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Re-rooting the Dutch food system – from more to better

We present a holistic, bottom-up food system vision for the Netherlands that is essential for a healthy and regenerative food future.

Photo of Imke De Boer
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Wageningen University & Research

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Other

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

The food system connects many stakeholders involved in the production, processing and consumption of food. Developing a food system vision requires a transdisciplinary approach involving a wide range of stakeholders and scientists. This application, therefore, is a co-production between representatives from three recently established farmers organisations (Toekomstboeren, Caring Farmers, de Nieuwe Boerenfamilie), the Food Transition Coalition, environmental NGOs The Foundation for Nature and Environment and the Centre for Agriculture and Environment, and research institutions the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and Wageningen University and Research. We hope to invest our prize in the three farmers organizations to support them in their transition towards regenerative farming.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.wur.nl

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Under 1 year

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Wageningen

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

The Netherlands

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Netherlands, a country in Europe with a total area of 41,543 km².

What country is your selected Place located in?

The Netherlands

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We are all born and live in the Netherlands, and care deeply about the future of our food system. We actively participate in the current heated debate regarding the future of the Dutch food system, which is characterised by polarisation, farmer’s protests, societal distrust and governmental failure. This has resulted in short-term solutions that inevitably create long-term sustainability problems. We believe that this debate needs to be opened up and inspired by a holistic vision of the best future for our food system, our lives and those of our children and beyond. Such a holistic vision of our food system is rooted in current seeds of transformation towards a healthy and regenerative food system.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The Netherlands is a flat, small and densely populated country in Northwest Europe. With its temperate maritime climate influenced by the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean and its rivers, it is like a city in a fertile river delta. This agro-ecological location in combination with a unique governance structure and trading mentality made this tiny country today’s number two global exporter of food. More than half of the nation’s land area is currently used for agriculture and horticulture, with Dutch farmers being admired worldwide for their high productivity per ha of land, labour and capital. We are famous for our potatoes, tomatoes, flowers, vegetable seeds, pork and Gouda Cheese. Our farmers have joined forces in cooperatives through which they collectively purchase and trade, increasing their structural power and resilience. They strongly benefited from the successful collaboration of education, extension and research facilitated by the government. These two examples illustrate the potential to tackle challenges via collaboration and dialogue.


Dutch cuisine is traditionally simple and straightforward: bread and toppings for breakfast and lunch, meat, potatoes and seasonal vegetables for dinner. Today, however, people increasingly eat dishes from all over the world and buy more processed and convenience foods. Most food is bought in supermarkets and accounts for just 11% of income spend.


Seen from the air, the Netherlands resembles a unique fragmented patchwork with intensively cultivated fields embedded in areas with bustling cities and suburbs. With 41,543 km², it is home to 17.4 million people, 3.9 million cattle, 12.4 million pigs and 105 million chickens - the highest animal density in Europe. This combination of high human and animal densities with intensive farming makes the Netherlands an example of a food system region with major environmental and societal challenges. Recent studies have shown that the country has exceeded its share in the planetary boundaries in terms of nitrogen, phosphorus, greenhouse gas emissions and material use.


Citizens increasingly question the way crops are cultivated, farm animals are kept, and regions outside the Netherlands are affected through the major imports of feed/food and exports of food. They are concerned about the local and global environmental impact of the food system, loss of biodiversity, limited viability of farms, and social issues like animal welfare, odour nuisance, and human health risks. Debates about the way we produce our animal-source food seem to be increasing in countries, like the Netherlands, where animal farming is no longer part of the average consumer’s daily life and keeping and killing of animals are, to a large extent, out of the public eye. We believe that the current way of producing and consuming food in the Netherlands is no longer viable, and needs to be changed.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

41543

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

17400000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

In 2017, National Geographic published an article about the Netherlands entitled ‘This Tiny Country Feeds the World’. Two years later, the shadow side of this success became painfully clear when the Dutch Council of State dismissed the country’s nitrogen policy for failing to reduce nitrogen deposition in nature areas and causing biodiversity losses. Since this report in May 2019, some 18,000 plans for building new houses and roads along with various industrial and farm activities that may cause additional emissions have been blocked. This has led to fierce and polarised debates about the way forward for the country. Decreasing the number of farm animals as a way to reduce nitrogen emissions, for example, is a highly contested issue. The crisis exemplifies how high-income countries have lost their sensitivity to the carrying capacity of their environment, and hence to their roots in producing food with nature.

