News / 14 December 2023

The Netherlands can radically reduce its agrarian footprint

In the weeks following the elections, Both ENDS is looking at how Dutch foreign policy can be influenced in the coming years to reduce our footprint abroad and to work in the interests of people and planet. We will be doing that in four double interviews, each with an in-house expert and someone from outside the organisation.

Our first interview is with Karin van Boxtel and Volkert Engelsman about the Netherlands' role in the global food system. Van Boxtel is co-interim director of Both ENDS and an expert on food systems and international trade. Last year, she was co-initiator of a manifesto that calls for a Dutch agricultural policy that also works for farmers worldwide. Engelsman is an entrepreneur and pioneer in biological agriculture, and founder of Eosta. But above all, he is an innovative free thinker. He recently set up the Robin Food Coalition, a joint initiative of businesses and organisations that are already working on the agricultural transformation.

The Netherlands urgently needs to change to a more sustainable food system. How can that be achieved?

Engelsman: "Change depends on a minority of pioneers. There is always a group of forerunners, followed by a middle group and then a group of stragglers coming along behind. Politicians can only make choices if they have a democratic majority. That makes them followers. Many Dutch companies, like artificial fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers, benefit from everything staying the same. If you, as a politician, try to introduce measures to change things, you can't count on much support from them."

But if the government doesn't do it, who will?

Engelsman: "We have to search out the 'hotspots', where the potential for change does exist, such as biological and regenerative agriculture. The battle should not only be fought on moral grounds but also on the basis of facts and calculations. When the real costs of the current agricultural system are made visible to everyone, it is easy to persuade them because they see that every euro in subsidies for the current farming system generates three euros in social costs."

Van Boxtel: "There are increasingly loud voices against fossil subsidies, an argument that is supported by statistics. We also have a lot of statistics on agriculture and it is up to us to use those statistics to reinforce the very simple message that intensive farming and stock-breeding are not the future. We have many examples of how to do things differently, like the future farmers and food forest pioneers in the Netherlands, Cameroon and Costa Rica.'

The Netherlands is a major player on the world stage: we export around 122 billion euros in agricultural products, 30 % of which goes to countries outside the EU. The largest proportion of that is floriculture, meat and dairy products. But the Netherlands also exports its intensive farming system, precisely the system that you say we need to replace. What must happen to bring that change about?

Engelsman: "We need a different narrative. People still argue the 'we need to feed the world's population'. But feeding the world isn't about yield per hectare, but a fair distribution of prosperity. And making the Global South even more dependent on seeds, fertilizer and pesticides from the West doesn't bring us any closer to achieving that. And what do we mean by 'feeding the world'? People or animals? 80% of the world's crops are used for animal feed."

Van Boxtel: "Our international policy – including the trade agenda – supports Dutch agribusiness. But the starting point should be: what do people themselves need so that support contributes to a fairer distribution of food and a more healthy ecosystem? To give one example: embassies play a role in promoting the Dutch seed sector. Yet, in a country like Kenya, 70 to 80 percent of farmers are dependent on informal seed systems, in which they exchange and reproduce their own seeds. Those systems need strengthening. These farmers don't need an even more active Dutch seed sector selling them seeds and pesticides."

So fewer exports. Won't that have a harmful effect on the Dutch economy?

Van Boxtel: "We need to take the lead on the basis of quality and sustainability, and in a respectful manner. By listening to communities around the world and hearing what they need."

Engelsman: "Leadership doesn't start with complaining about others, but by setting a good example. We are already doing that in Europe, by the way. We have the Green Deal and the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive. Companies have to show what their impact is. If they don't do that, they don't get a declaration of approval and consequently no funding. That rearguard battle about this has already been fought in Brussels."

Van Boxtel: "The debate on agriculture in the Netherlands is dominated by powerful players like LTO and Agractie. It is in their interests to preserve the status quo. But there is also 'BV Nederland', which sees the Netherlands as a commercial community and which is setting a good example. That's how a business model should be built up."

Engelsman: "My message to politicians in the coming years is primarily to listen to the pioneers who are already taking action to initiate the agricultural transformation. They need to sit around the table and take part in the debate. We are already taking significant steps with initiatives like the Robin Food Coalition, but our political leaders really should listen to them much more closely. What needs to be done to achieve the transition? What hurdles are they coming up against? Only if we have that discussion will we get any idea of where we need to go and how. The new government needs to break through the current power structures."

Van Boxtel: "We need different forms of countervailing power: not only power that offers an alternative, but also power that shows the way and the power or working together. We need the protestors, the pioneers and the group that gains strength in numbers. We have to keep on joining all those forces together, nationally and internationally, so that a stronger and stronger movement evolves in the direction of fair and sustainable food production worldwide. By listening not only to the big agrarian corporations, but also – and especially – to the trailblazers, our political leaders can give this movement sufficient space to develop and expand."

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