Science - September 6, 2012

Wageningen experts are divided on Dijkhuizen's stand

Eight Wageningen perspectives on Aalt Dijkhuizen’s article in Trouw and a response from Dijkhuizen.

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Edith Lammerts van Bueren, professor (by special appointment) of Organic Plant Breeding:
'I agree that we will soon have nine billion mouths to feed and that meeting this growth is a huge challenge. And yes, to do so agriculture will need to become more productive. But that doesn't mean that Dutch agriculture should intensify in the form of factory farms and that we should export food to China.  That is not a sustainable solution; it is better to produce the food in the same place it is consumed. A far more effective approach is to help farmers in developing countries, who now produce half a tonne of wheat per hectare, to increase their productivity to three or four tonnes using local resources and improved breeds. There is still scope for improving productivity, for instance by enriching the soils with organic material. Dijkhuizen chooses the intensive model and takes a selective view of its ecological benefits. Pity.'
Hans van Trijp, professor of Marketing:
'Broadly speaking I agree with Dijkhuizen. If you want to feed two billion more people you either have to decrease demand per capita or increase the supply. Demand can be influenced by promoting meat substitutes. Certainly worth doing, but a difficult task. And in attempting to increase supply one runs into issues of land scarcity, and environmental and animal welfare standards. What you want is lots of food per hectare with a low environmental impact. I notice that people are quick to talk about intensive agriculture in black and white terms: intensive agriculture is either ugly and bad, or it is good. As long as you go on seeing intensive and sustainable agriculture as incompatible, you are heading for a dead end. Instead we should be looking to find a new balance for sustainable and highly productive agriculture. We cannot feed the whole world, but we can feed part of it and you don't want to give up your agricultural exports. And you can export your knowledge; in other parts of the world there are large profits to be made in intensive agriculture.'
David Kleijn, researcher at Alterra:
'I saw Aalt on the news and got pretty worked up about it because he has a very one-dimensional approach to a complex problem. Look, I agree with his argument that intensive agriculture can be improved upon in other parts of the world such as large parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. There farmers are still affected by diseases, pests, and weeds. But in the Netherlands we have reached maximum capacity, we really stand out globally. Agriculture here is highly efficient but that comes at the expense of biodiversity. In North-western Europe you must look for smarter solutions than simply using more pesticides and fertiliser.'
'I will give two examples. If you increase the proportion of organic materials in the soil by just a few percent you need 50 kilos less nitrogen in the form of fertilizer per hectare. And if you plant strips of flowers next to a field of blueberries you get more pollinators and a considerably higher yield. These kinds of smart solutions are the future of Dutch agriculture. I've even heard the agrochemical industry admit as much, which is remarkable because that industry makes its money from fertilizers.'
Thomas Slinkert, second year student of Agricultural and Bioresource Engineering, lives in vegetarian student house Witte Wilma:
'I've considered all of the positions and I'm trying to decide what I think myself. Dijkhuizen is right when he says that intensive agriculture consumes less resources and CO2. But there is more to sustainability than that: animal welfare and biodiversity are the victims of intensive agriculture. I agree with him that on a global level agriculture needs to be intensified in order to feed the world population. But if you take the Dutch system as an example, you should include a look at the legislation for animal welfare and biodiversity into account.'
Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, professor Rural Sociology:
'I see that once again he is using a moral straightjacket: either you agree with him, or you are responsible for world hunger. Looking around me I can see that it has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. This is really not acceptable, and not what one expects from the chief executive of a university.'
Boerengroep [farmers'] foundation:
'It is a pity that Aalt Dijkhuizen has not done justice to the diversity of opinions in Wageningen. The many-sided approaches in Wageningen UR are evident not only in the essay collection Zorgvuldige Veehouderij, but also in the numerous creative solutions, lectures, and subjects, all being worked on by many people. We work together to shape students' critical skills and find solutions to the food crisis; there is no single truth or solution. The opening of the academic year should also convey this message. In future, as far as we are concerned, it should be more critical, diverse, and inspiring.'
Wijnand Sukkel, researcher of sustainable food systems at PPO:
'I like Aalt Dijhuizen's Usain Bolt metaphor. Current conventional agriculture is indeed like Usain Bolt: a sprinter who excels over a short distance but is exhausted after a few hundred metres. Just like conventional agriculture: highly productive now, but in 50 years time global soils and reserves will be exhausted. I would rather choose a long distance runner with greater stamina.'
