The downside of an agricultural export record

Last week Dutch media reported in big headlines about a record that Dutch agriculture had beaten. In 2016 agricultural products were exported for an amount of not less than 85 billion euros. This makes the Netherlands second, after the USA, in the world ranking. Quite an achievement for such a small country!

What was not mentioned though is the cost that comes with such record, in sustainability terms.

The agricultural sector accounts for some 54% of land use in the Netherlands. By far the largest part of this land use is very intensive, with high inputs of chemicals for crop protection, high manure input, strongly regulated ground water levels, use of heavy machinery, high cattle density, and ever larger and more uniform agricultural fields. This has direct impacts on the quality of the environment and nature. The same Central Bureau for Statistics that issued the news about the export record reported last month that in 2016 again the so-called phosphate ceiling was crossed and thus Dutch agriculture (primarily poultry farming) produced more phosphate than what is good (and legally permitted) for a healthy environment. Also levels of for example nitrate and fine dust are still too high.

In general terms agricultural activities continue putting a high pressure on the environment, as was again observed in the yearly state of the environment report (‘Balans van de Leefomgeving 2016’). This environmental pressure – and mainly the current way of agricultural practice – continues having severe impacts on nature. For example, how many butterflies do you see the days in an intensively managed meadow? The State of Nature in the EU report by the European Environment Agency in 2015 shows sadly enough that the Netherlands is the worst student in the European class when it comes to the quality of habitats for protected plant and animal species. Only 4% of habitats are in a favourable conservation status. Also here agriculture is pointed at.

It continues to be a dilemma in nature conservation circles. Agriculture through many centuries was a source for much biodiversity, certainly in Europe. Many species and habitats depend on a certain form of agricultural practice. Think for example about meadow birds, arable flora, or the species-rich cork plantations in Portugal and Spain. Agriculture, however, is faced with the challenge of a growing number of Earth inhabitants that need to be fed, which is given as the reason for the ever increasing intensity of agriculture, with environmental consequences as a result.

There must be a different way, with more attention to an ecologically sustainable agriculture. Not only at a high level, by aiming for a different consumption pattern globally, but also at lower levels by smart land use that offers multiple functions. An agricultural area that is managed at a smaller scale with many small landscape elements, lower inputs and building on nature and ecology for for example crop protection and erosion control. This offers additional value such as an attractive landscape for recreation and living, cleaner water and air, and a higher nature value. And also an agriculture that is closer to home in which we, consumers, eat what the region and the season have on offer can contribute a lot to a better environment and richer nature. This however does not deliver export records. It would though strengthen the position of the Netherlands (and other countries) on the environmental and nature ranking.