Science - June 28, 2018

WUR maps the contours of the circular agrofood system

Text:
Albert Sikkema

Our food production system needs a radical overhaul, and farmers cannot achieve that on their own. Three Wageningen experts explained this on 13 June to Dutch MPs who had invited them because they wanted to know more about the circular agrofood system.

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Today’s agriculture is very efficient in terms of the product but also causes climate change and the loss of biodiversity. The circular agrofood system aims at addressing those issues integrally. That is the gist of the vision that was explained at the ‘technical briefing’ in The Hague by Martin Scholten, director of the Animal Sciences Group, Rogier Schulte, professor of Farming Systems Ecology, and Jan Peter Lesschen of Wageningen Environmental Research.

Central to their narrative is the soil, the right place to close the nutrient cycle in agriculture. Farmers should return more waste flows to the soil in order to increase its organic matter content and fertility. Such soils produce more food, store more CO2 and retain more water.

The agricultural sector often makes good use of waste flows already, but there is room for improvement, say the Wageningen academics. Crop residues, for instance, can be ploughed under, as is current practice, but they can also be used as feed for breeding insects, which could then be used as livestock feed.

The Wageningen academics envisage combinations of arable and livestock farming, because those sectors need to collaborate more closely for a better exchange of livestock feed and fertilizer material. It is crucial for this that new agribusiness models are developed, which make circular methods more attractive to farmers. These adaptations could include mixed cropping and herb-rich grasslands, in order to promote biodiversity in the countryside. Business models are needed for that too. This calls for a radical change in our food system, which is something farmers cannot achieve on their own, say the Wageningen academics.

They say the gap between the vision and the reality must first be described and discussed with all those involved – farmers, the industry, supermarkets, consumer and environmental organizations etc – before new agreements can be arrived at.