Creating a new future for the Dutch peat meadows, where nature, agriculture and the city meet in new, sustainable business models
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Wij.land represents a community from the landscape trying to shape its future. More then 75% of the team members are born - and currently live - in this landscape. As such, we are very intimately connected to the landscape, often for several generations. In 2016 we became inspired by the work of Commonland’s partners in South-Africa, Spain and Australia and we were eager to put the 4 Returns philosophy into practice in our own landscape and backyard. The peat meadows are literally the backyard of where Commonland’s headquarter is located (Amsterdam), but moreover, we saw huge opportunity in the 4 Returns Philosophy as the answer to turn the ecological degradation of our landscape which has been going on for several decades and we experience every day.
The peat meadows landscape has two very distinctive characteristics which makes it a landscape of high potential for landscape restoration based on sustainable business cases: 1) The on-going soil subsidence is causing extra ecological degradation compared to other parts of the Netherlands, 2) This region is very densely populated and urbanized; almost 7 million people live in this region and this offers many untapped business opportunities. Currently, only an estimated 3% of what is being consumed is directly coming from the region. In 2016 we started as a project of Commonland. By January 2019, we became a spin-off of Commonland and turned into a separate entity called Wij.land.
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.
Map of our landscape showing the main cities and where the peat soil is present.
Satellite image of the landscape and the current Wij.land network/movement showing the farmers and pilot locations
Aerial view of the typical rural landscape in this area.
Some historical windmills still remain in the landscape, their function (pumping the water out of the landscape) has been replaced by electrical pumping stations.
The landscape has a high (but declining) recreational value for inhabitants of the surrounding cities. Here you also see the effect of the soil subsidence; high waterlevel on the left, lower agricultural land on each sides.
A Dutch farmer
One of the Wij.land dairy farmers milking the cows
One of the Wij.land farmers selling their own cheese at the farm. On some farms, high quality cheese is being produced and sold. The majority of the milk however is processed by big dairy factories with two-third of production being exported.
Cows have played an important role in the landscape for centuries and are central to the culture of farming. People value seeing cows in the meadow and next to producing milk, cows play a vital role in creating habitat for meadow birds, by keeping the landscape open.
Dairy farming practices have changed drastically in the last 50 years. The Green Revolution, with fertilization and mechanisation, has led to more then a doubling of production volumes in 2019 compared to 1950, but with severe environmental pressures and ecological degradation.
Meadows with low biodiversity and only one type of grass are very vulnerable. For example, the meadows are less resilient to excessive rain or droughts.
Visualization explaining the process of soil subsidence.
Image showing the farmers protests of November and December 2019.
The peat meadow area is a very characteristic Dutch landscape, traditionally used mainly for (dairy) livestock farming (cows in the meadow, windmills, elongated plots and ditches). The area is special because it is one of the few historical landscapes - it dates back to the Middle Ages - that has more or less been preserved. People have shaped the landscape and still do so. The landscape has supplied people with fuel (peat) and food (meat, dairy and wool) and it is a popular place to live and recreate. The Dutch are famous for their cheese production and cheese consumption per capita is one of the highest in the world! Many plants and animals also feel at home in this cultural landscape, such as the black-tailed godwit and the lapwing.
We have been working in the Western peat meadow area since 2016. This includes the Vechtstreek, ‘het Groene Hart’ and Waterland. It is a densely populated area, with major cities such as Amsterdam, Haarlem and Utrecht. It is a very popular area to live and work; real estate prices are high. The reason the area is more popular than, for example, the Rotterdam/The Hague metropoles is that the surroundings are still beautiful (but in decline..). There are special nature reserves and open polder landscapes used for dairy production. Between Amsterdam and Utrecht, you will find nature reserves and lakes, such as the Naardermeer, the Oostelijke Vechtplassen and the inner polder of Tienhoven. Polder de Ronde Hoep is an important meadow bird area. People love to go out and explore their surroundings, by bicycle of course.
