By increasing the number of relations in our food system we will create a resilient and regenerative 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.
Dutch Polder Landscape
Coming by plain you can see you have arrived in Holland because fields are cut by strait lines vertical and horizontal, not unlike the streets of New York. These are waterways separating meadows and fields. Fields that are meticulously managed according to the latest technological developments, but not always in line with our traditional ideals or our nutritional needs. Agriculture is a business in a country of entrepreneurs with a strong market tradition.
The Netherlands is the top food exporting country in Europe. In 2019, the export value of agricultural products reached a new record, €94.5 bn (CBS 2020). Besides foodstuffs, there is an increasing demand for Dutch agricultural materials, innovations and high-quality technology. Exports in this area totaled nearly €9bn . Examples include energy-efficient greenhouses, precision agriculture systems (via GPS and drones) and new discoveries that make crops more resistant to the effects of climate change and diseases. In 2016, the import of agricultural products rose by 1.6% to €57.1bn (Ministry of Economic Affairs). This trend is expected to continue into 2020.
Of all Dutch people, 38% live in non-urban areas. Of all workers in rural areas, more than a quarter work in these areas, but especially in trade and industry. The working population in agriculture has been in decline, while the rural population is also aging.
This means a decreasing share of the working population is responsible for food production. While at the same time pressure to comply with climate regulation has been rising. Essentially smaller proportion of the population is dealing with an increasing problem. This has created resentment among farmers and in recent years farmers protests have become common. Meanwhile the urban population is increasingly detached from food production and the main driver for consumer behavior is convenience and price, not quality. There is rising tension between rural and urban lifestyles and, perspectives.
But our country has always been a contradiction and a peculiar mix of tradition and modernity of forward thinking and romantic ideals. If you look at our cities and houses most of them are at the ground floor, with a little garden of their own. The Dutch ideal of ‘a house, a tree and a little animal’ represents a life in balance. And our eternal challenge with water has always forced us to find a middle road and marry diverging interests, for the sake of the greater good. I expect that in the same way climate change may well bring us closer together.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Although the Netherlands is currently a net food exporter, 2050 will paint a different picture if we continue on this course. Because our food system is built on an illusion. An illusion that we can keep relying on raw materials that are produced elsewhere at disproportionate costs for the environment and people. Climate change is about to end that illusion, long before 2050.
A third of Earth's soil is acutely degraded due to agriculture. Fertile soil is being lost at rate of 24bn tonnes a year through intensive farming as demand for food increases. (UNCDD, 2017). Accelerated soil erosion leads to additional carbon losses from agricultural land to the atmosphere, thus accelerating climate change (EC, JRC 2018). Climate change also effects agricultural productivity.
The past three years have seen a steady increase in hunger globally, returning to levels of a decade ago. Climate variability and extremes are among the three main causes of this disturbing trend (FAO, 2018). Drought is a major culprit and is among the most costly natural disasters, estimated by the WEF (2014) at 6-8 bn USD a year from losses in agriculture and related businesses. Even in the Netherlands, drought related crop failure has become a reality. A 25% drop in income was observed in 2018 (Dutch Agricultural organization). This increases pressure on ground water reserves. Ground water depletion causes land sinking.
Desertification and soil depletion are a reality in the Netherlands and abroad. However most of us don’t realise we are creating ocean deserts too. Ocean acidification threatens the health of our oceans and those whose livelihoods depend it, with costs on the global economy expected to rise to $1 trillion by 2100 (GBO, COP 12). Because of rising water temperatures nutrients are pushed away from the warm zones towards the poles and away from the equator and ultimately temperate zones.
Beyond the present and future availability of food, let’s also consider the quality or lack thereof. It was Louis Pasteur (1885) who first predicted that an animal could not exist without microbial life. The natural consequence is that by gradually depleting our soil, we are depleting our health. Consider that humans are practically identical in our DNA, yet there is tremendous variation in how we develop and how we ‘feel’. Consider also that the amount of total DNA of the microbes inhabiting our gut is infinitely bigger. We are only starting to understand how this variation impacts our health and even our emotions.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
The key design principle in our vision is: living a life in balance with nature, combining tradition and modernity. How this is achieved is by radically increasing the number of relations between the different elements in our food production system. By increasing the relations within and between aquaculture, agriculture and aquaponics, our system becomes more resilient and we reduce the need for external inputs. Or to put it simply; we need to integrate soil, sea and shit.
By closing the loop between human waste and nutrition we re-use nutrients, reduce the need to harvest natural resources and recycle precious drinking water. Present day aquaponics will develop into integrated systems for grey and waste water-management, also known as 'antroponics.' Bacteria and micro-algae will form a bio-filter, which renders water clean enough for shrimp and fishfarming. Water from fish tanks will feed the plants in our rooftop greenhouses. Plants will evaporate water, which will condensate into drinking water.
