‘Towards a new agreement between agriculture and society’

‘Sustainable agriculture – in addition to healthy food as an essential service – provides a great deal for society.’ Stefanie Delarue, lecturer and researcher at HOGENT, and Lieven Bauwens, founder of Pomona vzw, describe how ‘recoverable agriculture’ is possible and why there is an urgent need for a ‘New Deal’ between agriculture and society.

The farmer of the future already exists … And no, not in a farm with a futuristic look.

For the above lines, we thank Berno Strootman, a Dutch landscape architect and former government consultant for the landscape. He was one of the speakers in a three-part lecture series on the restoration of agriculture. Agriculture that is ecologically, economically and socially restorative for producers, consumers and landscape. A catchy theme, as evidenced by the more than 1,750 sign-ups for our three evenings together. Farmers, researchers, officials, designers, NGOs, citizens, students … the topic touches on a diverse group.

Recognition of the problemm

One question that you inevitably get on such evenings is whether we can make our food feasible and affordable with restorative farming. But is that the right question? At the moment, the real cost of our food is not passed on, and this leads to unsustainable situations for both the farmer and our living environment. The political level does not yet seem to recognize the problem. Flanders will give Europe “interpretation”, but will not adjust the substandard policy. What about the crushing nitrogen problem, water problems (desiccation, eutrophication and pollution), drastic declines in our biodiversity, degrading landscapes, speculation on agricultural land, weakened soils, climate catastrophe and an agricultural industry that is becoming unsustainable for many, so there are none future in this beautiful profession?

The challenges for our agri-food system are enormous and the resources complex. We believe that the restoration of agriculture can be a full part of this. Let us take as our starting point our practice, from foreign examples and what we learned from our ten presenters at our lecture evenings on restorative agriculture.

Connect with the landscape

We and our food determine and form part of complex ecosystems in a landscape with a long cultural history. Due to specialization and extensive market forces, we have lost touch with that landscape. Our landscape is deteriorating, not only in diversity, but also all associated ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as its resilience. And with it the appeal and experience of the landscape that in these times seems to be increasingly important for our mental and physical health. Agriculture and landscape must be re-woven, for example literally with flowering road edges, species-rich hedges or rows of trees and solitary large trees. But also by giving agriculture and its various forms the right place and place in our landscape. With a focus on a high diversity of crops or naturalization. Consumer and landscape must be re-woven. Agricultural landscapes as robust socio-ecological systems, as a (side) response to the eroding monocultures.

Ensure coherence between product, manufacturer and consumer

The consumer often decides on the basis of one parameter: the price. The effect of this choice is anonymous and therefore made easy. The farmer has the same story. All too often, it produces anonymous products that, along with other anonymous products, are offered for sale to an anonymous consumer. The reality that counts then is: what will it cost me (as little as possible), and what price will I get (as high as possible)? Nutritional value, as an invisible parameter, or impact on the environment already scores much less. For the consumer, the impact on the farmer’s life is not really a parameter with great weight. Restorative farming is only possible if the consumer is closely involved in food production: for example, consumers in Pomona invest directly and significantly in the business, and the management is decided together with the farmers. Impact of consumption and production are weighed against each other.

Give space to experiment

Many farmers are stuck. Although they want a restorative effect, change is difficult. For example, the rules on land use allow only a few experiments or sustainability. Integrating agro-ecological conditions into the rental legislation will, for example, be able to create space for land restoration. Or an amended regulation on plant densities and distances or the management of trees and shrubs on agricultural land can remove uncertainties for many farmers and provide space for agroforestry and food forests and a landscape again at the crossroads of trees and shrubs.

Farmers must also be supported financially and socially to be able to take that step. In addition to healthy food as an essential service, sustainable agriculture provides a great deal for society. So why can we not focus current economic support for agriculture on ensuring biodiversity, a living soil that absorbs water and CO?2 can store, for clean water and air, for an attractive and diverse landscape? Towards a new agreement between agriculture and society.

Research must also provide solid support. Since World War II, everything has been done from that angle – and the economy attached to it – to bring our intensive agriculture to its present form. But at this turning point for agriculture and our entire society, sustainable alternatives must be sought. A full-fledged scientific program can bring the anecdotal knowledge and experience of the pioneers and early users of restorative agriculture into evidence-based science and provide more farmers and funding sources with security and support for change.

Europe rightly challenges us to be more ambitious in our agricultural policy. Whether 40, 28 or 150 red companies should close next to nature reserves is not the right answer to the many challenges we face. All arrows must be aimed at the farmer of the future. And yes, it already exists, but he and the restorative farming model he represents need every opportunity from an integrated perspective to grow and occupy an important place in our landscape, our society and on our plates.

Stefanie Delarue is a lecturer and researcher at HOGENT, research center Futures through Design

Lieven Bauwens is the founder and director of Pomona vzw and cvba

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