On Friday 18th January over a hundred students gathered in the Impulse building during lunch to take
part in the kick-off of the Circular Farming Platform Wageningen. The anticipation was felt in the crowd and students were eagerly listening to the ideas of the initiators and the guest speakers. A great number of students from different fields show interest in active engagement with the platform, the platform now feels the support to move forward and grow. During the first part of the kick-off the organisers introduced themselves and emphasized why they felt the need to initiate this platform. In the second part two guest speakers were given the floor who illustrated the need for transition both from their own field of expertise. Both presentations analyzed the complexity of current agri-food systems and therefore gave insights in the many challenges that we have ahead of us. The platform is thrilled to take up these challenges and to start to tackle them.
Circular agriculture is the future. Our minister of agriculture – Carola Schouten – has declared in September 2018 her vision on Dutch agriculture: “The Netherlands as frontrunner in circular agriculture’’. Our executive board president Louise Fresco has recently announced a paradigm shift in agricultural science from improvement of productivity towards improvement of circularity. What are the next steps to these beautiful ideas? How can we as students – both now and in our later careers – contribute to the needed shift? Which skills and competencies do we need to do that? How can we integrate circularity thinking into WUR education? During the kick-off of the Circular Farming Platform Wageningen the initiators announced their aim to facilitate events with space for mutual learning. They invited all students and researchers to be part of this platform by participating in the sessions and/or by give suggestions, tips and other relevant thoughts that help the platform grow and improve.
Currently, the platform is setting up different series of events that will allow us to interact with each other and to gain knowledge of what is currently happening within the agricultural sector. We want to explore together how a circular future could look like, understand better which challenges lay ahead of us, and formulate research questions. It is aimed to tackle challenges together, to include different perspectives and to learn to understand complex systems by having dialogues. It is agreed with the Board of the University that they will receive the acknowledgements of the platform in the end of this academic year during a public event.
To emphasize the urgency of moving from linear to circular models in agriculture, two guest speakers were invited to give their perspective on the need for this transition in a historical context: Ekko van Ierland (WUR prof.) and Erik Goewie (emiritus prof.). Erik Goewie could not make it because of personal reseaons, therefore his presentation was taken over by Marthe van Russen Groen (Msc environmental science).
Today’s economy can be described as a “cowboy economy” according to E. van Ierland: the processes are linear, you can “grab what you want”, “throw away” and leave the garbage behind; the profit and utility is maximized at an individual level. In other words: “I don’t care”. We need to transition towards an economy of “spaceship Earth”: our planet is a blue jewel that we need to care for, goods have to be produced from cradle to cradle with an almost complete recycling process and within the planetary boundaries.
Ekko van Ierland continued with describing some of the pre-requisites for a transition towards circular and sustainable agro-food system. He argues that markets will not lead to circular economy or circular agriculture: markets fail completely for environment, waste, resource extraction and toxic compounds.
In order to correct market failures, governments need to formulate the boundaries and conditions and eliminate dumping and excessive incineration. Secondly, external environmental costs need to be internalized into the costs of food products (including air transport and ocean transport). Thirdly, circular agro-food systems require behavioural changes of consumers, producers, government and NGOs.
However, E. van Ierland cautions against viewing circular agriculture as necessarily more sustainable. Agriculture can be circular with extremely unhealthy concentrations of pollutants in soil, water and atmosphere. Desirable levels of concentrations of pollutants and resources are to be well specified and maintained by government actors (in the field, in water and the atmosphere). Conditions need to be created to make circularity profitable: this includes promoting recycling, restricting old fashioned dumping, emissions and incineration. In order to ensure a sustainable and circular agriculture, Nature conservation, biodiversity and agro-ecosystems need to be at the heart of the transition. Furthermore, the transition needs to be based on sustainable energy and sustainable recyclable products. In this sense, ecological economics has much to offer to the circular agriculture transition.
Finally E. van Ierland’s systems perspective leads him to suggest a number of concrete steps that would contribute to a circular agriculture. For researchers, he suggests further research into the redesign of circular products, processes and chains, and into redesign of incentives and institutions. For policy, he proposes amongst others to reduce waste production, to restrict production and consumption of junk food, and the banning of persistent toxic compounds. His recommendations to consumers include choosing a circular lifestyle and choosing sustainable energy. Challenges for producers include designing circular processes and chains, using recycled materials, and using resources efficiently. Marthe, in name of Eric Goewie started her presentation with describing the origins of our current intensive agricultural system, tracing it back to the post-war times in which Dutch Minister of Agriculture S. Mansholt prioritized hunger prevention. This system is characterized by linear production process, assessment of successful farm production based on quantities (kg, liters), environmental protection through governmental legislation, artificial fertilizers, and modelling-based farm research and management.
Mansholt’s agro-policy objectives have been achieved. But, E. Goewie asks what about ecosystem conditions here and elsewhere? In order to achieve what he calls a ‘cyclical’ agriculture, we need to focus on nature during food production, to balance farms and ecosystem within a 100m-radius, and to work with cycles of energy, nutrients, ecosystems.
Such a system would value: wholeness as opposed to components, nature protection over using nature, the farm as an ecosystem by itself as opposed to the farm as a production-machine, experimental knowledge as dominant over dominant lab (pc) knowledge, and animals leading comfortable and free lives as opposed to life oriented towards production objectives.
Inspired by natural cycles, E. Goewie states some basic principles for action: precaution, proximity (produce where the mouths are), self-regulation, meaningfulness, and attitude (think cyclically, not linearly). He concluded with arguing that cyclical agriculture is rooted in science, socially desirable, sustainable, and regionally produced (where the mouths are).
Both presentations analyzed the complexity of current agri-food systems and therefore gave insights in the many challenges that we have ahead of us. The platform is thrilled to take up these challenges and to start to tackle them.