Ecologists, farmers, water boards and provincial governments should set up ‘living labs’ to trial measures for promoting biodiversity in Dutch agriculture. Then they can implement the current cabinet’s vision of circular agriculture, says Professor David Kleijn.
Text Albert Sikkema photo Aldo Allessie
The Netherlands should become a pioneer of circular agriculture, writes agriculture minister Carola Schouten in the cabinet’s vision paper on agriculture, which she presented in September. Agriculture must stop putting pressure on biodiversity, and it ‘holds an important key to improving nature in the Netherlands,’ says the minister.
David Kleijn, professor of Plant Ecology and Nature Management, is a prominent critic of the current agriculture system, which revolves around exports and cost price. He notes that this is causing a dramatic drop in numbers of field birds, herbal plants and insects in the Netherlands. His research has also shown that the subsidies farmers get for agricultural nature management benefit nature little or not at all. What does he think of the new agriculture vision? And how can it be implemented?
Not just farmers
To start with, Kleijn wants to emphasize one point: ‘It is too simplistic to say that the farmers are entirely to blame for the decline in biodiversity and should therefore solve it. The farmers are part of a nature-hostile system which we have all helped to bring about. Restoring biodiversity requires an integral approach. If the consumer paid a couple of cents more per litre of milk or kilo of potatoes, we could solve all the problems. And municipalities, water boards and nature organizations must start contributing to a nature-inclusive form of landscape management.’
Just make a start
Kleijn thinks the challenge for circular agriculture lies in finding a good balance between climate, the environment and nature. To find that, he argues for a regional, hands-on approach. ‘For a long time I thought we should first do research to figure out the best way of protecting nature on farmland, and then use the results to formulate policy. I no longer believe that works. There are a lot of simple things we know too little about. Both nature and society are extremely complex: implementation repeatedly confronts you with surprises. It is an illusion that you improve biodiversity with national legislation. We’ve got to get to work at the regional level, with the farmers. Just get started and learn as you go along – and then do it better.’
Kleijn would like to trial possible approaches in regional ‘living labs’. ‘Measures for nature management by individual farmer are as good as pointless. If the others in the area don’t join in, it isn’t going to work. You need a system of nature management at the area level.’ So he wants to work with farmers, rural residents and municipalities to think up and experiment with forms of nature-inclusive landscape management. He is pleased that minister Schouten also says she wants to work out circular agriculture at the regional level. ‘Nature varies a lot with the context. You need different nature conservation measures in the peaty areas and on sandy soils.’
So in the Dutch peaty areas we must prioritize raising the water table, says the professor. ‘First of all that reduces CO2 emissions and ground subsidence, so farmers will be able to go on farming longer. Secondly, a higher water table causes farmers to mow their fields later in the spring, making them better brooding areas for field birds. The challenge lies in finding a way for farmers to earn a decent living under these circumstances too.’
You need other measures, Kleijn thinks, on sandy soils such as those found in De Peel in the south of the country. Interestingly, he does not start with the farmers but with the municipalities. ‘The municipal councils no longer mow the verges themselves, but contract the work out to companies with big tractors that mow all these local biodiversity hotspots at once. That is a bad idea. Phased mowing is better for biodiversity, and municipalities could get farmers to do it. They could then use the verge cuttings to improve their soils, instead of slurry. That way you can combine biodiversity with good soil management.’
An integral approach is needed for each area, emphasizes Kleijn. ‘If Dutch livestock farmers got more protein for their feed from their own land, we wouldn’t have to import so much soya, which would be good for nature in countries such as Brazil. You can reward that. But if you focus exclusively on that, livestock farmers might end up fertilizing their grasslands even more heavily, and mowing them more frequently, which is disastrous for the field birds. If there is a subsidy for herb-rich grasslands, farmers will make more considered decisions that benefit biodiversity as well.’
At the same time, you need to give farmers a nudge in the right direction by changing legislation, says Kleijn. In that respect, he argues for protective legislation for hedgerows and channel banks, which are important for birds and insects. ‘The funny thing is that the Netherlands doesn’t count hedgerows for the per-hectare subsidy under European agricultural policy. Farmers get subsidies for their farmland, not for the landscape elements on their land. That disincentive makes farmers get rid of the hedgerows. It would be good if the minster changed that legislation.’
The point is still, according to Kleijn, that farmers only invest in nature as part of a business model. That is why the European agricultural subsidies are important, but he mentions other options as well. The Rabobank, for example, could charge nature-inclusive farmers lower interest rates, while dairy company FrieslandCampina could reward biodiversity with a higher milk price.
The aim is to design an agricultural system which promotes biodiversity and nature conservation. Flowers are good indicators of such nature-inclusive systems, says Kleijn. The flowery meadows of the past, with their buttercups and cuckooflowers, have rapidly changed in recent decades into deserts of perennial ryegrass. Kleijn: ‘We must adapt agricultural management so that meadow flowers can bloom again.’
Delta Plan for Biodiversity
David Kleijn is working on the Delta Plan for Biodiversity, with which parties such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Rabobank, the Dutch Federation of Agriculture and Horticulture, and WUR want to reverse the rapid decline in biodiversity in the Netherlands. The plan will probably be presented later this month.