‘Climate weeds and poison sprayers: time to really listen to each other’

Agriculture and food stand at the crossroads of the biggest challenges of our time: climate, environment and poverty. But that cannot be read from the polarizing way in which the discussion is conducted, says Jelle Goossens from Rikolto. A plea for fewer debates and more conversations.

‘ONEIf the new fertilizer action plan goes through like this, it’s the end of the story for me.’ Bam. I sense the mixture of desperation and anger in the voice of Lorenzo, a young farmer. ‘Not being allowed to use so much land, it’s just not profitable anymore.’

Just before our conversation in December 2022, a proposal for a new fertilizer action plan (MAP7) leaked out. This determines, among other things, how much and where the farmers can use manure. Where is the leak coming from? Is this really what’s coming? Will there be any adjustments? Many questions, the result so far: spectacle on Twitter and in the TV studios. Stress and uncertainty among the people who bear the consequences.

At one extreme is the “poison-spraying farmer” who doesn’t want to see any change. On the other hand, “climate freaks and environmental terrorists” who want to destroy agriculture.

I collapse in despair. Agriculture and food stand at the intersection of the biggest challenges of our time: climate, environment, poverty, etc. But the way the discussion is conducted does not reflect this. I see big statements with increasingly sharp caricatures. At one extreme is the “poison-spraying farmer” who doesn’t want to see any change. On the other hand, “climate freaks and environmental terrorists” who want to destroy agriculture.

But this evening my misanthropy subsides. We are guests at the dairy farm of the Gansbeke family in Lokeren. Eight young farmers and eight students with different study backgrounds are here together at the invitation of Rikolto and Groene Kring, the association of young farmers and gardeners. Together we developed a dialogue concept to break through the polarization in the food debate.

Why do I think what I think?

Lorenzo and I are one of the conversational duos. We take the sheet of statements and tick whether we agree or disagree: Large-scale livestock farming and animal welfare are not connected. Chemical pesticides are an ecological disaster and should be banned by law. Short chains must become the norm. We need bigger and more efficient agriculture in Flanders.

We are stuck with the last statement. I ticked “disagree”, Lorenzo “agree”. We include the instruction sheet, because it is not a classic debate to convince each other. This is a conversation where you alternately get the chance to explain your position, step into your interlocutor’s shoes, discover why he or she thinks that way.

I explain my concerns about scaling up. Where I fear that the human scale is exceeded and alienation occurs. You see this in so many companies that grow, merge and become bigger again. I fear that the drive for scale and the associated efficiency in agriculture will lead to an impoverishment of the monoculture. I fear that large agricultural companies will need so much capital that soon only large investors will be active in agriculture. Institutes that are far from the country and only look at returns in spreadsheets. Which sees the farmer as an interchangeable farmer. Which are not responsible towards the environment and society.

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Lorenzo nods. Nor is it the future he wants for himself and his farmers. Still, he disagrees with the statement.

‘For me it’s a matter of free enterprise,’ he tells me. “If I see a new opportunity to grow, I want the freedom to do it. It’s just in me. I want to move forward. Of course, I have to take care of my environment and I don’t want it to grow on me over my head. I’d be insane. But as long as I’m matching with other farmers around me to ensure diversity, why not?’

Surprising. So we disagree, but we understand each other.

Where I see the drive for efficiency clashing with care for the environment, Lorenzo sees it differently. “Efficient use of land and water means that you protect the environment. People think that we just spray around with manure and plant protection agents, but it is done very precisely and GPS-controlled. The less, the better for the environment and for my wallet, because those things cost a lot of money’. The right technology is a tool for Lorenzo to keep control of his farm as a farmer. “This way I get more done with my work.”

Surprising. So we disagree, but we understand each other. Strange how we interpreted the concept of scale and efficiency completely differently. Strange how we have the exact same concern.

Change as constant

The conversation lingers in my head for a long time. Globally, farmers like Lorenzo face major challenges in order to be future-proof. Emits fewer greenhouse gases, withstands heavier rains and longer periods of drought, meets nitrogen and other standards, and so on. Is it possible?

Agriculture has reinvented itself a number of times in the post-war period. The company in the Gansbeke family is the best proof of that. Fueled by different generations of entrepreneurship, new (European) legislation, changing market conditions and technological developments, land was bought, sold and annexed; tested new crops, built new stables for livestock and developed other side activities.

Won’t the farmers change? History shows: they have never done otherwise.

Won’t the farmers change? History shows: they have never done otherwise. That evening I met farmers who know very well what is going on in the world. Justine, another participant, put it bluntly: ‘I have to decide whether to take over the pig farm at home. It’s an investment for 40 years, but who’s to say people will still be eating pigs in 20 years?’

Feasible and affordable?

This is what we outsiders underestimate. Long-term investments in a rapidly changing world limit your room for manoeuvre.

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© Reuters / Marcelo del Pozo

As a society, we help determine how quickly change is possible by creating workable frameworks. ‘Politics is the art of the achievable’, it reads, often in combination with the slogan ‘feasible and affordable’. Two labia to stifle too much ambition. But we decide what is possible and affordable. How much space do we give politicians to pursue ambitious goals? How much leeway does the policy give the farmers to go in the desired direction? What respite does supermarkets and food companies have in running a long-term business? And how much space do we give as consumers?

Difficult but not impossible questions. Creating that space is also the task of a social organization like ours. And it starts with dialogue. That’s why we continue with it. Fewer debates, more real conversations.

Do you want to join the next dialogue? Sign up for Rikolto’s monthly newsletter. In it I will keep you informed of our next moments.

Jelle Goossens is Rikolto’s spokesperson and communications officer.

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