Replacing our carbon rich diets with proteins and minerals from the lower end of the (sea) food chain we do not only reduce our footprint, but we enhance our diets. Seaweed will not only feed people but will serve as additional input for fish farming in aquaculture and aquaponic systems, as well as poultry and pig farming on land. It will also be used to improve soils, beyond their natural capacity to regenerate. Oysters and mussels will not only feed people but create underwater habitats for marine life.
More efficient use of resources and space will create a natural abundance in which biodiversity, carbon sequestration and natural waterpurification will contribute to lasting regeneration of our landscape. A landscape that is also home to people and their animals and which can be used to gather food from 'the commons'.
Such a system will require new human relations as well. The unit of the individual is unequiped to deal with a complex system. Cooperatives will facilitate the food transition andthe managing of the commons.
Considering our landscape has been designed to live and cope with water, and our trach record in sustianble agri-food innovation, the Netherlands is a great place to implement this vision.
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.
In 2050 our food production will be more intensive and circular on the one hand and more extensive on the other. Meaning both our rural and our urban environment will be greener.
Buildings will no longer be grey dead spaces but be thriving of life inside and outside. Food production and preparation will take up a larger part of day to day activities in relation to work.
A thriving Seaconomy means that our coastal areas and harbours will remain important hub, for processing produce and connecting sea and inland needs. But like our cities our harbours will be greener, hosting an array of biobased activities, rather than just being a relay station.
Smarter design of cities means the remainder of land can be designated to ecosystem services (carbon capture, cooling, biodiversity, rain water capture and filtration, clean air), extensive forms of food production, recreation and care. A greener landscape invites recreation but also care and education activities, which can be combined with extensive forms of agriculture.
Local community will become a corner stone in food production, as it once was. Meaning work and living will be more integrated. The division between consumer and producer will fade. So that by 2050 we will have 10 billion mouths to feed and nearly the same amount of producers.
Together with our lifestyle our diets will shift. The dominance of grains, potatoes, maize and other starchy foodstuffs will be reduced. Instead we will eat more leafy greens, legumes, shrimp and fish, grown in integrated aquaponic systems. Enriched with small amounts of dairy, eggs and meat from extensive animal husbandry and fruit and nuts grown in agroforestry. These will be considered a luxury product, due to the integration of resource costs in food prices. As we are a coastal nation our diets will be rich in seafood, particularly from the lower end of the food chain. Our future food will be higher in proteins and minerals and less abundant in sugars.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Food system relationship
Shrimp and vegetables
There have always been gaps and inefficiencies in human design. Nature can deal with most of them. That is why bacteria and algae are equiped to clean up pollution and (sea) plants and (sea) soil can sequester CO2. But considering expected population growth our room for error is decreasing. This is why we have to start closing the gaps in our foodsystem.
Instead of focussing on circularity of elements in our foodsystem. We propose a system that is beyond circular. A system in which we create new relationships between the three spheres of the food system we envisage: aquaculture, agriculture and aquaponics. While also intensifying relationships within the spheres. This will redress the current gaps that exist between human waste and food production, between land and sea and between drinking water and food production.
This approach creates a complex web of food relations, not unlike we find in nature. However the nature of the relations require human intervention, as one would rarely find cows eating seaweed on the beach or a shrimp cleaning pee.
This vision is inspired by permaculture principles which specify that:
In a sustainable design, important functions are supported by more than one element. The more elements there are to support an individual function, the more stable and safe the overall system will be in the event of any one element failing.'
Before we discuss the overall system, and how we will be integrating soil, sea and shit to produce future proof food, let's look at the individual spheres.
Agriculture: building soil wealth
Healthier soils provide the foundation for healthier ecosystems, healthier food, healthier communities, and more resilient regional economies and are an important strategy for climate change mitigation. "Soil Wealth" refers to the combination benefits associated with building both soil health and community wealth through regenerative agriculture.
“Regenerative agriculture” consists of a set of farming principles and practices that beyond soil restoration increases biodiversity, improves water management, and enhances ecosystem services. Based on an analysis of Project Drawdown’s data, projected to 2050, implementing climate-friendly agricultural practices could mitigate nearly 170 GtCO2e, while generating a nearly $10 trillion net financial return. So building soil wealth generates the financial capital and social capital required to create wellbeing.
Seagriculture: multi-tropic aquaculture
Seaweed farms act against ocean acidification, deoxygenation and create biodiversity hotspots as well as buffer zones to replenish fish stock. Seaweed is also one of the fastest growing plants in the world, with some varieties capable of absorbing five times more carbon dioxide than land-based plants. Research estimate that 18.5 million square miles of the ocean are suitable for seaweed cultivation (Froehlich et al 2019).
