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'Lower emissions and successful farming can go hand in hand'

Circular agriculture and more nature are important to reduce harmful emissions and to give a new impetus to biodiversity. But is that compatible with the Netherlands' position as an important exporter of food products? Professor of Conservation Biology Geert de Snoo believes it is, at least provided we make clear choices. He has drawn up a to-do list for farmers, citizens and politicians.

In monetary terms, the Netherlands is the world's second biggest exporter of agricultural products.  Whether we're talking about milk, potatoes or pigs, over the past five to six decades, it's all been about increasing production. But fertilisers and pesticides also do a lot of harm. Minister of Agriculture Schouten wants to introduce circular agriculture, particularly to reduce nitrogen emissions. This issue has now become urgent: the Council of State recently banned the Netherlands from any further delays in implementing European rules on nitrogen emissions. Failure to comply means farms will face acute problems with their permits.  

To-do list

Lower emissions and successful farming can still go hand in hand, says Geert de Snoo. He is Professor of Conservation Biology and is shortly to become director of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). There are four steps that he believes we need to take in the Netherlands to be able to combine circular agriculture, the Deltaplan for Restoring Biodiversity and productive, high-value farming. 

1. Think about the scale you want for the circle

'Do you want to have a closed circle for every company, so that each farmer has to produce food for his cattle himself and use fertiliser on his land? Or is it possible to do this at the field or regional level, or across the whole of the Netherlands? That's a discussion we have to have.' Transporting raw materials and waste products throughout the country is also harmful to the environment, albeit in a different way, but De Snoo can also imagine that we might opt for circular agriculture on a European scale. The rules and subsidies are uniform, our exports can largely continue and it will certainly have a beneficial effect on the environment. 

In that case, we will have to address the difficult question of how to handle the import of animal feed from other parts of the world. That's no longer allowed, while we have a global economy. 'Whatever we choose, it will cause pain somewhere in the chain and processes will have to be organised differently. But if we don't first make a decision on scale, the concept of circular agriculture will remain too vague and we can't get on with closing the nitrogen loop.' 

2. Repeat the ingenious tactic of land consolidation

After the Second World War, the Netherlands embarked on a scheme of large-scale land consolidation. The aim at the time was to scale up farming, but the land exchanges and relocations also benefited new nature areas. With the knowledge we have today, De Snoo believes a new form of land consolidation can get underway if we are prepared for it. 'Then you could, for example, have the farmers who are aiming for higher production in the Green Heart region relocate so that meadow birds can benefit from the wetlands that they need. Or relocate farms that are currently right next door to nature areas to places where their emissions can do less harm.' 

De Snoo understands all too well that, as a technocrat, you can't simply relocate farms that have been in one location for many generations. He really does appreciate the social side of changes. Nonetheless, he puts it into context: 'More and more people want change. For the past fifty, sixty years we have been chasing upscaling and increasing production, but in real terms, that's just a couple of generations. Surely that's something we can turn around?'

3. Bring more nature into farming

De Snoo hopes that 'green veins' running through farming areas will become a reality. Ideas on this have been circulating for some time, but none of these have ever made it to implementation. Research by his own group shows that the share of nature in the form of untreated field margins, ditch edges or hedgerows can be very decisive in promoting biodiversity. Nature-inclusive agriculture is another way of describing this.

There is now the Deltaplan for Restoring Biodiversity, a joint venture of farmers and nature organisations, in which farmers make commitments about nature-friendly farming methods. 'It's a good plan and it has attracted the attention of the minister. She and the EU can introduce strict rules, but what really needs to happen is for farming to become completely different expertise. A farmer is currently primarily an entrepreneur, who is proud of his high yields. The farmer of the future also has to have an understanding of earthworms and will compete with his colleagues for a breeding godwit on his land.' 

4. Continue to learn more about what is needed

The circular agriculture that Minister Schouten wants to introduce will help combat the over-fertilisation of nature, which will in turn help biodiversity. Nature-inclusive farming, where you are working with rather than against nature will directly benefit biodiversity. These new, helpful insects will also give you a good yield while using fewer pesticides. 'We already know a lot about what we need to do to make our farming more nature friendly,’ says De Snoo. 'But we still need more research, about the exact percentages of nature that you need to preserve on farmland, for instance. We have to bear in mind that butterflies, for example, have different needs from plants or soil animals. Together with Naturalis, Leiden University can play a meaningful role here.' 

A bike ride in a year's time..?

The to-do list is not easy, but De Snoo believes it is achievable. 'The Netherlands is good at cooperating. Just look at our water management programmes or agreements on milk. We can change things. Eggs from battery hens are now almost a thing of the past in our supermarkets because that's what society wanted. Ministers, farm enterprises and citizens can achieve this if they work together.'

As yet it isn't possible to cycle throughout a region of the Netherlands where nature-inclusive agriculture is in place. There isn't such an area yet, says De Snoo. 'But it would be great if, in a year or so, you and I could get on our bikes and really see that things have changed.' We are definitely going to do it; it's already in my diary. 

Text: Rianne Lindhout
Photos: Pixabay

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