The Limits of Agricultural Intensification

It must have been early August this year, just after having returned from the summer holidays, that my eye caught an ABN-AMRO advertisement claiming that agriculture in the Netherlands has ‘the lowest environmental impact in the world’, per kg product as well as on the basis of nutritional value.
Now this highly surprised me. Of course it was a good thing to see ABN-AMRO suddenly communicate about themes such as environmental impact and CO2 emissions, or even agriculture, but… I just wasn’t used to it. Only recently, Eerlijke Bankwijzer  (‘Fair Bank Indicator’) had called on ABN-AMRO to stop investing in companies that were constructing the North Dakota Access Pipeline. Also only recently, the bank had announced it would halt its tobacco industry investments. On a more intuitive level, the advertising campaign seemed to indicate a sudden departure from the banking culture and identity that become apparent, for instance, from the 2008 book ‘De Prooi’  (‘The Prey’) by Jeroen Smit.
More importantly however: the nature of the claim surprised me. Was Dutch agriculture really doing so well? Then I might have been seriously mistaken. Having published a PhD thesis on the environmental performance of (biofuel) cropping systems in 2012, I felt professionally obliged to look further into the matter. I searched for the original ABN-AMRO source publication, but quickly started wondering (and am still wondering today) whether I was overlooking something… the only thing I could find was a brochure containing one-and-a-half page of not-so-specific information on the impact of our agricultural sector (chapter ‘Agrarisch van huis uit’, p. 14-15). It does not contain any references to back up the bold claims that are made; the only reference points to an organization called ‘Circle Economy’. My initial conclusion was that this was just another piece of advertising, reminiscent of those TV ads for ‘clinically tested’ skin creams – “Our products have the lowest environmental impact in the world” – that statement can only be made if it is specified what products are precisely intended and how environmental impact is precisely defined and measured.
Despite the seemingly unfounded claims, the ad caused a bit of a stir in the Netherlands and some experts made an effort to respond. Among them was prof. dr. Strijker, who is presently occupying the Mansholt chair at the University of Groningen. In a column in Boerderij  (‘Farm’) magazine, prof. Strijker mentioned the very limited range of environmental impacts that the publication addresses. He made his main point however by citing the classic study Ground for Choices: although it is true that spatially concentrated and intensive agricultural systems (as we now have in the Netherlands) can yield products with a low environmental impact per kg, such systems may also have undesirable local consequences for the environment. Strijker hit the nail on the head and his conclusion corresponds with the view of the Netherlands Assessment Agency, which concluded in its 2016 annual assessment of the Dutch environment that “due to its sheer magnitude, the Dutch agricultural sector puts the environment under pressure, despite efficient production methods and low environmental impact per kg product”. Interesting to mention is that such a remark might just as well have come from Wageningen, since emeritus professor Rabbinge was one of the authors of the Ground for Choices study… but it didn’t.
There are plenty of examples of local environmental consequences of our highly intensive agricultural system. For instance: the Netherlands is a major exporter of livestock products. To feed our gargantuan herds, we import large volumes of soybeans from North and South America. In South America, soybean production leads to deforestation and biodiversity loss in the Cerrados ecosystem. Closer to home, the import also leads to problems: minerals contained in the imported soybeans end up in animal manure and accumulate in our tiny country. They pose a threat to our biodiversity and groundwater and surface water quality. In addition, livestock products generally have larger carbon footprints than crop products. Given the large share of animal products in Dutch agriculture, it seems therefore unlikely that we outperform any country with more ‘vegetarian’ products in their agricultural output, in terms of greenhouse gas intensity.
We could also look at another major Dutch export product category, ‘flowers and plants’, and take the iconic Dutch flower bulb as a case. To ensure that a bulb reaches countries like Japan in perfect shape and free of diseases, it needs to be carefully protected. Based on an article in Resource Magazine, bulb growers spray an average of 23 kg of active substances (biocides) over one hectare of tulips. Only fruit trees, roses and chrysanthemums receive higher amounts, with lilies topping the list at 117 kg per hectare. The bulb sector as a whole uses an average of 78 kg of active substance per hectare. The amount used on tulips is in the same league as the amounts used for seed potatoes (20 kg).