We define three zones in the landscape: an economic, a natural, and a combined zone. Combining nature reserves with sustainable agriculture (the combined zone) ensures the restoration of biodiversity, soil quality and water quality. Raw materials from the nature reserve can be applied to farming, which provides financial benefits. The connection of the combined zone with the city (economic zone) offers many opportunities for new revenue models and markets. In this way the three zones reinforce each other.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
The Dutch are known for their cheese and bicycles, but also for their important role in the agricultural 'green' revolution. The Dutch agricultural industry and Wageningen University have made important contributions to higher yields, technological innovations and efficiency. This green revolution also took place in the peat meadow landscape, where livestock farming has shaped the environment since the Middle Ages.
The intensification of agriculture in the Netherlands however, has come with an ecological price of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental pollution and biodiversity loss. The additional problem with peat soils, is that they are weak and vulnerable. In order to farm them intensively one has to deeply drain them. Continuous drainage means that the peat continues to subside and – with it - large amounts of CO2 and ammonia are emitted (±30 tons/hectare). Due to the deep dewatering of the polders for agriculture and the expansion of cities, the natural values in peat meadows have also deteriorated. The majority of the landscape is already below sea level, and if business as usual and current policy would remain, it is expected that by 2100, the landscape will become uninhabitable and people would possibly have to migrate out of the area because of the flood risks.
Meadow bird populations have dropped dramatically in the last two decades, such as the black-tailed godwit and the lapwing. Approximately 75% of the insect population is gone. The ongoing trend of cost price reduction and intensification in agriculture is difficult to translate into the wet peat meadow area; farmers earn on average 200 euros per hectare less than elsewhere in the Netherlands, even though they are already struggling.
A few months ago, the court ruled that the Dutch regulations on nitrogen reduction close to natural areas were not in line with European regulations. This ruling threatens the business operations and permits of all livestock farmers in The Netherlands, not only in the peat meadows. In addition, the CO2 reduction targets for combating climate change are hanging like dark clouds over the peat meadow farmers. Farmers in The Netherlands have been confronted with new environmental rules over and over again and they are fed up. In November and December of 2019, we had one of the largest farmers protests in the history, with ten thousand of tractors driving to The Hague - where the central government is located.
It is becoming clear that we are reaching the boundaries of what this landscape and its inhabitants can carry. We have come to a point that both farmers, conservationists and policy-makers are searching for a new way forward.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
In 2050, in many countries throughout the world, the 4 Returns, 3 zones philosophy has become the new paradigm through which the economy is valued. Farms, enterprises and governments measure their performance for indicators on inspiration, social capital, natural capital and financial capital. Hereby, the challenges which in 2020 were not accounted for in the economic system, are now accounted for and it has become economically interesting to address these challenges.
With regenerative farming having become the standard, each farm now has a positive effect on the local ecosystem. The region has become climate-positive and the biodiversity levels have been restored to levels last measured in 1950. There is no further soil subsidence and greenhouse gas emissions of farming practices emissions have decreased more than ten-fold. Even on the marginal grasslands where cows are still held, thanks to a combination of regenerative practices (build-up of soil organic matter, herbs, sub-irrigation techniques), there is no further soil subsidence. In the nature areas we are even able to re-build peat again, hereby creating true carbon sinks, thereby resulting in the net positive effect of the region.
As a result of the 4 Returns, 3 Zones monitoring and valuation started in 2020, people in the landscape have become very smart in understanding the local ecosystem. Through a combination of field data, sensors and remote sensing, continuous real-time 4 Returns monitoring is being used in the landscape to optimize for the best mix of goods and services for that specific place. We for example know the best conditions and migration routes for each specific meadow bird and are able to selectively create habitat for these birds or other species on the best possible place. Simultaneously, we understand where conditions are optimal for Azolla, cranberry, fish or duck production, as well as the best place to create a daycare in terms of demand from the city and many more. Therefore, we optimize for 4 returns over the entire landscape make optimal use of what the local rural and urban ecosystem can provide and accommodate.
Whereas in 2020 farmers struggled to make a living, in 2050, farms are able to provide a source of income for multiple families due to their multiple functions and jobs related to these functions. The farmer profession has become a job of high status with a higher education necessary.
Health costs have been reduced with over 50% by 2050, due to the revolutionary individualized insights into the relationship between a healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals, healthy products and healthy humans, as well as the benefits people are getting from going into the landscape more often for recreation or voluntary work.
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.
Day in the life of farmer Piet Willems, June, 2050.
Piet wakes up early, that part hasn’t changed. Fortunately, it’s summer and the sun is already shining. Looking out of his window, he counts his cows grazing in the meadow. He used to have 200 cows, now he has 30. Cows have given way to new crops such as berries and Azolla and more recently: fish and ducks, swimming in the lowest plots he flooded last spring.
Early in the morning it’s already full of life on the farm. Piet checks the nutritional needs of his plants on an app and sees that the cranberries need a little organic fertilizer. He will do that right after breakfast. Another app monitors his microbiome indicates that he can best start his day with strawberries and yogurt.
Downstairs he meets his neighbor and colleague Rob. They run the farm with 4 families, each with their own responsibility. Rob takes care of all the natural zones, such as the herb rich grasslands, swamp forests and flower fields. They have more than ten butterfly species on the farm and at least twenty bird species. Rob's family earns its living from the payments for the ecosystems services through carbon, biodiversity and water credits.
Piet's wife Milou shows school classes and city people around, runs the store and manages the volunteers. It’s a coming-and-going of people, especially now that their burn-out prevention program is running so well. Yesterday a documentary maker was here, making a film on how the profession of farmers has gained so much respect since the twenties.
When Piet walks into his cranberry field, he sees the electric boat arriving. The boat distributes all the fresh harvest to the city. Over the water you can go all the way up to the Dam square, Amsterdam city center. On the way back from the city to the farm, the boats take back ‘waste’ streams from the food industry and households to process on the farm into fertilizer.
The morning flies by and Piet thinks; what a beautiful way of life it is to be a farmer.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Commonland 4 Returns from landscape restoration
The 4 Returns framework forms the main philosophy of the Wij.land movement. Developed in close collaboration with leading scientific institutes, business schools, farmers and experts, 4 Returns transforms degraded ecosystems by focusing on 4 key returns over the course of a single generation, or 20 years.
Next to the 4 Returns philosophy, the Theory U developed by Otto Scharmer and the Presencing Institute. It provides a methodology and toolset for social transformation, helps in creating a common vision for people of opposed views and interest and is very much focused on getting into action and prototyping.
During the co-initiation workshop the first vision of the landscape was visualized, with the Theory U in the context of Wij.land.
The 4 returns opportunities identified in the workshop which envision a future for farming and the food system in the landscape.
Theory of Change of Wij.land; farmers and entrepeneurs become inspired by the community to start pilots and projects aiming to create 4 Returns. We facilitate each step by bringing in expertise and financing steps from our pilot fund, transition fund and land bank. At a certain point, after implementing several pilots & projects, farmers and entrepeneurs transition into regenerative farmers and business, together creating a 4 Returns Landscape.
We have defined 5 year goals for Wij.land in terms of four returns. Behind each indicator lies an extensive database of sub-indicators which provides a sturdy database with sound evidence and proof of practice. We challenge each community member to develop their own set of 4 Returns KPI's.
Visualization made by one of the farmer members of what his regenerative farm of the future could look like in 2050.
Cows still play a vital role in the landscape in 2050. But from a very different perspective; not as a source of production, but as natural managers of grasslands, thereby providing habitat for meadow birds and simultaneously providing the highest quality of cheese.
In 2050, The black-tailed godwit (Grutto in Dutch), the national bird of the Netherlands, is thriving again and its population number has reached levels last seen in 1950.
The landscape has again become very biodiverse in 2050. Above the ground we see many species of flowers attracting several species of bees and butterflies, which in turn attract meadow birds, in a landscape with several grazing animals. Farmers can earn money (credits) from the biodiversity performance on their farm.
The cultivation of Azolla in the landscape has facilitated the transition of the diet of people in 2050 to >80% plant-based. Azolla is the fastest growing plant in the world with a high-protein content. The Azolla Burger has become a favourite during summer BBQ's.
In 2050, farmers are rewarded for the ecosystem services they provide, through carbon, biodiversity and water credits. On peat, it has proven to become very interesting to become a carbon farmer and transforming parts of your land into peat moss which function as a carbon sink. Film is intellectual property of National Trust (no relation to Wij.land)
Visualization how we envision the dividation of functions in 2050 along the natural zone, combined zone and economic zone in the peat meadow landscape
With Wij.land and its ever growing community of currently more than 50 farmers, more than 5 entrepreneurs and companies, the Dutch Society for Nature Conservation and several hundreds of community members and inhabitants, we're in the midst of co-creating the vision of our peat meadow landscape and food system, through a community-driven, bottom-up and action-based movement. Together with the community, we envision a 4 Returns Landscape; a landscape where activities and investments lead to return of inspiration, return of social capital, return of natural capital and a return of financial capital. We commit ourselves to the landscape for at least 20 years, as it takes a generation to transform our landscape and restore nature, but it can be done. By 2050, we are thus positive the landscape will have transformed into a 4 Returns Landscape; The New Landscape.
Wij.land embraces the 4 Returns philosophy and approach of Commonland as its implementing partner in the Netherlands. The 4 Returns philosophy provides the vision and the new paradigm through which we can design our landscape, food system and relation to the planet. Through the partnership with Commonland, we are part of an international 4 Returns movement with several landscape projects such as in South Africa, Spain, Australia and India.
Today (2020) Building the movement
In 2016, we mobilized the landscape by organizing a 2-day stakeholder workshop where we co-created a common vision for the landscape. In this, we use the Theory U methodology (Presencing Institute) together with the 4 Returns, which form the core of our movement. This first landscape vision was developed with farmers, banks, local NGOs, governments, and entrepreneurs and raised awareness amongst all in a way that allows them to see their own blind spots and opened their minds, hearts and efforts. In drafting the vision, the 4 Returns opportunities of the landscape were identified, which have been prototyping, piloting and expanding since, with an ever-expanding community of farmers, ecologists, entrepreneurs and many more. A selection of prototypes:
- Soil: 50 farmers are experimenting with the regeneration of their soil on >500 hectares: increasing soil life, improving the natural productivity of the soil and increasing the profitability of the farm.
- Herbs: Sowing herb rich pastures and improving grazing strategies (e.g. strip grazing). We helped develop a regenerative tea business (www.ptthee.nl)
- Experimentation with cultivation of Azolla, the fastest growing water plant in the world with a very high protein content, which could become a meat substitute. Growing on water means halting soil subsidence.
- Regenerative dairy and short supply chain to Amsterdam in two business cases: (www.moma.nl and www.boerenvanamstel.nl)
Enabling the landscape and food system transformation
Through pilots, we are learning about the #how of regenerative farming and entrepreneurship. In each project, we are looking for the best mix and a maximization of the 4 Returns, fit for the zone where it is produced. Innovations can also have a strong focus on social capital, but no project will provide only one return. Through learning-by-doing, we have developed a Theory of Change through which we are able to support and accelerate the community in the transition towards regenerative practices and businesses.
In all of our work and pilots, we focus strongly on monitoring and technology and set clear key performance indicators on how the pilot or project will deliver value in terms of 4 Returns. We have grown knowledge on how you can value these 4 Returns and through iteration, we build the new language of valuation of goods and services. Ecosystem services will soon be monetized because of the sturdiness of our data and KPI’s.
We firmly believe and are already experiencing that the 4 Returns, 3 zones, 20 years philosophy provides a vision for the landscape, serves as a new paradigm through which a new food system emerges and gives people the inspiration to develop a common future. Although the movement is only 3 years young, we already see the first glimpses of how a future in 2050 could look like if we continue to work towards a 4 Returns landscape:
Vision of 2050
The farm and farmer
In 2050, peat meadow farmers produce a lot more than just food. A farm has become a place where several returns are produced and multiple activities are employed, thereby creating a source of income for multiple families. Food production is still a major source of income, but the range of products has diversified enormously. The focus has shifted from high volume intensive dairy production to a mix of several high-quality products, which fit best to the farm in that local ecosystem, based on three decades of 4 Returns monitoring. Through regenerative farming principles, farmers have learned to produce a mixture of several crops such as azolla, cranberries, but also animals such as fish and ducks. Cattle still play a vital role in their farm, as they preserve the marginal grasslands and, by grazing, keep the landscape open and create the habitat for meadow birds like the black-tailed Godwit.
