Organisation - October 6, 2016

The new food coalition

Albert Sikkema

There is almost a majority in The Hague in favour of a ministry of Food. Six parliamentary parties see such a ministry as the key to a new, integral food policy. Their coalition on this issue is fragile, however, due to numerous differences of opinion.

illustration Pascal Tieman

Two years ago the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WWR) published a report called Towards a food policy. The report is a plea for an integral food policy. It came out at a time when there were legal cases about food fraud, a public debate about factory farming, animal welfare and health, and complaints from farmers about low prices and the new power relations in food production chains. Although the Dutch agrofood sector was a major contributor to the Dutch economy, noted the WRR, public confidence in the sector was at a low ebb.

The current agricultural policy needed broadening to become a food policy, the WRR believed. ‘That policy should be based not just on economic values but also on considerations such as ecological values, the health of food and of consumers, and the robustness of food chains. These values should be weighed up and balanced in the context of a food strategy.’ The WRR also states: ‘This demands a strong institutional base.’ In other words: we need a ministry of Food.

Old antagonists

Oddly enough, the lower house of the Dutch parliament has not yet debated the WRR’s paper on food, now two years old. It seems as though the cabinet is at a loss. Meanwhile, more and more political parties have rallied behind the proposals, with the CDA (Christian democrats), the Christian Union, the PvdA (labour) , the SGP (a Protestant party) and the Animal Rights Party all speaking out in the past few months in favour of a ministry of Food.

The SP (socialist party) supports the WRR vision too, but would prefer to see a ministry of Food, Infrastructure and Environment (VIM).

Civil society organizations have aired their views too, and old antagonists such as agricultural organization LTO and nature conservation organizations Natuurmonumenten and Natuur & Milieu have united in support of the appeal for a minister of Food. They feel such a ministry is a requisite ‘for implementing coherent solutions which address issues of health, sustainability and prosperity,’ as Natuur & Milieu put it this summer.

Fragile coalition

The new coalition in The Hague is fragile, however, because the motives for setting up a new ministry are quite diverse. This becomes clear as soon as we catalogue the motivations of the various parties.

Abolishing the ministry of Agriculture (LNV) in 2010 was a mistake
Jaco Geurts (CDA)

To start with the CDA, this party really wants to bring back the former ministry of Agriculture. Abolishing this ministry in 2010 was a mistake, says CDA MP Jaco Geurts. He wants a new ministry which puts agriculture back on the map, and an agriculture minister who can join cabinet meetings. ‘That kind of ministry is in a better position to develop the food policy.’ Food safety, production and export are important themes for the CDA. The agricultural organization LTO shares the wish for farmers to be listened to again in The Hague. ‘The roles played in society by farmers and horticulturalists justify a new department of Food, Nature and Rural affairs,’ says LTO chair Albert Jan Maat. ‘Not just for the sake of safe, reliable and affordable food, but also in the interests of climate, rural areas and landscape.’

Limits to agriculture

The PvdA has very different reasons for arguing for a ministry of Food. ‘The new ministry should be the vehicle for a new agricultural policy,’ says PvdA MP Sjoera Dikkers. In such a policy, the environment and consumers set limits to our agriculture, says Dikkers. Under the ministry of Economic Affairs, she says, agriculture is strongly oriented towards economic considerations. In the new ministry, the issues of food quality, the environment, food safety and authenticity should be given much more priority. ‘I think you should bring together the various different parties, from industry to activists, to create an overarching vision on food.’

For this reason, the agriculture department should be separated from the ministry of Economic Affairs and merged with the environmental department of the ministry of Infrastructure and Environment, and the health department of the ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS), says Dikkers. Moreover, argues the PvdA, the labour inspectorate should play a role in the new food ministry to scrutinize the use of cheap labour and dubious contracts in the horticulture sector and in abattoirs.

