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Alternative farming models to export

Evert-jan Quak | 05 June 2013

A group of innovative organic farmers in the Netherlands want to change the Dutch export model of farming.

A new agricultural model is needed to feed the world and mitigate the impact of climate change on food security, overuse of natural resources and environmental devaluation. The debate, however, is polarized with technology-driven agriculture, the industrial model for agricultural production and using new technologies to solve problems on the one hand, and the search for profitable ecological farming that seeks a renewed balance with natural livelihoods on the other hand.

It is safe to say that the Netherlands overwhelmingly supports the industrial model of agricultural production that primarily seeks technological solutions. This kind of agriculture has become a huge export sector, and the Dutch government is pushing to export knowledge to help increase food and nutrition security around the world.

However, there are also examples of profitable ecological farming models in the Netherlands, although they constitute a small group. Last week the Dutch Network for Vital Agriculture and Nutrition and development NGO Cordaid organized a symposium to kick-start a campaign to put the alternative model on the agenda. They are not fully against sustainable intensification driven by technology but argue that it should not be presented as the only way to achieve food and nutrition security. They emphasize the narrow vision and side effects of the prevailing model.  Agricultural production has been detached from space and place. There is no connection with the natural surroundings, the focus is on the distribution of food in individual components that gives the industry the opportunity to use agricultural commodities from around the world. This makes farmers more vulnerable: they have become highly dependent on the industry, retailers and global markets. Agriculture is increasingly seen as a technically verifiable system of inputs, outputs and emissions, rather than as an open ecosystem that depends on natural processes. Solutions have therefore been found without going back to the root causes.

One striking example during the symposium was how this effects soil quality in the Netherlands. Soil quality has decreased dramatically since the 1960s , caused by the vicious circle into which farmers have been pushed. Take dairy farmers, for example. Cows are bred to produce the maximum amount of milk. They mostly live in stalls and eat concentrated feed. The resulting health problems have led to an increase in the use of antibiotics. The combination of concentrated feed and the massive use of antibiotics results in higher levels of harmful gases in manure, which cannot be used on the top of the soil but has to be injected deeper in the ground with machines. Soil degradation affects water management and agricultural production.

The conclusion of the speakers at the conference is clear: technological solutions are necessary but should not obstruct the natural balance between farming and ecosystems. Integrated within a holistic approach it makes sense, therefore, that future solutions for agricultural production should take the whole system into account. To take an example mentioned during the conference: the debate on climate-smart agriculture is polluted with statistics that measure carbon emissions for dairy farmers per litre of produced milk. By using this measure the industrial model is more climate-smart, but if the whole system is taken into account it will not be by far.

Cordaid and the Network of Vital Agriculture and Nutrition showed not only NGOs and farmer organizations but also representatives of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs that the Netherlands has a small, but growing, number of profitable organic farmers, who not only care about their livelihoods but are also businessmen. They use innovative ways to increase their income thanks to an increasing group of critical consumers in the Netherlands. They have changed their business models and are looking for additional ways to finance their investments and production levels. The message is that their knowledge should be taken seriously and be integrated in the export model for Dutch farming knowledge worldwide.

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