Science - October 17, 2019

Where is the vision for agriculture? - Public policy expert Candel: ‘Stop the quick fixes’

Roelof Kleis

Farmers protesting in The Hague is a sign of the persistent failure of government policy. Market forces have become a goal in their own right and crises are resolved with ad hoc policies, concludes public policy expert Jeroen Candel. ‘There is no vision about where we should be heading.’

On 1 October, angry farmers descended en masse on The Hague. Understandable, says Jeroen Candel. ‘They continually have to deal with sudden, drastic measures.’

text Roelof Kleis  photo Hollandse Hoogte/Robin Utrecht

Jeroen Candel, assistant professor in the Public Administration and Policy group, regularly publishes critical opinions on food and agriculture policy. On 1 October, the day of the major protest by farmers in The Hague, an interview with him appeared on the online platform Foodlog in which he called the crisis in Dutch agriculture a ‘classic case of government failure’. He has not been short of media attention since then. Resource spoke to him.

What do you mean when you say the agriculture crisis is a classic example of government failure?

‘For several decades now, the government’s actions have been typified by a lack of any vision about where agriculture should be heading. The current agricultural system in the Netherlands clearly has problems in various areas. There are issues with nitrogen, the contribution to climate change, zoonoses, food safety and so on. We’ve known that for a long while. Yet there’s no answer to the question of what we should be doing next with agriculture and the food system in broad terms. The government is constantly reacting to incidents and crises. As a result, farmers continually have to deal with sudden, drastic measures without any overarching narrative saying where they should be heading.’

Why is that?

‘Since the 80s and 90s, the state has become much less interventionist and has let the market become the primary mechanism for steering things. In agriculture, market forces have become a goal in their own right. European agriculture has been deregulated. Farmers have to produce for the global market, which means that the cost price is all that matters. I call that out-of-control neoliberalism.’

At present, circular agriculture is no more than a buzzword
Jeroen Candel, assistant professor in the Public Administration and Policy group

You advocate a new narrative for agriculture. Isn’t that new narrative circular agriculture?

‘At present, circular agriculture is no more than a buzzword. It has been in the coalition agreement for two years now, but what do politicians mean by it? What is the model that we’re aiming for? What kind of farm fits? How can you steer people towards that? How does it relate to European agricultural policy? We still need to fill in the details everywhere. Another problem is that there are no nuances in the current political debate. You’re either for farmers or against them. It is a case of nature versus the interests of farmers. Nature versus the economy. That’s very simplistic and polarizing, whereas a more unifying discourse is actually needed. A future vision is needed in which agriculture and nature go together.’

The Cabinet wants to buy up farms near nature areas and subsidize the construction of low-emission barns.

‘If that is all they do, that would be a typical example of reactive policy, of quick fixes. That isn’t the answer to the question of where agriculture should be headed. We need to see what else the Cabinet does. The minister, Carola Schouten, told the farmers in The Hague that she didn’t want to halve the livestock population. So what does she want?’

What is WUR’s role in creating that new narrative?

‘The formulation of policy is primarily a task for politicians. But we can help them as a university. Wageningen’s thinking on circular agriculture offers politicians ammunition for further developing their ideas. That is why it is so important that Wageningen nurtures and encourages this debate. What does circular agriculture actually mean? Is it feasible and what are the views of the various disciplines? We need to engage with one another on this topic. And there’s no harm in disagreement.’

So no One Wageningen vision on circular agriculture?

‘Definitely not. Wageningen has a tendency to centralize the formulation of a vision, whereas you should actually delegate it to the scientists. Let them debate the issue. Management should facilitate and encourage this. We should accept that this might produce conflicting advice and recommendations rather than a silver bullet solution. That is precisely the added value of scientific debate.’

What can your discipline — Public Administration and Policy — add?

‘My discipline has a contribution to make in three areas. We can interpret political controversies and sensitivities. Why is something so sensitive? What is the reason for that polarization and what could you do to put an end to it? Secondly, we can offer policy options. What kinds of interventions could you implement and what would be the consequences? Finally, there is the governance issue. Who does what? What is the role of the government, the market and society at large?’

Are you optimistic that far-reaching choices will be made?

‘I believe we are at a crossroads. To have agriculture so high up the political agenda is unique. The nitrogen crisis is what is known in policy theory as a “focusing event”, one in which an issue suddenly attracts an awful lot of attention. That is often the ideal moment to push through major changes. This is a very exciting time. There is a sense of crisis and the politicians will not be able to avoid making hard choices. But those choices are only possible if you develop a vision of what you want from agriculture. The nitrogen crisis is creating a policy window, momentum that makes this possible. At the same time, I’m afraid that a creative solution will be found to the nitrogen problem that amounts to yet another quick fix. And that is not enough. The challenges facing farming are too big for reactive policy.’

Resource will be holding a debate on the nitrogen problem in Dutch agriculture on Monday 21 October. See p. 7.

Also read: