On the 24th of May, Evelien de Olde (post-doc on sustainable livestock production systems) was invited at Impulse to reflect with us on our findings of Monday’s event Together towards circular farming #1: a dairy farmer’s case, and to give us her scientists’ perspective on circular farming.
Announcement of the event
Facebook event page
Source: de Boer, van Ittersum, 2018 – Circularity in agricultural production, Mansholt lecture 2018
1. Introduction to Circular food system by Evelien de Olde (Animal Production Systems, APS)
Circular farming, a booming topic
Looking in the newspapers, circular agriculture is a booming topic (up to yesterday 311 articles in 2019 from different newspapers found on the topic).
Circular farming (CF) is combining many topics they work on within her chairgroup. CF embraces so many challenges, it brings people together. CF is a challenge in itself, it is such a broad and complex topic, we need to make the problems more explicit.
Nothing new, becoming urgent
Already in 1972, Sicco Mansholt pleaded for a production system without pollution and the development of a circular process (see quotes). We have reports and proof that it is now an urgent matter to tackle.
Role of animals in circular food systems
Arable land can be primarily used for production of food. Processed food leads to some co- and by-products (crop residues, co-products, food waste), which can be feed to animals, instead of using extra land for feed production. Using all the by-products, we can produce 9 to 23g of animal protein/person/day (a third of daily protein needs, as people need on average 50-60g of protein/day). This is the work of her APS colleague Hannah van Zanten.
Optimal use of land and feeding animals with by-products leads to the smallest land use. Vegan diet means more land because you do not use by-products from crop production. Not to say veganism is not a good idea, they help us now to use less land, but if we all go vegan we will use more land.
Global animal protein consumption
Current global animal proteins available for consumption: In Asia and Africa 15-20g/day, in the rest of the world 30-70g/day (Europe: 50g/day).
If we use all the by-products (and produce 23g animal protein/day), 75% of the world population (Asia and Africa) could eat a little more animal protein/day.
But we can also argue that by-products can be valuable for other means (energy, fertilisers, biomaterials), and that animal protein consumption is not ethical.
Within planetary boundaries
The circular food system should be optimized to remain within the planetary boundaries.
3 priorities (in order of importance)
- plant biomass to humans first
- by-products recycled back in the system (soil quality, feeding to livestock, production of bioenergy, nutrients fertilizers, biomaterials)
- use animals for what they are good at: cows get grass, pigs get rest products
Still many questions and challenges
How to move to a more circular system? in relation to economic growth, trade, policy and regulations, environment, social aspects etc.
Education and circular farming
The best related course in her chairgroup: ‘The role of livestock in future food systems’. They have other courses focusing on the role of livestock, and an online MOOC: ‘Sustainable food security: Food access and The value of systems thinking’.
Other chairgroups also contribute to this topic.
2. Perspectives, questions and comments on the results
Problem 1: soil fertility
Solution Anouk: Vrebamelkvee argued that their current ration, with a fair amount of maize, requires additional fertilizer use.
Solution group: Separating urine and faeces allows to more easily produce pellets and to reduce ammonia emissions.
Can animals convert efficiently leftovers into valuable food for humans?
There is indeed some research being done in her chair group about which animal you can use best for which by-products, with animals of different degree of productivity. This might result in a trade-off where animals with a lower productivity can make better use of by-products but per unit of product produce more GHG emissions.
Why is restoring soil fertility with the by-products your number 1 priority?
If you have by-products, the first thing to look at is the soil. Not caring about the soil and the nutrients balance leads to soil depletion, and to a decrease in production.
Comment from a participant on Vrebamelkee exporting their self-produced pellets:
To improve soil fertility, you should apply it to your own soil, otherwise you’re exporting all your organic matter (PhD researcher on soil quality).
Problem 2: feed import
Solution Vrebamelkvee: Although the proposed solution is circular, it is worth looking at the energy level: how much energy is being used to make the pellets from manure, how much fossil fuel is burnt to produce it. Another example are the paper cups, we like it that they are recycled, but it costs a lot of energy to do so.
What do you think about feed import and the scale chosen for closing circles?
With getting feed from Latin America, you get a displacement effect, gathering all the nutrients here while depleting the soil elsewhere. Just like the group’s proposed solution, Evelien suggests to produce feed on a more local scale, or you have to send back nutrients to where the imported feed came from. Anouk had mentioned getting soy produced in Hungary.
Do you think growing soy for cows is part of a sustainable farming system?
Evelien is not a nutritionist, but we could do more with improving the diet using grass according to her, she does not think soy is a necessity.
Isn’t there a risk of decrease in total production if we feed cows only on grass?
Some farmers show that you can have a high level of production with very little external inputs (mainly grass).
Closing loops at the scale of NL vs. scale of Europe, what is best?
Cycles should be closed as much as possible, of course many say as local as possible, but it does not always make sense. For e.g. it could be detrimental to trade, the Netherlands now use a lot of wheat from France.
More generally, we need to look at all the scales, see if we can close the loops at more local levels. There is a lot of work done now in Drenthe region.
Problem 3: Greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions
Solution group: Animal nutrition can indeed influence the emissions by animals.
Can you explain what is a REMEDy stable?
Evelien is not an expert on it, but the principle is to capture the methane emitted in the stable, turn it into energy and warmth, use it as biofuel on farm, notably to lower the temperature in the stable, so cows have optimal conditions.
Vrebamelkvee mentioned becoming CO2 negative (in relation to the REMEDy stable). Is it achievable in reality?
This is a very specific design for a specific stable. Evelien only knows carbon sequestration in the soil is not infinite. More research is needed on ‘CO2 negativity’.
Comment from a participant: This kind of system implies that all animals remain inside. No animals get to roam outside. That is a problem to me for animal welfare.
Having cows in a close stable to catch the ammonia and methane (which is circular), what is you personal view on it, regarding animal welfare?
Personally, Evelien likes to see the cows outside but there are certainly advantages and disadvantages to that. Many researchers work on the topic of animal welfare in the chair group, those challenges are also tackled.
Problem 4: policy restrictions
Living labs are now all over the country: challenges linked to water quality, jobs, local products, environment, recreational activities, social impacts, etc.
Not all farmers can become living labs? Or should they all go above the constraints?
Living labs combine actors on a local scale. This is important because regions are different and every farmer has his own context, their experiments have to be context based (soil, labor, climate).
Farmers often say there are too many policies. What do you think?
It is not about the quantity of the policies, but about their quality and appropriateness.
When a policy is implemented, there are minimum requirements, but also incentives to achieve more than the minimum requirements, to encourage to innovate.
In terms of EU policies, there is this suggestion to move money of the Common Agricultural Policy to more ecological regulation so farmers have more opportunities to go towards more circular systems. This is both challenging and exciting. Will the EU go towards this proposal?
Comment from a participant: The system now is not circular, more circular means more costs, and those costs should be spread more equally along the food chain.
Question to the crowd: Who thinks there should be MORE green and circular motivating policies?
[about half of the audience]
Argument from a participant for less policies: Farmers should be restricted to the minimum and given more space to innovate by themselves. It’s not the case yet. Today there are legislations that limit farmers to be more circular, so decreasing the number of policies would give them more incentives.
Evelien’s answer: Actually, many incentives already exist to help farmers improve the environment quality. But Evelien likes the participant’s comment. Our current system provides more incentives to grow, not to reduce. Our economy has been concentrating on growth for the past decennia, now we need to keep on circulating within the planetary boundaries (not with growth). We need to be more smart with our material use (while keeping in mind that recycling material also costs a lot of energy).