Science - September 21, 2018

Will we go back to farm labour?

Roelof Kleis

Truly sustainable agriculture demands radical measures. In his PhD thesis, Meino Smit sketches a picture of such agriculture in which human beings are central, rather than machines. His account can be read as the specifics of the general vision of circular agriculture recently presented by minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality Carola Schouten.

Eastern European workers harvest pumpkins. In Meino Smit’s vision of the future, there will be five times as many people working on the land in 2040 as now. © Hollandse Hoogte/Koen Verheijden

Agriculture has never been as unsustainable as it is now. Smit demonstrates this in his thesis, The sustainability of Dutch agriculture, for which he received his PhD last week from emeritus professor of Rural Sociology Jan Douwe van der Ploeg. Smit shows how the ecological footprint of agriculture developed between 1950 and 2015, zooming in on the direct and indirect consumption of energy, land and labour.

The results of this calculation exercise are telling. Direct land use for farming itself has gone down by one fifth since 1950, to 1.8 million hectares. On the other hand, the indirect use of land elsewhere in the Netherlands or the world has gone up by nearly three million hectares. So we use much more land to make agriculture possible than is used by farming itself.

Meino Smit © Roelof Kleis
Meino Smit © Roelof Kleis

Much more energy
The same picture emerges for the consumption of energy and labour. Due to mechanization and upscaling, the number of people working on the land is now only one fifth of what it was in 1950. Indirect labour, however, has more than doubled, to more than the direct labour. Yields from the land are somewhat bigger (in both kilos of products and calorific value) but that requires six times as much energy as in the past.

Smit’s thesis also outlines a vision for agriculture in 2040 which meets the climate goals in the Paris agreement. The scenario he describes sounds revolutionary. There is no place in it for large-scale import and export. Agriculture produces solely for the local population. And that population must halve its meat consumption. Intensive livestock farming disappears, resources are reused as much as possible, and five times as many people work on the land, with manual labour predominant.

How realistic is this?
‘Let me turn it around: how realistic is it to do nothing? If you do nothing, you let the whole thing crash. I am trying to prevent a crash and fulfil Paris. That is realistic, while what some people are doing is unrealistic, because it is just business as usual.’

Sustainable agriculture in 2040 will be rather like the agriculture of 1950, you say in your thesis. Is that the goal?
‘No, I don’t want to go back to the 1950s at all. But the agriculture of that time contained very valuable elements, which we can learn from. There were a lot more mixed farms then, with livestock and plant production combined. The fields were smaller and the landscape had more natural features. The agriculture system was much more stable in terms of cultivation techniques, biodiversity was greater and the pressure of disease was smaller.’

I don’t want to go back to the 1950s at all.
Meino SMit

How can you get five times more people working on the land? Agriculture in the Netherlands is already heavily dependent on Eastern Europeans because no one else wants to do that work.
‘Working on the land isn’t that bad. There are lots of people who would like to be farmers. And the work itself is changing too. In my scenario, big companies are not necessary for sustainable agriculture. It’s a very different way of working on a small farm. New technology will have to be developed that is geared to making it as pleasant as possible to work on the land.’

How does your sketch of agriculture in 2040 relate to Minister Schouten’s new agriculture vision?
‘The minister writes in general terms that we shall have to move towards sustainable circular agriculture but she avoids hard choices. To me, that is unrealistic. I see my scenario as a filling out of Schouten’s vision. I show what it means if you do make choices.’

Also read:

resource_wageningenur_nl_forum_reactions_wrapper for object 43 of type wm_language nl_gx_webmanager_cms_core_implementation_languageimpl 2

  • Paul van Haren

    Uitstekend uitgangspunt. Heb zelf veel over deze questie nagedacht. Wanneer we geen alternatief aanbieden loopt de huidige landbouw nog verder vast.

  • lezer

    Mooie studie, mooie visie, mooi interview