One could easily sum up more examples, but the purpose of this blog is not to make everyone sad. The facts are clear. We may be efficient, but we try produce so much in such a small country that we are in fact compromising our duty of good stewardship. Now, from this dichotomy, two widely different conclusions can be drawn:
  1. We are efficient and have a competitive advantage, so we need to produce even more. Based on their brochure, it seems that ABN-AMRO is supporting this view and tries to encourage farmers to invest. The downside of investing and producing even more is that we may leave our children an exhausted country, where no more meadow birds are singing. Indeed, it is not the first time for a bank to incite farmers to invest, in the pursuit of its own short-term interest (literally); this is also what famous Dutch writer Geert Mak accused Rabobank of in a 2016 Boerderij  (“Farm”) magazine interview. Here, Mak stated that Rabobank had lured farmers into investing in new milking stables when milk quota were about to be abolished; the bank could have known however that this would cause milk production to go through the roof and that milk prices would collapse as a consequence.
  2. We need to improve our environmental stewardship and make sure that our agricultural practices are sustainable enough to be continued by our children. The possible downside is that striving for improved sustainability instead of improved productivity might reduce the agricultural contribution to our GDP.
However, there may also be a third option: transitioning from producing bulk goods to sustainably produced high quality products. As the latter may command better prices, our agricultural income would not necessarily need to decline under such a change.
Interestingly, in their 1990 book ‘Tussen Bulk en kwaliteit’  (‘Between Bulk and Quality’), Wageningen-based professor J.D. van der Ploeg and M. Ettema already wrote: “Dutch agriculture mostly produces bulk products. Although the market for sustainable high quality products is rapidly expanding, Dutch agriculture seems to respond insufficiently to this change, and much slower than is happening elsewhere. This should not come as a surprise however: Dutch farms are locked into a production chain that links them to industrial suppliers and buyers. This not only means that farmers are depending on the industry [or the supermarkets -sdv], it also means that they are no longer determining the quality of their own products; the definition of quality is increasingly being established at the factory level. The structure that has emerged makes it very difficult for farmers to go their own way, in terms of production methods. Even if they would want to do so, industry, policy makers and science persist in the opinion that industrialized agriculture is the solution to all problems”. To this small list of actors we could add ‘the banking sector’, judging from the recent ABN-AMRO brochure.
At the moment, 27 years after the publishing of Van der Ploeg and Ettema’s book and precisely 55 years after the publishing of Rachel Carsons’ ‘A Silent Spring’, the efficiency paradigm is still being trumpeted around. A recent example is the National Geographic article ‘This Tiny Country Feeds the World’, which went viral on Twitter. There is no single mention of biodiversity in the article; however, seemingly as a testimony to the dominant paradigm of industrialized agriculture, Wageningen University and Research (WUR) makes an appearance in the story.
Fortunately, there are also other views, also from within WUR, and the debate continues. Examples are the recent publications on nature-inclusive agriculture and work on shorter production chains, where industry and supermarket are eliminated and locally produced food goes directly from farmer to consumer. There is also a recent interview with Mr. Mommaas, director of the Netherlands Assessment Agency, who pleas for a transition from bulk to quality products, much similar to Van der Ploeg and Ettema in 1990, and states that we now have the choice between “waiting anxiously, or starting to think about real changes”. What happens eventually will probably depend for a large part on politics; the presently still prenatal third government of PM Rutte does not look particularly promising in this respect. Today (27 September 2017) for instance, all coalition partners in this aspiring government voted against a motion of Mrs. Ouwehand (Party for the Animals), which stated that a reduction of our current livestock numbers is inevitable.
On a final note: the industry and the banking sector can be bypassed to a certain extent, for instance by the creation of decentral ‘agrihoods’. Given their loud voice however, it is important to make ourselves heard if we have a different opinion on the future of our country, and to contribute to the debate. Our country belongs to all of us, particularly to our children, and not only to a few organizations that happen to make a lot of noise.
Sander de Vries, Kind of Green® Consulting, 28 September 2017

(Photos ©  Sander de Vries)