Circular agriculture calls for practical steps

Published on
September 16, 2020

Dutch Minister Schouten introduced ‘circular agriculture’ two years ago. A future perspective for sustainable agriculture in the Netherlands. However, reality is stubborn. Faith in circular agriculture among farmers has recently diminished. In the onset of the elections in March 2021, the debate on the future of agriculture will likely be reignited to its fullest.

This editorial by Gert van Duinkerken appeared in Dutch newspaper Trouw on 16 September 2020.

Circular agriculture is a development path towards producing sufficient food within the carrying capacity of the earth and nature, with less external input such as artificial fertilisers, pesticides and fossil fuels. And where resources and waste streams are repurposed as much as possible, with the lowest possible emissions of environmentally taxing substances. In addition to food, circular agriculture also produces ‘biobased’ materials, such as fibres for textiles and building materials. 

In practice, many appear to confuse circular agriculture with local agriculture, where food production and consumption take place nearby, and where the Netherlands would cease to produce food for export. Or, circular agriculture gets confused with extensive agriculture, with a low output per hectare: old-school farming. However, circular agriculture is about more than just local, small-scale and extensive.

Our food system is, and will remain, an international system.


Our food system is, and will remain, an international system. The Netherlands is not an island, and being self-sufficient is not realistic. We are accustomed to being able to shop for imported bananas and coffee, and other consumers, particularly in neighbouring countries, enjoy Dutch dairy products and vegetables. 

Although local and extensive concepts are part of our food supply, it is not enough. We won’t make it on extensive systems alone; our arable land is simply not sufficient. There is a need for variation in businesses, with extensive and intensive approaches to farming, and taking into account diversity in nature, landscapes and business models.

Farmers and knowledge institutes, sometimes supported by the government, are already moving in this direction. The Farm of the Future in Lelystad is experimenting with sustainable soil management and mutually reinforcing crop combinations and innovative technology. This results in high yields, with much lower usage of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Moreover, 300 dairy farmers have launched the Vruchtbare Kringloop Achterhoek (Fertile Cycle Achterhoek), made up of many different businesses, both extensive and intensive, united in their drive to make their business more sustainable. In the pig-farming sector, the Coalitie Vitale Varkenshouderij (Coalition for Vital Pig Farming) was formed. This collaboration focuses on a healthier living environment with closed cycles and animal-friendly pig farming.

Formulating long-term goals

It stands to reason to expect a further closing of the cycle in agriculture. The government could provide support by formulating long-term goals, ensuring consistency and stability in policy and legislation, and by promoting collaboration. For example, between arable farming and livestock farming. Less artificial fertiliser and better usage of animal manure. Manure then becomes a valuable resource rather than a ‘problem’. However, this does require innovation.  

For instance, the development of practical techniques to gather fresh manure or to collect urine and manure separately. Currently, manure and urine are generally gathered in a single storage, causing ammonia emissions. Separating the two would reduce these emissions, and allow for a more targeted usage of manure as fertiliser in crop tilling, directly, or after processing. Reducing byproducts and waste streams in the food chain is another example. As is breeding insects on organic waste streams from agriculture, industry and urban centres. These insects can then serve as a resource for food and animal feed.

However, merely making food production more sustainable is not enough. Circular agriculture can only be successful in combination with significant changes in our food consumption pattern. Currently, over a third of our food is lost in storage, preparation and consumption. These enormous levels of wastage must be lowered. The Netherlands has committed to reducing food waste by half between 2015 and 2030, and the challenge is to repurpose whatever remains in the food cycle, as a resource for animal feed, for example.

Consumers are insufficiently stimulated to make more conscientious choices. Production chains could step up.

Food prices

The human diet must also be better balanced. Under optimal land usage, a third of our proteins world be animal-based. In the Netherlands and many other countries, this is even more. This overconsumption of animal-based protein must be lowered. Food prices offer a critical point of improvement, as the price is an important determining factor in consumer behaviour. To date, food prices are determined by supply and demand, based on the economic value of food. The societal value of sustainably produced food is not yet expressed in terms of money, never mind the farmer getting paid for producing sustainably. Consumers are insufficiently stimulated to make more conscientious choices. Production chains could step up. Consider the supplement farmers are paid for meadow-milk. But, the government also has a role and could lower the VAT for sustainably produced food products. And, as far as pricing is concerned: the food system is an international system. Pricing stimuli must work in an import and export system.

Circular agriculture is a viable option, but it requires practical steps in production and consumption.