Chaos at Schiphol wake up call from food shortages? – Opinion Wouter Baan


Opinion Wouter Baan

Schiphol is struggling with a large staff shortage. Anyone who has not received any of this lives under a rock. Other sectors also have the greatest difficulty in finding staff. Not least the agricultural sector and the food processing company around it. There has been a warning about staff shortages for years, just as there are now signs of food shortages approaching.

It is not new that many sectors are facing a large shortage of staff. Companies have been complaining for a long time. But when misery broke out at Schiphol during the May holidays, it became serious. Of course, our national pride must not be compromised. The lack of staff has suddenly become a priority, also in The Hague. Schiphol’s CEO, Dick Benschop, was held accountable by politicians and has been bombed into bogeyman, of course someone should be blamed. Attempts are now being made to retain and find staff with higher salaries.

Labor shortages are predicted
There have been warnings of staff shortages for years. Recently, I read ‘Money Murder’, a 2012 book by our columnist and money economist Edin Mujagic. In it, he warns first and foremost about inflation driven by the central banks’ loose monetary policy. The new shortage of staff and water shortages are also discussed in this book. Ten years after the first edition, suddenly everything is very topical. Other economists and trendwatchers have also warned of labor market shortages for years. Despite robotization, hands are still badly needed.

What remains necessary is food. Fortunately, extreme scarcity is not a problem in the Western world at the moment, although the war in Ukraine has made society realize that food cannot be taken for granted. What strikes me is that the food surplus has disappeared. Take, for example, eggs, beef, potatoes, fish, dairy products or grains. The whole thing is scarce. The so-called butter mountains belong to the past. Pork is an exception to the rule, although there will also be a shortage in that market if the decline continues. Overseas foods such as coffee and palm oil are also limited. The austerity measures have driven prices to historically high levels, which has boosted food inflation. In the Netherlands, it was around 8% in May.

The profits of agriculture have disappeared
The disappearance of profits is an initial stage of scarcity. Or are they actually coming? It probably does not go that fast in the western world, given the strong purchasing power. Unlike countries in Africa e.g. Problems often only become serious when it is two to twelve o’clock. The large shortage of staff at Schiphol is very annoying, but it is especially about tourists who often book tickets to the sun for almost nothing. When food shortages occur, it’s a different story. It concerns everyone. There is no plan B for that. The idea that it does not get there is therefore quite naive. Just as the shortage and price increases are to blame for logistical disruptions due to the corona crisis, although it obviously plays a role.

‘Food becomes a geopolitical weapon’
Without wishing to be a court case, we appear to be heading for food shortages in the coming decades. Take the growth of the world population. By the end of this year, according to the UN, we will pass 8 billion people. That’s 8 billion mouths to feed every day. By 2050, it is estimated that the same UN will have 10 billion people on the planet that everyone would also like to eat. Every day again. Whether it is meat, vegetarian or a combination thereof. Meanwhile, the number of farmers worldwide is declining. Agricultural land in Europe is also shrinking visibly. And then there are the problems surrounding global warming, which will increase the chance of crop failure.

“Food will be the new geopolitical weapon,” Agrifirm CEO Dick Hordijk predicted this week on BNR Nieuwsradio. That sounds plausible. It is not without reason that Russia is preying on Ukraine. The economic dependence on oil is declining due to the emergence of circular energy sources. But humans and animals must continue to eat. Russia seems to be turning its economy around. With a (potential) agricultural area from here to Tokyo, our dependence on Russia in the coming years may be greater than we can imagine with all the sanctions. Certainly when parts of Ukraine also fall into the hands, not for nothing called Europe’s bread basket.

Lots of problems that are hard to find solutions to. Maybe the technology will surprise us, and the food will soon be able to be produced ingeniously, even if it looks like that wishful thinking† At present, nature conservation in our country enjoys political preference over food production. But there will probably come a time when we will appreciate the cultural landscape of agriculture better, including its managers. Is it already two to twelve? Another era seems to be approaching and may have already begun. Rising food prices are proof.

Wouter Baan

Wouter Baan is the editor of Boerenbusiness and focuses on dairy, pork and meat markets. He also follows (business) developments in agribusiness and interviews CEOs and policy makers.

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