Speech by Carola Schouten, Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, on the occasion of the centenary of Wageningen University and Research Centre, Wageningen

Speech by Carola Schouten, Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, on the occasion of the centenary of Wageningen University and Research Centre, Wageningen, 9 March 2018.

Professor Mol,

Professor Fresco,

Your Excellencies,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It’s an honour to speak to you on the 100th anniversary of this renowned institution. As the world’s top agricultural university, its fame abroad is even greater than that of my hometown, Rotterdam! Of course, its areas of expertise align closely with my own portfolio. But as I speak today at this great institution, I do so with the modesty befitting a new minister who’s been in office for less than six months.

It is said that Wageningen was chosen as the site for this university for practical reasons. It was within easy cycling distance of sand, clay and peatland. Which was handy for the students – mainly farmers’ sons in those days – to conduct their field trials. Wageningen was also a sheltered sort of place, where they weren’t likely to get into too much trouble.

It’s hard now to imagine those beginnings. Wageningen today has an impressive campus, extensive research facilities, and innovation centres set up by multinationals like FrieslandCampina and Unilever. It’s a magnet for talented people, with students from a hundred different countries.

But Wageningen is still characterised by its friendly atmosphere and human scale. Not to mention the banana greenhouse and Professor Fresco’s brilliant lectures, which always give food for thought.

Your alumni all have one thing in common: they are firmly rooted in society. They easily combine the latest advances in food science and technology with home-grown agricultural solutions, and link practical know-how with social-scientific analysis. As students, too, they often went out into the world, leaving behind the labs and lecture halls. Student satisfaction scores are high, the list of dissertations long. So it’s possible to bump into Wageningen alumni anywhere, in all walks of life: farming in France. Working as a journalist. Managing a cooperative. Leading the Eurogroup. And of course, working at the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality.

These people help us connect with the whole world. And these connections are deep-rooted, thanks to the merger between Wageningen Agricultural University and the DLO agricultural research institutes 20 years ago. This brought basic research, applied research and education under one roof. A bold move that sets you apart from other universities.

The close interconnection between the private sector, researchers and government has become your unique selling point. It’s evident everywhere. For instance, in the Sustainable Food Initiative, which looks at the big challenges facing global food production. And in the World Food Centre in Ede, which benefits the entire region.

During every age people see a little further. They build on past discoveries, like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. You can be proud of Wageningen’s prominent place in the history of knowledge. Here, the processes of plant growth were first understood. Here, plants’ defences against natural enemies were discovered. And here the idea developed that ecosystems can reach a tipping point and suddenly collapse. It’s hard to imagine there was a time when we didn’t know this.

Today, on this anniversary, I also want to look to the future.

We owe something to that future, to our children and grandchildren. They will need more, not less: more nature, sufficient and healthy food, and a fair price system for those that work so hard to deliver it. It is everyone’s responsibility now to adopt new ways of production and consumption, to change and realize a transformation at all levels. That transformation is a verb.

Hard choices might have to be made. Critical discussions will be there. Apparent dilemmas are there to be faced.

We are lucky to benefit from our strong global orientation and from knowledge infrastructures that have no boundaries. They fit with our open economy. But the absence of boundaries sometimes weighs upon the opportunities to transform. We don’t want to drop out of our strong market position. On the other hand, we also realize how food production and consumption impact on global climate changes, on the use of raw materials and on ecosystems.

What the future requires is doing more with less. A better targeting of scarce resources and a rebalancing of social, environmental and economic needs. And more sustainability in agriculture.

I can easily figure how the agricultural sector can benefit more from natural processes like soil life, pollination or the natural prevention of plant diseases. Conversely, the agricultural sector can take a larger part in the international fight against climate change, in the protection of biodiversity or in maintaining water quality.

Bringing actors together and bridging conflicting interests for the common good, that is what we need in my view.

Here in The Netherlands, we are privileged with a highly advanced agricultural sector. A country with modern solutions for farming and climate change. A country with know-how that can help meet the growing demand for quality food, and help others raise their production.

Yet despite all this, there are concerns within society. People realise that even the most successful food system isn’t invincible. There’s a general sense that ‘something’ needs to be done. Something has to change. That’s where the world is right now, and many of us are worried.

There are many different issues, many different opinions, and many possible solutions. Just let me share some with you:

Should we depend on technology that enables us to produce more food while reducing emissions?

Can we reconcile large-scale factory farming with our romantic images of the past?

Do we take our family-run farms for granted?

Do we understand the dilemmas faced by our fishing sector?

Is there room for high-tech farms?

As we explore these issues, I believe we need the courage to make moral choices before choices are made for us. In his book The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European, Stefan Zweig explained why this is so important: ‘It is an iron law that those who will be caught up in the great movements determining the course of their times always fail to recognise them in their early stages.’

So what if it turns out that what’s possible isn’t what we want? When reason and ethics clash?

We can produce cultured meat, but what about ethics? What if people think this is really wrong and unacceptable?

We might think organic agriculture is sustainable, but sometimes it has higher carbon emissions than conventional farming.

Vertical farming might look large-scale but that doesn’t always mean it is.

And what’s better: keeping livestock indoors or outdoors?

In seeking answers to these questions, I also look to you. Scientia potentia est: over the last hundred years, you showed us that nearly every technological challenge has a scientific solution. I’m confident that your analysis will help us address the major questions facing society today.

In saying this, we have to realise that results of scientific research do not automatically lead to acceptance of these results. Science and society should not grow apart. This is one of the challenges for the years ahead; both for me and for you.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We can be proud of this particular giant. For many years it has looked outward. And throughout its existence it has been closely connected with the issues facing the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. Like all Dutch universities, Wageningen is a haven for enquiring minds, where doubts can be explored and critical questions can be asked.

In the years to come we can assist each other in answering the big questions of our time. I will do my part by ensuring that the gathering of public opinions and scientific knowledge are able to reinforce each other. I’m confident this is possible. They both have the same starting point: the point of ‘not knowing’. And both have the same goal: greater wisdom.

So please keep giving us the facts and nuances. Help us ask the right questions. What should we know? What should we do? What can we hope for?

I wish you all wisdom and inspiration in your anniversary year. For everyone’s benefit.