'In many parts of the world, organic food production could certainly improve on the output achieved by current methods. We have also seen in a number of experiments in the Netherlands that the differences in productivity between conventional and organic agriculture are getting smaller. This is largely due to more sustainable soil management. Organic farming, or a modern version of it, can also provide for the world's food needs. It too focuses on economics, food production, and reducing pollution, but it also pays attention to long term sustainability, fair trade, and health. Many organic principles, such as soil management, can be applied to conventional agriculture. And the organic sector can learn from the modern techniques being applied in intensive agriculture. In other words, I am in favour of a dialogue.'
Martin van Ittersum, personal professor of Plant Production Systems:
'Intensifying production is the most important condition for increasing food production around the world in the coming years. But this has to be qualified by region. In the Netherlands agriculture does not need to be more intensive, but cleaner and more socially acceptable. In Africa, for instance, more inputs such as good seed and fertilizer are needed to increase production per hectare. There, agriculture needs to be intensified in order to feed more people - there is no way around that.  In these countries there are enormous yield gaps - the difference between the potential and the actual production - so there is plenty of room for improvement. Availability of water and fertilizers - including artificial fertilizers - are the primary requirements, but just try getting them to the places where they are needed. That requires many preconditions such as a strong economy and good infrastructure. So there is no blueprint, you have to come up with tailor-made solutions.'
'But globally it is true: we have to increase yield per hectare.  That means more intensive agriculture, but what do we mean by that? In the Netherlands intensive livestock farming carries many negative associations, but intensive agriculture and horticulture are a more complex issue. And intensive agriculture scores higher on some, but not all, environmental criteria. Conventional agriculture can, for example, have relatively low levels of greenhouse gas emissions but use more pesticides and have relatively low levels of biodiversity. Organic farming does better on the latter indicators but is less efficient because it requires more ground, which can come at the expense of biodiversity elsewhere. Unfortunately it is a complex issue.'
Aalt Dijkhuizen responds
I am concerned about how we are going to feed the world population in future. Food is not just a basic need but can also be an expression of wealth (people with more money switch from plant-based to animal proteins) and even a cause of unrest (the rebellion in Egypt started after a hike in food prices). And if you spend 75 percent of your income on food, then food is something you worry about. Day in day out. A reliable supply of affordable, good food is a field that is right up Wageningen's street. We belong to the select company or organizations in the world that are qualified to say something about this.
Let me make clear first and foremost that I heartily applaud the debate on this subject. My only aim is to bring is some facts that I see being overlooked or misrepresented in the current discussion, especially that around intensive livestock farming. The danger of this is that decisions may be taken that are based on incorrect information, and that the diversity of our system could quite wrongly be reduced instead of increased. This seems to me to be a clear task for a knowledge institution, whether you are an employee, a professor or the chair of the Executive Board.
There are many sides to highly productive agriculture, for example the degree of sustainability you can achieve while maintaining high productivity. I have noticed that most of the responses to the article in Trouw focus on the lack of diversity in my statement. But that is precisely what my argument is. You cannot tackle the world food problem from one angle alone. I have noticed that the prevailing view is in danger of tipping in favour of exclusively extensive agriculture. And I consider that a dangerous development, especially if it means that we no longer want to support our current of highly productive agriculture. That would not be good for the Dutch agri-food sector, it would not be good for Wageningen UR and it would not be good for the Netherlands. Over the past century in this country, we have learned how to produce good quality food on a limited land surface. Dutch farmers are the best in the world. And that has come about thanks to the knowledge gained in our agricultural education system. That knowledge is an export product that is not to be sneezed at. It enables us to transfer our knowledge of this production chain to people in other countries and to keep food production and markets together. So it is a tremendous opportunity to make food production sustainable on a global scale. What is more, our own research has shown that highly productive agriculture provides more opportunities for improving biodiversity. That way we really do more with less. And that is exactly what I am arguing for.
You are perfectly free to disagree, by the way. It is absolutely fitting in an academic organization that we should enter into debate with each other. My aim in publishing an article in Trouw was to draw attention to the issue and stimulate debate.
Let me make one thing clear: we do not have to opt for one system alone. The challenge lies precisely in a hybrid approach in which elements from various different systems can reinforce each other. But the common aim is then that we are able to produce more good food for an affordable price. That is already the challenge facing us now (just look at the rising food prices) and it will remain the challenge. In the Netherlands and in Wageningen we have a fantastic opportunity to make a contribution in this area. And we can do it, especially if we do it together, coming at it from a range of angles. And with an open attitude to each other.
 

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