The current food system is responsible for the majority of biodiversity loss in the Netherlands, releases about a quarter of all human-induced greenhouse gases, and causes water pollution. It uses more than half of the land and a significant amount of land further afield due to feed and food imports. Moreover, about 40% of Dutch arable land is used for the production of feed for farm animals. No matter how efficiently animal products are produced, using arable land for feed production is less efficient than using it to produce plant products for direct human consumption.

The way farm animals are kept is also increasingly under discussion. Society is concerned about farm animal welfare, farm sizes, odour nuisance and human health risks. At the same time, farmers are increasingly struggling to comply with constantly changing policies and finding ways to earn an income. The viability of farms and rural communities is also affected by power imbalances within food systems.

The current average eating pattern in the Netherlands is unhealthy and unsustainable. Only 16% of adults consume the daily recommended amount of fruit and vegetables, and an excessive amount of red and processed meat is consumed. About half of all adults are overweight, and unhealthy food is responsible for 8% of disease costs. Most of the food consumed is imported and about 125 kg of edible food is wasted per person per year. This consumption pattern has an enormous impact outside the Netherlands both environmentally and socially.

As is the case in the rest of the world, the population of the Netherlands is expected to increase in the years ahead. To ensure long-term food provisioning while respecting planetary boundaries, we need to change our food system and start focusing on producing healthy food with and by nature. While this contemporary challenge is increasingly recognised, a holistic vision and policy for a future healthy and regenerative food system is lacking. We aim to fill this gap by presenting our bottom-up food system vision for the Netherlands.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

This transformation is dependent on having new initiatives as the seeds for change. In this section we present four such initiatives that already exist and are inspiring us to contribute to a healthy and regenerative food system. They are being developed by members of our team and demonstrate the feasibility of the radical changes needed to address current challenges in our food system (see above).

By 2050, our first farmer cultivates vegetables and plants for direct human consumption. As intercropping has higher yields than sole crops and reduces the spread of diseases and pests, multiple crops are grown on the same field. No pesticides and herbicides are used, with pests being controlled biologically. Robots are deployed for weeding and harvesting, drones for precision fertilisation. Such large-scale, high-tech organic farms can effectively produce food while safeguarding our planet.

The production and consumption of plant food also produces by-products that are inedible for humans. Our second farmer keeps 24,000 hens in an animal-friendly way that are only fed with by-products like bakery waste and rapeseed meal. In recycling by-products, these hens contribute to human food supply without using additional resources. By 2050, such circular farms will be located in a landscape full of characteristic elements such as hedge rows. Tourists will enjoy cycling through the fields, visiting these farms and learning about where their food comes from.

The third farmer is located along the IJssel river. This extensive farm has dual purpose cows and is situated in a nature conservation area. Income comes from combining milk and cheese production with flood prevention and nature conservation. To protect against floods, the government pays the farmer to graze cows on the river floodplains to enable flooding in case of high water. This also helps conserve the beautiful landscape, which is accessible for people to hike and enjoy nature. Together with the cows, the farmer produces food while conserving nature, and in doing so exemplifies the role ruminants have in a healthy and regenerative food system. In parallel, some dairy farms on peat soils earn an income by directly selling milk and cheese products to the cities in their surroundings, and contributing to conservation of peat landscapes.

Farming communities are also found around urban areas. One such community – our fourth initiative – is located near Eindhoven. It consists of 200 families that have become stakeholders in a farm and employed a farmer to take care of their food production. Farmers and citizens jointly decide which crops to grow and which animals to keep, and the production risks involved are shared. Some families even live around the farm and share electric cars and guest rooms. Adults and children in these communities are more aware of how food is produced, waste less, eat healthier and are conscious consumers.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

