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Mark Hillsdon reports on how innovative finance and technologies are helping Europe’s food production powerhouse to move from monoculture to agro-biodiversity
Dutch agriculture, like so much of the global food system, is running up against its ecological limits, with soil quality and biodiversity flatlining. But now moves are afoot to change this, as banks, farmers, food producers and conservation groups come together to put agro-biodiversity on the menu.
The memories of famine in wartime Holland helped to power a revolution in Dutch agriculture, explains Berry Marttin, an executive board member at Rabobank. “After the war, we were incredibly successful in producing quality, affordable food and have now grown into the second-largest exporter of food in the world,” he says.
The sector’s annual turnover is €140bn, contributing nearly 10% to the national economy and accounting for a similar percentage of all jobs. Yet the Netherlands also has one of the highest population densities in the world and this pressure for space has seen intensive agriculture thrive.
Low food prices have meant that farmers had to continue to increase production to make a living, with many dairy farms operating as a monoculture
Nearly two-thirds of the country is given over to dairy and in recent years poor environmental performance has tarnished the sector’s image. Low food prices have meant that farmers had to continue to increase production to make a living, with many dairy farms operating as a monoculture, where the same crop – grass – is sowed year-on-year, with no crop rotation, or chances for the soil to recover.
In many areas this has led to soil exhaustion, with the medicine often huge doses of fertilisers, phosphates and nitrogen, rather than natural cures like organic matter and manure.
Now the aim is to reverse this, maintaining food security while regenerating the environment at the same time.
“The current environmental footprint of this success is not sustainable,” says Marttin, who believes circulatory farming, with its emphasis on returning agricultural residues to the soil instead of chemical fertilisers, is now a key driver for change.
The bank’s Banking for Food initiative is looking to improve global food security, encouraging a system that produces more food but with less inputs. As an agrifood bank that serves 80% of all Dutch farmers, Rabobank is also in a strong position to influence the future course of Dutch agriculture.
And in a scenario that is increasingly being played out around the world, Dutch farmers, especially those with dairy herds, are being encouraged to ditch the fertilisers and pesticides and let nature take back control; this is the basis of agro-biodiversity.
Moving away from monoculture is definitely a new chapter in agriculture and we have to learn to connect with this changing system
The problem for farmers such as Willem van der Schans, who runs Den Eelder, a dairy farm of 550 cows in central Holland, is that during the transition from a monoculture to a more balanced form of farming, milk production can initially drop, along with the farm’s overall income. This is where Rabobank can step in with green loans and financing that can help farmers bridge the gap.
“Moving away from monoculture is definitely a new chapter in agriculture and we have to learn to connect with this changing system,” says Van der Schans.
Among the changes the farm has made is a push to supplement cattle feed with leftover food produce, such as spent grain from brewing and sugar beet pulp, which means less overall waste, and less expenditure on other animal feeds.
The farm is also self-supporting on energy and, alongside 1100 solar panels, a manure digester turns methane gas into energy.
Van der Schans is also reaping the benefits of taking sustainability into the fields. Last summer, one of the driest on record, the pasture he planted with a different mix of grass and herbs, and which he cut (for fodder) later so that birds could benefit, proved far more resilient to the drought than conventionally planted fields.
He is also proud of a field that he has allowed to flood, rather than use for production, in order to encourage birds back on to the farm.
So while there may be a short-term hit to profits, in the long term he believes it will prove a much more sustainable and profitable model. “Because we're so dependent on the nature around us, it’s logical to try to work as sustainably as possible,” he says.
We need a new revolution in the way we farm and innovation is going to be very important to that
Rabobank has also teamed up with WWF and dairy giant Royal FrieslandCampina to launch a biodiversity monitor for dairy farms that measures the performance of the entire farm, rather than just looking at individual initiatives. It shows the positive effects of actions on landscape and wildlife, and highlights which approaches are best for healthy soil and the reduction of greenhouse gases. The bank then rewards farmers with a lower interest rate on loans up to €1m.
With such a strong farming sector, it’s no surprise that the Netherlands is a global leader in agriculture technology. Much of it is based at the Wageningen University & Research (WUR) centre, the hub of the “Food Valley” region in central Netherlands, with its cluster of agricultural start-ups and innovative farms.
Recent developments have ranged from ideas around feeding livestock grasshoppers instead of grain, and growing plants that have a symbiotic relationship with, and can create their own, bacteria.
Innovation is crucial, says Marttin. “We need a new revolution in the way we farm, and innovation is going to be very important to that.” The bank runs FoodBytes!, a series of events connecting food industry leaders and investors with start-up companies that are innovating and disrupting the food chain.
The bank’s funding mechanism aims to achieve a net gain in sustainability and it also sets out to fund individual projects, providing farms meet certain environmental criteria.
Ted Duijvestijn heads up Duijvestijn Tomatoes, which in 2015 was named the most innovative tomato grower in the world. He explains that the business has received financial support from Rabobank to implement a number of sustainable innovations. These include using geothermal energy to heat greenhouses, and developing a new type of greenhouse that enables maximum light penetration and reduces energy consumption by 60%.
Mark Hillsdon is a Manchester-based freelance writer who writes on business and sustainability for Ethical Corporation, The Guardian, and a range of nature-based titles including CountryFile and BBC Wildlife.
This article is part of the in-depth briefing Climate-smart agriculture. See also:Banking for Food Dutch agriculture Rabobank Den Eelder Royal FrieslandCampina biodiversity