With nearly 90 percent of large fish stocks threatened by over-fishing and 3.5 billion people dependent on the seas as their primary food source, ocean farming provides a viable alternative to fishing. Unfortunately aquaculture has gained a bad reputation from polluting local waterways. A small group of ocean farmers and scientists decided to chart a different course. Rather than relying on mono-aquaculture operations, these new ocean farms are pioneering muti-tropic and sea-vegetable aquaculture, whereby ocean farmers grow abundant, high-quality seafood while improving, rather than damaging, the environment.
Aquaponics: combining waste water treatment and foodproduction
Of our current agricultural produce in the Netherlands 85% comes from greenhouses. At present these rely heavily on external inputs. Hydroponics will slowly become dominant in horticulture as it has a quicker turn over from pod to table. Human waste provides an abundant renewable resource, rich in microbes and nutrients.
We are literally flushing away precious resources! Recovering phosphates from black water and kitchen waste could satisfy a quarter of the present worldwide artificial phosphorus fertiliser use (G. Zeeman, 2020).
While human waste has historically been used as a fertilizer, its use in soilless systems is a recent field or research. The earliest published research on the topic is from 1991 by Guterstam under the term ‘Anthroponics.’
However waste treatment still faces a number of challenges, notably anti-biotics and hormones from human excretion. Promising research is being done that points to micro-algae for removing a broad spectre of toxins, including anti-biotics (Leng et all 2020) and hormones (Wang et al 2019). Micro algae also process all phosphorus from faeces and capture three quarters of the nitrogen and absorp CO2.
Aquaponic systems will therefore need to be equiped with a layered biofilter consisting of bacteria as well as micro-algae. After treatment the water will be suitable for shrimp and fish farming. And subsequently can be used on plant production. As plants evaporate water, simple condensation will render pure drinking water.
Connecting waste water treatment with food production will create a nutrient perpetuum mobile on a minimal amount of space. However more research is needed to refine existing technology.
Hydroponic systems will be regular aspects of housing and public buildings, to assure optimal use of energy and nutrients but also to perform educational functions. Nothing like picking your own food on your rooftop.
Although the above mentioned transitions are all equally important, on their own they do not constitute a solution. But by bringing them together we can start to redress the gaps.
There are many combinations possible but I want to highlight a few:
It is unlikely that fish and plants can be grown on human waste alone. Seaweed and shellfish from open water aquaculture will are a potential source of nutrients.
It is uncertain that all micro algae from waste treatment can be absorbed back into the foodchain, access microalgae can be used for fuel for transport between production sites.
Extensive agriculture does not generate enough surplus to feed both humans and animals without depleting soils. Seaweed and microalgae serve as feed for poultry and pigs (and to some extent ruminants) but can also be used as soil enhancement. The same applies to access sludge from bacterial water treatment.
Compost from household waste will serve as an additional feed to animals. Therefore these need to be kept in relative proximity of the city.
Sludge from bacterial waste water can be used in soil amelioration, as a construction material or bioplastic.
Many more sub-solutions exist and I hope this illustrates that rather than focussing on specific thematic areas we need to come together as humans and put the pieces of the puzzle together. This also demands quite a lot from our emotional intelligence.
Human capital and institutions
At the basis of this vision is a human mindset that is directed at happiness, wellbeing and satisfaction rather than at wealth, competition and greed. This is both an outcome of and a requirement for the above mentioned transition.
However, our institutions will need to be conducive because although we create our system, our systems also create us (A. Giddens). Perhaps we can look at history for some inspiration.
In the 11th century Dutch feudal lords found themselves at the negotiation table with farmers, having to come to some kind of working relationship on the constant management of dykes and water levels, they formed waterboards, even before the French revolution. To this day the waterboards play an important role in Dutch society.
The end of the 18th century marks the start of the farmers cooperative in the Netherlands and many parts of Europe. These took on a number of different roles, from sharing labor, organizing lending, modernization and investment to social networks and peer learning platforms. While there was a notable increase in scale in most of the economy from the end of the 18th century onwards, this trend seemed to have been lacking or at least slower in agriculture (G. Minderhoud, 1940). One of the causes of the ability of small farmers and gardeners to compete with the larger ones is ‘strength in numbers’ by working in cooperatives.
Both our relationship with the water and the way we have organized our food production are reflected in our institutions. These institutions will again be central in bringing about the change we want both on land and at sea.
At the end of the day food will bring us together. As production of food requires to restore our relationship with the land. No longer anonimously hidden behind machines, we will be able to look each other in the eyes and restore the relationship between each other.
Lastly I'd like to reflect on our role. Each supporter to this vision is working on creating a piece to a larger puzzle. And as a lead organization we focus on bringing blue and green together, which is an enormous task, but yet in this broader vision it is a modest part. Together with many other we are building the food system of the future. That is a too bigger challenge to carry by one organization or even one country. So perhaps modesty is key to the success of this vision. And regardless of who wins this contest I hope we manage to come together so that we can create new relations, in our foodsystem and between the people doing the work. We do not have all the answers, but we have a few and together we have many.