The ministry of Food should be the vehicle for a new agriculture policy
Sjoera Dikkers (PvdA)

Ministry of VIM

The SP’s vision on food is very much in line with that of the PvdA. MP Henk van Gerven too would like to see an integral food policy in which limits are imposed on the agriculture sector and closer attention is paid to health, nature, the environment and food quality. The SP also shares the belief that the current agricultural policy under the ministry of Economic Affairs puts too much emphasis on production, world trade and export. That is why the agriculture department must be moved out of that ministry, says Van Gerven, but there is no need to set up a whole new ministry. ‘As far as I’m concerned we could put agriculture under the ministry of Infrastructure and Environment. I&M is a ministry with strong public participation, which considers the public good. I think farmers’ interests should come under the ministry of Food, Infrastructure and Environment (VIM).’

In-the-box thinking

The current coalition of the PvdA and the VVD is very divided when it comes to food and agriculture. This may well be why the WRR study has not yet been tabled for discussion in the lower house. The VVD is against the idea of a ministry of Food. ‘Parties which argue for a dedicated ministry of Food forget that our agriculture and horticulture sector has a lot of overlap with many other ministries,’ states MP Helma Lodders of the VVD. ‘It’s about economics, trade and finance. So the VVD doesn’t want to think in boxes, consisting of ministries. Instead of narrowing our focus to one particular ministry, we should actually be taking a broader view.’

Lodders therefore defends the current agriculture policy, which is oriented to the global market. ‘In the Netherlands we have an agricultural and horticultural sector which is a significant player on the world market. We want to keep it that way.’ So that agricultural must remain globally competitive. ‘Highly production agriculture such as we have in the Netherlands has its advantages. The higher the production, the less scarce farmland you need to produce our food, and the more space you preserve for nature and recreation. That is appealing. What is more, we should look at innovation, so as to ensure that agriculture can develop, but not at a cost to nature and the environment.’

Election theme

The rift between the VVD and the PvdA on food policy stands in the way of a joint vision on food, but after the elections in March next year a lot could change. It is possible that the right-wing PVV and some smaller parties will then have a say, and coalitions could be formed which do want a ministry of Food. The PVV has not made a statement on the subject, but D66, the SGP, the Christian Union and the Animal Rights Party have done so.

D66 wants a vision of food, but not necessarily a food ministry. ‘D66 wants us to make a start together with the farmers on the transition to a new, sustainable agriculture system with more emphasis on quality and less on bulk and the lowest possible prices,’ says D66 MP Fatma Koşer Kaya. ‘What name a ministry is given is a bit of a political game. The main thing for D66 is for food production to be geared to sustainability, quality and public health.’ Unlike D66, the Christian Union and the Animal Rights party are keen to see a ministry of Food. Like the CDA, the protestant SGP would like to go back to a dedicated ministry of Agriculture with its own minister. For the SGP, a new ministry of Food, which defends the interests of farmers better than the ministry of Economic Affairs has done, is an election campaign theme.

Fair price

What the Christian Union wants to see is a ministry of Food which bridges the divide between the fans and the critics of the current agricultural policy. ‘Nature, the environment and public health should have a place in the food policy,’ says Christian Union MP Carla Dik. ‘Not as a separate element but as the conditions for food production. The agriculture sector is at the heart of the ministry of Food. I am always emphasizing that we need to re-evaluate our food. The farmers are not paid enough for their products. Farmers work 80 hours a week and barely make a living because they have to sell their products for less than cost price.’

Fair food prices will not materialize under the auspices of the ministry of Economic Affairs, believes Dik. ‘In EZ, agriculture is approached from a purely economic point of view. Food is dealt with in a technocratic and procedural way. What is lacking at EZ is any passion for food. Health, nature, environment and animal welfare don’t fit into EZ’s economic principles, but they are just as important. We should not only be looking at the price of food for the consumer, as the Authority for Consumers and Market does, but also at the price for the producer and the availability, diversity and quality of our food.’

Mansholt lecture

In the current lower house the food coalition includes roughly half the MPs. What unites these MPs is a rejection of the bureaucratic, procedural ministry of Economic Affairs, and the wish for a heartfelt debate on food. Just look at the latest annual King’s Speech outlining policy. Not a word about farmers, agriculture or nature. The new food coalition wants to change that. Wageningen UR is doing its bit. Carla Dik refers not just to the WRR report but also to WUR president Louise Fresco’s Mansholt lecture in Brussels. Her plea for an integral agricultural policy was addressed to the EU, but might have more impact in The Hague, suggests Dik. ‘Her lecture is good material for a parliamentary debate.’