Vision Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality
Dutch farming, horticulture and fisheries are constantly innovating, making our country a global leader in these sectors. However, current production methods are not without cost. The Netherlands faces serious social and ecological challenges. We need to prevent depletion of soil, freshwater supplies and raw materials, halt the decline in biodiversity and fulfil our commitments to the Paris climate agreement.
Climate change and resource scarcity require us to reassess production methods. Carola Schouten, Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, sees circular agriculture as the logical and conclusive answer to these issues. This means closing cycles of minerals and other resources as far as possible, strengthening our focus on biodiversity and respecting the Earth’s natural limits, preventing waste and ensuring farmers are paid a fair price for their hard work.
The Minister hopes that the Netherland’s vision on circular agriculture will become a source of inspiration at European level.
Agriculture, nature and food: valuable and connected
Where we stand
Farming, horticulture and fisheries are innovative sectors in the Netherlands and contribute significantly to the prosperity of the country. Supply chains from producer to consumer function very efficiently at low costs, and they are supported by world-class scientific research and vocational training.
Characteristic for agriculture nowadays is also an emphasis on cutting costs and increasing production, resulting in scale enlargement. In the market, this often goes hand in hand with small and sometimes even negative margins. This makes the sector vulnerable in economic terms. The continuous cost reductions and production increases also lead to pressure on the environment, with loss of biodiversity and deterioration of water quality.
We have to recognize that we put a heavy burden on our planet with the current production methods and consumer behavior. Additionally, urbanisation and the reduction of the agricultural working population have led to a considerable divide between farmers and citizens. The latter have little knowledge about the origins of their food. As a result, farmers and growers do not always feel valued and appreciated for the work they do. We must find a different way, for the sake of nature, the climate and the future of farming.
Instead of constantly reducing the cost of products, we need to focus on reducing the use of raw materials. An agricultural model focused on circular principles will bring about an ecologically and economically vital prevalent production method, in balance with nature and appreciated by society.
In such a circular system, arable farming, livestock farming and horticulture primarily use raw materials from each other’s supply chains and waste flows from the food industry. Circular chains can be structured in various ways: within a company, at local level, within the Netherlands or across national borders. The motto is: do it locally if you can, and regionally or internationally if needed.
An essential part of circular production is putting an end to wastage that occurs in various parts of the food chain, from primary production to the waste-bins in our kitchens. Wastage is unnecessary and harmful. It does not do justice to the value of nature and to the people who have created the food, it leads to unnecessary costs and it destroys valuable materials that can still play a role in the food cycle.
Animal production needs to fit in this circular approach. In circular production, cattle are fed primarily with grass, feed crops or crop residues from the farm where they are kept or from the immediate vicinity, as well as with residues from the food industry. This will strengthen land dependency – the link between business operations and the land available for agriculture – and allow farmers to take better account of the cultural historical value of the landscape.
Healthy soil is of crucial importance for future farming and forms the basis for circular farming. Applying processed animal manure maintains soil health and puts an end to the use of fertilizer based on scarce fossil raw materials. Agriculture holds an important key to further improvement of natural values and biodiversity. Nature is of value to us all, and to agriculture in particular; nature and agriculture are not opposites. The circular approach is crucial to a better connection between nature and agriculture, and will further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. After all, in nature itself, everything is part of a circular process.
The transition towards circular agriculture should bring entrepreneurs in farming, horticulture and fisheries a good income and the prospect of being able to pass their business on to the next generation. Consumers who know where their food comes from, and have respect for producer and product, can contribute to this process.
The international dimension plays a major role in developing circular agriculture. The new Common Agricultural Policy can be a powerful instrument for strengthening and accelerating the intended changes in the Netherlands. Markets are international and circular systems can extend across national borders. With regard to the import of raw materials from abroad, sustainability criteria for the most sensitive products have been established through a multi-stakeholder approach. In some cases, Dutch industry has entered into covenants stating that it will exclusively use these certified products. As an importer, the Netherlands can exert an influence on the sustainability of cultivation in other parts of the world, and thus have a favourable leverage effect on international environmental and nature-related goals.
Circular agriculture will feature a high level of diversity in agricultural businesses and partnerships. Some entrepreneurs may focus on food production for the local market and multifuncitionality with local partners, while others may see opportunities for exporting to the global market; many entrepreneurs will combine both approaches. If circular agriculture is to succeed, it is important to look at the range of possible agricultural practices with an open mind.
Over the past decades, the Netherlands has gained a reputation of a highly innovative agricultural producer. The future of farming requires innovation again and adopting a new approach. Also when it comes to efficient production of food in circular processes, we can be a co-creating partner for other countries with our knowledge and our products.
This vision is not a blueprint, but it is not without obligation either. It applies to national government policy, and the government wishes it to function as a benchmark that will help decision-makers to make their own choices. Several factors could be helpful to assess policy intentions and proposals. The most important ones:
- do they help to close cycles, to reduce emissions and to reduce biomass wastage throughout the food system?
- do they strengthen the socio-economic position of the farmer in the supply chain?
- do they contribute to the climate task for agriculture and land use?
- do they benefit ecosystems, biodiversity and the natural value of the landscape?
- has animal welfare been considered?
- do they contribute to the recognition of the value of food and to strengthening the relationship between farmers and citizens?
- do they strengthen the position of the Netherlands as a developer and exporter of integrated solutions for climate-smart and ecologically sustainable food systems?
In addition to these assessment criteria, food safety and product quality are always baseline conditions.