News - May 30, 2013

Agriculture and nature

In the classic film Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor play a middle-aged couple who never stop quarreling. They are inextricably bound to each other and yet they fight like cats. They remind me of the relationship between nature and agriculture. It is formed by history, since the natural landscape in the Netherlands is largely the result of human use. But upscaling and intensification have put massive pressure on the relationship.

The political marriage of agriculture and nature dates back to a far more recent time. To be precise, to 1989, when nature was transferred from the Ministry of Culture, Recreation and Social Work to the then still powerful Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Not everyone was happy about it. I still very clearly remember professor of Biology Victor Westhoff's furious response when it was announced: 'Joop, they have handed us over to the enemy.'
Agriculture and nature: can it be a happy marriage or can't it? The answer to this question is remarkably simple. Yes and no: it all depends. 'Nature management by farmers is big fiasco' ran the headlines in several newspapers earlier this month in response to an advisory document by the Council for the Environment and Infrastructure.  This conclusion may be true of the short-term subsidizing of farmers in intensive farming areas, but it does not do justice to the success of collectives and the potential contribution of extensive agriculture to linking and buffering nature areas. In other words: cut loose where you have to and connect up where you can.