We envision an inclusive food system in the Netherlands that is rooted in nature and society. By 2050, we have replaced the wasteful, linear model of our current food system with a circular one. A circular food system safeguards natural resources, prioritises plant biomass for human consumption, prevents losses and wastes, and recycles unavoidable losses and waste into the food system. To ensure that we do not collectively overshoot our environmental ceilings and that no human or animal falls short on life essentials, politicians have defined holistic and long-term environmental ceilings and social foundations for our food system. We have adopted technology that strengthens circular principles and ensures the social fundament. Because our boundaries are clearly defined, we know the safe-and-just operating space within which farmers can produce. To ensure farmers no longer have to compete with cheap food imports that have not been produced according to our social values, a form of market protection is established at EU level. To reduce the externalities associated with feed and food imports, we no longer import raw agricultural products, just final food products. We also balance our food imports and exports in terms of nutrients and carbon. Food production and consumption has become more localised, a development supported by the introduction of local currencies and green investment programmes. Last but not least, having recognised that we need to stop focusing on economic growth, we have adopted a richer range of indicators to express what has value to our society and planet, the so-called National Societal Product.

Citizens eat significantly more plant and less animal products; their diet is healthier and more sustainable. They have re-established dinner evenings with neighbours, friends, community members and family. These developments have contributed to citizens becoming conscious consumers, aware of how food is produced and prioritising quality over quantity.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

An inclusive food system may be locally rooted but it cannot be restricted to national borders. The system must operate in an international market and policy framework, with the EU being key. By 2050, all Dutch citizens know and agree that we need to operate within the boundaries of our planet.

To protect our environment and stay within the carrying capacity of the planet, we have replaced our wasteful, linear model with a circular that (1) uses practices and technologies that safeguard natural resources, regenerating healthy soils, clean water and air, and biological diversity; (2) prioritises plant biomass for direct human consumption, and (3) prevents losses and wastes in the food system, and if unavoidable, recycles them back into the food system, with a healthy soil as a first priority.

With a healthy soil as the backbone of our food system, we only apply regenerative crop cultivation practices to conserve the soil and preserve biodiversity. To protect valuable life forms in the soil or above (e.g. pollinators), pesticides and herbicides are no longer used. Instead, we combine smart intercropping in time and space (strip cultivation and agro-forestry) and biological pest control to manage pest and diseases.

By 2050, we no longer use fertile arable land to produce feed crops for animals. Although this boosted the production of animal-source food sin the past, this system is now considered unethical as it competes with the production of plant biomass for direct human consumption. Plant biomass, therefore, is used by humans first. The production and consumption of plant-source foods, however, results in a number of by-products, such as crop residues, co-products from industrial food processing, food losses and waste, and human excreta. Our first priority should be to prevent losses and wastes. If by-products cannot be prevented, eaten by humans, or are not needed to restore or conserve soil fertility, they are given to animals (including fish or insects), who can convert them into valuable food, and manure. Ruminants, furthermore, can create additional value from grasslands by converting grass resources into valuable food, manure and other ecosystem services, such as flood prevention or nature conservation. In 2050, therefore, the number of farm animals, and hence the production and consumption of animal-source food, is dependent on the amount of available human inedible by-products and grass resources. In addition to land, humans also get food from fresh and saltwater bodies. By 2050, we harvest and consume products from these natural waters, each in proportion to its natural productivity, a concept known as balanced harvesting. Along the Dutch shores, we furthermore cultivate and harvest shellfish (e.g. mussels and clams), which recycle inevitable nutrients losses lost from agriculture.

To ensure that we do not collectively overshoot our environmental ceilings, and that no human or animal falls short on life essentials (e.g. safe food, labour conditions, wellbeing), politicians in the Netherlands have defined together with their EU colleagues holistic and long-term national environmental ceilings for all human activities, including agriculture, and social foundations for our food system. Social foundations include essential rights for human and animal wellbeing, such as standards for food safety, labour conditions or the right for farm animals to express their species-specific behaviour. Once we have defined our environmental and social boundaries, we also know our safe-and-just operating space. Our farmers produce within this operating space, using farm practices that are environmentally sound and respect the welfare of animals. This might require incentives to ‘get the prices right’, for instance by introducing taxes on the use of finite natural resources and CO2-emissions. To ensure farmers no longer have to compete with cheap imports of products that have not been produced according to our values and social standards, a form of market protection has been established at the EU level.

