planning act) (2022) assign the responsibility for spatial planning to the municipal councils.

Every municipal council must create their own plan for the physical living environment — the municipal omgevingsplan (environmental plan). This plan, which combines all provincial and national legislation and regulations, is a binding legal instrument. The Dutch government itself has a National Strategy on Spatial Planning and the Environment (NOVI), but this long-term vision on the design and development of the living environment in the Netherlands is ‘only’ a guiding (and not binding) policy instrument.

What does this mean? If a municipal environmental plan conflicts with the NOVI, then the municipal plan takes precedence. The primary responsibility therefore lies with the municipality: the province may come into the picture afterwards, and the Dutch national government is last in the list of authorities. As a result, part of the large-scale green nature solutions for NL2120 cannot or cannot easily be realised from a legal standpoint. The legal framework is not sufficient, and municipalities will focus on their own local area.  

More control by the national government is urgently required; (the return of) a ministry of spatial planning could be a solution. Collaboration with the regions will then be necessary to also be able to take advantage of their executive power. Because the administrative organisation of the Netherlands does not align well with the nature-inclusive spatial planning from the vision on NL2120, a new administrative map for the Netherlands could be designed in line with that visionary map.

Long-Term Vision with Coordinated Policy and Legislation

To realise the vision of NL2120 with regard to food production and spatial planning, long-term objectives are required that are supported by citizens, consumers, entrepreneurs, and the government. These objectives can provide entrepreneurs with a long-term perspective. European, national, regional, and local policy and associated legislation should be better aligned with the long-term objective and each other. The extent of non-binding aspects — policy objectives without legal foundations — should be reduced. Additionally, a strong lobby at the EU and other international trading partners to embrace NL2120's ideas may facilitate its (legal) implementation.