Next to food, farmers are getting payments for the ecosystem services they provide, which has also become a major source of income. Through their 4 Returns monitoring program, they get good prices for the carbon they capture. Each farm on itself must at least be carbon neutral, but carbon prices have become so high that it is financially very interesting to become carbon positive. But farmers also get many other rewards; biodiversity credits for the amount of species counted on farm both above and in the soil, water credits for the on-farm water storage capacity and water purification and many more.
Farmers are landscape managers; they don’t only aim to produce food, but they produce an ecosystem, and each farm strives for local ecosystem optimization. Next to food and ecosystem services, farmers are managers of the esthetics of the landscape and the non-productive ecosystem. They often perform nature conservation as an extra source of income as well as a means to lure people to their farm.
Next to food, ecosystem services and nature you also see a whole range of extra businesses on farms, very much dependent on specific factors such as proximity to the city and personal preference of the farmer. Such businesses include; providing a place as a care farm, an anti-burn-out farm, a children’s daycare, and various types of recreation, ranging from day activities (such as canoeing and birdwatching) to overnight stay (from simple camp sites to luxurious ecolodges).
A dietary shift has taken place from animal to plant protein (>80%). Animals remain in our food system, because they have an important role in maintaining and managing the grasslands and open structure of the landscape. Therefore, we will still be eating small amounts of meat and dairy. Many people are working on farms one day a week, due to its proven benefits for physical and mental health. A burnout prevention program that places people with high stress levels on farms is a big success. Besides improved mental health, we have gained important insights of the relationship: healthy soil - healthy crops - healthy animals - healthy food - healthy humans. This has revolutionized healthcare (food as medicine) and reduced costs by 50%. People can measure their nutritional needs on a day-to-day basis, based on their microbiome. Life expectancy is >100 years old. We have smart fridges that buy our groceries on-line. People alternate between eating very easy, ready-cooked meals (locally produced by farmer cooperatives) and enjoying the pleasure of elaborate cooking with high-quality ingredients; a real foodie culture has been developed and cooking workshops are held on farms every weekend. 80% of the food people eat is produced within 60 miles.
Business and technology
Since 2030, all Dutch business performance is measured based on 4 Returns performances, therefore every company is now 100% 4 Returns certified. Several local cooperatives of farmers and inhabitants have started, with shared distribution of sales to the nearby cities. A big part of the local economy is supported by a local circular currency (VIX or Utrechtse Euro). The payment for ecosystem services is now a major market, bigger even than the stock exchange. Many farmers have made the decision to start producing ecosystem services, such as clean water, air, soil, carbon storage and biodiversity. This has completely changed the landscape. In addition, peat meadow cheese has become a pristine delicacy, with individual farmers producing top of the bill cheese. What the Bourgogne is for wine, the Western peat meadows is for cheese; a guarantee for the highest quality of cheese. Technology is supporting the farmer in his decision-making and hard labor, but the farmer remains in control and each farmer chooses its own relation to technology. Smart technology, light machines and additional availability of labor through social programs together suppress pesticides and herbicides. Drones track diseases in crops and animals and immediate action is taken. The farmer can track the ecological and financial health of all its assets 24/7.
The landscape and ecosystem
The year 2025 was a turning point for biodiversity and by 2050, meadow bird populations have reached its best year since 1950! The market for ecosystem services has given a great impulse to nature on and around farms. Farms themselves are now important habitats for flora and fauna. Some areas in the natural zone have been rewilded with swamps and top predators. These zones are open for the public only a few weeks in the year.
People come from all over the world to visit the landscape, as it was one of the pioneering landscapes who started the 4 Returns revolution which has transformed society for the good.