Blog / 16 February 2021

The Netherlands can contribute much to making agriculture sustainable – nationally and internationally

If the Netherlands wants to make its agriculture and livestock industry sustainable and to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their products, it will also have to look beyond its own borders. The Netherlands is the world's second largest exporter of agricultural products. We have a great impact because, through our trade relations, we uphold a system of intensive agriculture that destroys ecosystems and undermines local production. Partly due to our trade in agricultural products, the Dutch economy is has a large, and growing, footprint. That should and can be different: the Netherlands is in a good position to lead the required transition in agriculture. Fortunately, the party manifestos for the coming elections offer sufficient opportunities to set that in motion. A new coalition can thus take decisive new steps.

The road to sustainability

Most of the attention in the manifestos goes to achieving sustainability at national level. PvdA, GroenLinks, PvdD, SP, ChristenUnie and D66 want to see agriculture and the livestock industry made completely sustainable and focus on nature-inclusive and circular agriculture. Their manifestos give the government a stimulating and regulatory role in achieving these aims. CDA and VVD lay the emphasis on using technological solutions to make the existing agricultural model sustainable. The government provides a supportive framework, with farmers themselves playing an initiating and leading role.

The parties are in general agreement that farmers should get a fair price for their products, chains should be shorter and products should be marketed and consumed locally. That calls for a radical change of direction, especially in our foreign policy. Dutch banks, companies and agricultural engineers actively promote and support the Dutch agricultural model in all kinds of ways beyond our borders, while that model is the subject of much criticism at home.

Trade and investment agreements

Trade agreements are an important component of the export strategy for our non-sustainable agricultural model. Agreements that the Netherlands and the EU have concluded or will conclude in the future with countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America allow large-scale producers to open up new markets, at the expense of small local farmers.

The provisions in these agreements throw up severe obstacles for local food producers. Farmers in Indonesia can only produce rice sustainably if they can use their own local seeds. But that is all too often prevented by international trade agreements that favour giants like Bayer and Syngenta. Women in Guatemala wishing to plant food forests have to compete for water with rapidly expanding palm oil plantations in the hands of foreign multinationals, whose activities are made possible by banks, insurance companies and trade and investment agreements.

But famers in the Netherlands, too, are disadvantaged by these agreements. Dutch growers are coming under pressure from large-scale and cheaply produced green beans from Senegal and Morocco – mainly produced by an originally Dutch company. Cheap, non-sustainably produced roses from Kenya are making it difficult for Dutch greenhouse farmers to grow them sustainably. And there are many more examples. The EU-Mercosur agreement, which has been criticised by a majority in parliament, has increased competition from South American meat and crops produced according to much less stringent sustainability standards and also pose a great threat to the Amazon region.

The Netherlands is part of the solution

Rather than being part of the problem, the Netherlands can be part of the solution. To really get the transition to sustainable agriculture moving, the new coalition will have to discourage the production of non-sustainable products like soya and palm oil by imposing strict sustainability requirements on the import of these bulk goods. In the EU and WTO, it can call for provisions to be included in new trade and investment agreements like the EU-Mercosur agreement imposing import duties on non-sustainable products. Within its own trade agreements, like that with Indonesia, the new government can combat the monopoly of giant seed companies that make it impossible for farmers to use their own seeds.

Practice has shown that food forests and other agro-ecological initiatives within and outside the Netherlands are future-proof and profitable. The new coalition can reward Dutch farmers who also wish to operate sustainably beyond our borders – the front runners who we have to rely on – and where possible encourage this development by giving them financial support instead of continuing to support non-sustainable agricultural companies.

Our science is a potential ally for the new coalition. Wageningen and other universities are breeding the talent and energy to make sustainability the norm. Together with scientists, the Netherlands can invest in expanding agro-ecology and other forms of sustainable and circular agriculture and livestock breeding. That can start with trade missions aimed primarily at exporting these methods instead of our large-scale, twentieth century agricultural model.

What the Netherlands does beyond its borders is of enormous importance for the international sustainable agriculture and food transition. It is up to the new coalition to take on the responsibility that comes with that role, and to give the transition a substantial boost within and outside the Netherlands.

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