‘Urgency and impatience’: Perspectives on the future of agriculture, food and nature

March 15, 2024

WUR organised a Dilemma Dialogue on the future of agriculture, food and nature in the Netherlands on 11 March. Around 140 participants, among whom were representatives of the WWF, the food trade sector and young farmers, shared their various views. Not with the intent of debating them but to seek a shared long-term perspective on the Dutch food system.

The Dilemma Dialogue stemmed from the six dilemmas (see side panel) WUR presented in October 2023, through which Wageningen scientists pose that significant, fundamental decisions must be made on the future of agriculture, food and nature in the coming years.

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Difficult decisions

Lead researchers Bas Breman and Bram Bos opened the dialogue by presenting the six dilemmas they and their colleagues have formulated. Breman stressed that whatever decisions are made, they will always be painful and that this should be more specifically stated. Moral issues and emotions are part of that process. Bos added that the dilemmas have sparked talks in provincial administrative offices, during election debates and amongst individuals. WUR’s role is to bring people together and share knowledge and expertise on agriculture and nature and to challenge stakeholders to look at issues in a different way. These talks were to be continued at this Dilemma Dialogue.

Four organisations were asked to share their views on food, agriculture and nature and to respond to one or more Wageningen dilemmas to initiate the dialogue.

  • Natascha Kooiman, one of the founders of the Food Transition Coalition, indicated that social-cultural routines determine a large part of consumer behaviour. That makes it difficult to nudge consumers towards different choices. With regard to the sixth dilemma, she called for extensive government intervention. The current supply is unhealthy and unsustainable, thus ‘patronising in the wrong direction.’
  • Natasja Oerlemans of the World Wildlife Fund called for a fair and nature-positive food system. In response to the fourth dilemma, she posed that the Netherlands, as a wealthy nation, must take responsibility for achieving its climate goals. The WWF also had a clear position in dilemma 5: ‘Agriculture and nature are part of a single inseparable landscape and ecosystem.’
  • Marc Jansen, general director of the Central Bureau of Food Trade, also discussed the sixth dilemma (consumer behaviour). Food production, processing and distribution are economic activities, not utility functions. That means that the consumers’ free choice is leading within certain preconditions. According to Janssen, the government and businesses are taking responsibility and achieving results. ‘Let’s not be gloomy.’
  • Roy Meijer of the Dutch Association of Young Farmers sang a different tune. He talked about his father and grandfather, both farmers in a time governed by a basic narrative. His grandfather farmed during the reconstruction that followed the Second World War, and his father during the Cold War era. Now, as a farmer himself, a basic narrative is lacking. Meijer concluded with the sad statement that young farmers have no idea what the future holds and how long they must wait for society to provide clarity.

Do it yourself

After these concise presentations, the guests discussed the dilemmas amongst themselves. Several groups concluded that a strong government lead is needed, but is not expected any time soon. Many people feel the need to take action themselves. ‘Let’s stay positive and take action with those who are willing’, one participant concluded. The failed agricultural agreement was mentioned repeatedly. Many felt that the time is ripe for a new attempt at reaching an agreement, without the government, if needed.

Ernst van den Ende, managing director of the Animal Sciences Group, wrapped up the Dilemma Dialogue. He acknowledged the ‘urgency and impatience’ felt by those present. Van den Ende announced that WUR aims to initiate the discussion on these dilemmas at an international level, for example, during the Mansholt Lecture in Brussels. This will ensure that an increasing number of people enter into the dialogue on the food dilemmas.