The above clearly shows the need for a holistic approach to policy development. By 2050, therefore, we will have a Ministry of Food and Health that includes food production, food consumption and healthy lifestyles.

Technology is used to strengthen regenerative principles and ensure the social fundament. The starting point is that it should serve these values and not become a goal in itself. By combining drone-recorded images of crop fields with soil-scans, farmers are better able to target crop growth with nutrient requirements. These technologies enable them to grow crops in a way that minimises nutrient losses. They also use small-scale robots to monitor, weed and harvest their multiple crops on the field. Intercropping is the new standard, which has been shown to utilize soil nutrients more effectively and have higher yields than sole crops, while at the same time reducing the spread of diseases and pests. By 2050, we also use blockchain technology to create hyper-transparency in the food chain. To ensure a credible and trustworthy food system, consumers can access information about how farmers have produced their food. Using barcodes and videos, they can consult information and learn more about the way food in supermarkets or in their food boxes is produced. Open farm days are also still organised to experience food production in real life. This transparency along the entire food chain fosters environmentally sound, animal-friendly, safe and fair practices, and, in combination with life-long education (from primary school onwards), has shaped citizens into conscious consumers.


In terms of economy the Netherlands is well known for its international trade. By 2050, the country has taken its responsibility for the environmental and societal impact that it causes through the imports of (raw) agricultural products, shifting to a policy of mainly importing final food products, e.g. chocolate bars instead of raw cacao. This allows the added value of the processing of raw food ingredients to stay in the countries of origin. The Netherlands does still export food products, but the nutrients and biomass are now in balance with those in imported food products. As a result, food production and consumption has become more localised, a development supported by local currencies and/or green investment programmes. We also have come to realise that focusing on economic growth no longer serves our planet and our people. Neoliberal ‘free’ markets have been turned into inclusive markets which contribute to the realisation of public values. We have adopted a richer range of indicators to express what has value to our society and planet. An example is the National Societal Product, which reflects the contribution of our food system and ecosystem services to society.

To stimulate a good health and diet, a healthier balance of plant and animal-based proteins is the standard. This transition is facilitated by a higher VAT on animal compared to plant-source food. By 2050, most citizens in the Netherlands consume about 70% of their proteins from plant and 30% from animal products. Others prefer not to consume any animal products for ethical reasons and have adopted a vegan lifestyle. Eating a moderate amount of animal products ensures both a healthier and a more sustainable diet. This healthier diet is enjoyed together at the dinner table as people have re-established the tradition of eating together. This time of reflection and good conversations has brought pleasure and a renewed appreciation for food. Convenience has made place for preparing and enjoying good quality food together – from more to better. The fact that people eat together with neighbours, friends, community members and family contributes to healthier food consumption and more active lifestyles.

Culture has also been re-rooted by 2050. Citizens are now more involved in food production, more aware of how their food is produced, and celebrate the diversity of regional products. Society has prioritised the production, consumption and fair distribution of high-quality food over quantity. Citizens also participate in food policy councils to collectively decide about local food environments. A National Food Assembly advises Parliament about policy changes that may further foster the food system’s sustainability and health outcomes.

Various forms of farming communities ensure that consumers and producers collaboratively shape the way their food is produced and establish forms of food democracy. Some citizens join community-supported agriculture, buying a share in a farm and receiving a share of the harvest in return. This type of farming also allows them to spend time at that farm with family and friends. Together these communities share the risks involved in the production of food (due to weather conditions, diseases and pests) so that these are no longer solely for the producer. The experience of people in these farming communities has contributed to a respect for the lives of people, animals and the planet (including materials), which is ensured through universal rights adopted in the social foundation. Excessive consumption and waste of food and materials has been transformed into a conscious consumption. Moreover, material goods that are consumed now have passports to allow materials to be replaced when needed, or reused for other purposes. Similarly, farm buildings and machinery have become modular, allowing for flexibility and reuse. There is no longer a need to mine valuable resources such as metals.

We, authors and stakeholders of the Dutch food system, believe that our vision is based on viable, feasible and desirable strategies to re-root the Dutch food system. By connecting our roots – being the soil and our tradition in collaboration – we believe that together we can address our urgent challenges and achieve a healthy and regenerative food system in the Netherlands.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Thank you so much for the Food Extension Initiative.

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