‘Farmers and gardeners make good food, and we will certainly continue to do so’

[SPECIAL: HUISJE, BOOMPJE, BEESTJE] NEWBOAT – ‘Dad, can I still be a farmer?’ On the way to Madavisen’s editorial office, there is a protest sign in the middle of fields where the crops are already showing their heads. Just behind it, Hoogvliet announces that it is a proud buyer of this country’s products. Meanwhile, countless tractors of angry farmers block the distribution centers of various supermarket formulas, and the whole of Holland is covered with the tricolor upside down. What happens? We contacted the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality and also asked the Dutch Agricultural and Horticultural Organization (LTO) about its vision for the changing Dutch agricultural sector. “A lot is asked of the farmers.”

The limits of what the residential environment can handle have been reached, says Minister Henk Staghouwer. “We face the enormous task of restoring biodiversity and significantly reducing emissions of ammonia and greenhouse gases into the air and of fertilizers and plant protection products into the water. The approach to this will not tolerate any delay. It is not about fine-tuning the sharp edges, but about a complete restructuring of the agricultural and food system,” said the minister. The area-oriented approach he saw rolling out “will inevitably lead to far-reaching adjustments in rural areas and the agricultural sector”. The ‘painful message’: Not all farmers can continue with their agricultural business.

Circular agriculture
The farmers must – and have been for some time – converted to circular agriculture. But how? The minister believes that there are different perspectives for farmers and points to the ways in which the state can support the transition. Through ‘goal management’ he wants to ‘offer farmers and gardeners the space to decide for themselves how they want to organize their business operations’. He only sees the transition as successful if the farmers ‘have a long-term business perspective’, in other words: if they can make (good) profit from it. And he emphasizes that the entire chain has a responsibility for the transition to circular agriculture: agricultural land owners, banks and other financiers, suppliers, customers, food processors, distributors and transporters. Staghouwer: “And of course also the consumer, both in the Netherlands and abroad. The time of waiting for each other and pointing at each other is over.”

Nitrogen card
The question remains: how should farmers make that transition? According to the minister, there is no blueprint for this, but he distinguishes a number of ‘main directions for development’, which can also be followed in combination. The first is technical innovation, where we have to think about things like low-emission stables, the use of precision fertilization techniques and the use of artificial intelligence. Extensification, which reduces the number of animals, is the other direction of development. The question is how livestock farmers can realize a good income model, but the minister knows something about that: they can, for example, use their land for recreational purposes or ask for a higher price for their product. Switching to new products or services is a third direction for farmers in transition. Think about the transition to organic farming, growing protein crops, growing organic raw materials (for example for construction) or opening an agricultural horticulture. Finally, farmers can also move their holdings. Not an easy process considering the nitrogen map recently published by minister Christianne van der Wal from nitrogen and nature. This indicates per range of how much nitrogen reduction is to be achieved and it varies from 12 to sometimes 95 percent. It is of course also an option for the minister to simply stop the company. Whatever the farmers and gardeners choose, they will be supported through various schemes, promises the minister, who will make more than 24 billion euros available for the transition until 2035.

Industry under pressure
The Dutch Agriculture and Horticulture Organization (LTO) immediately said it found the minister’s plans ‘unrealistic’ and stated that the letter to parliament in which Staghouwer sets out his vision and plans, despite ‘a few impassioned words’, ‘ hits the ground running’ with farmers and gardeners. “A lot is being asked about,” states Josephine Stellingwerf, communications advisor at LTO, in short. “They must produce and grow sustainably, keep animals in a different way and minimize negative impacts on nature, the environment, the climate and the immediate living environment. Contradictions regarding agriculture and horticulture have increased in politics and society. The sector is under pressure as a result, but at the same time it also offers opportunities for the future and an even more sustainable agriculture and horticulture,’ says Stellingwerf.
Agriculture therefore faces major challenges at global, national and regional level. Take the European ambitions in climate, environment and nature. Stellingwerf: “They have a big effect on Dutch agriculture. Think Greendeal and the Farm-to-fork strategy. There will be a lot of attention to strengthening sustainability, with many associated regulations, and less focus on the more traditional income support for farmers. In the Netherlands, there is a constant demand for more land: for housing, nature and agriculture. The social expectations for agriculture have shifted to farmers and gardeners who, in addition to food production, are also aware of biodiversity, nature and climate. It requires a different way of working and therefore also a reward.”

Good food
Does this also affect the quality of our food? Stellingwerf does not think so: “Farmers and gardeners make good food, and we will certainly continue to do so. But if nothing changes in the current plans, it could have far-reaching consequences for the availability of Dutch food, because they have an impact on everyone: from the primary producer to processors and other parties in the chain.” As far as Stellingwerf is concerned, consumers in and outside the Netherlands enjoy the good, healthy and affordable food that the farmers and gardeners of our country are proud to produce for them. “At the same time, society increasingly wants the way food is produced,” she acknowledges. “We have an eye on that. Farmers and gardeners themselves invest heavily in sustainability, but all too often do not see this reflected in the price they receive for their products. It must be changed. As far as a contribution from the chain is concerned, the coalition agreement provides tools for this, but the Danish Parliament’s criticism of Minister Staghouwer’s ‘perspective letter’ before the summer shows that the government has not yet found solutions to the ever-increasing costs of its own policy.” Fewer farmers mean that food producers who want to get their raw materials from nearby, will soon have to have more expensive and less sustainable products far away? This is what Stellingwerf believes: “Consumer needs and demand will not change if farmers and gardeners disappear here. The processing industry will therefore indeed pick up the Dutch raw materials elsewhere and/or move the processing industry abroad. This will in many cases be less sustainable,” she replies. “Farmers and gardeners are rooted in the Dutch landscape, contribute to a strong primary sector and are recognized worldwide for their sustainable and efficient production methods.They provide good food, beautiful greenery and strong entrepreneurial spirit teri. Furthermore, the cow in the meadow is an iconic Dutch image. A large majority (77 percent) of the Dutch consider farmers and gardeners to be necessary for the vitality and quality of life in the countryside. But the landscape will change drastically in the coming years as a result of, for example, population decline, the movement of people to urban areas and the loss of economic activity and facilities in rural areas. If farmers and gardeners disappear, the countryside as we know it today will be put at risk.”

Due to the summer holidays, Minister Staghouwer referred us to his letter to the Danish Parliament of 10 June 2022. We have subsequently extracted his statements from it. As this issue went to press, it was announced that Staghouwer is stepping down.

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