Agriculture transition best way to restore biodiversity

Intensive agriculture in the Netherlands is widely considered to be an important cause of the loss of biodiversity over the past few decades. Scientists with a wide range of expertise at Utrecht University are currently studying how changes in agricultural practice may turn the tide.

Nitrogen, greenhouse gases and poor water quality

Associate Professor in Environmental Governance Hens Runhaar is affiliated with the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development at Utrecht University, and works as a guest lecturer at Wageningen UR. To him, it is clear: “The decrease in biodiversity in the agricultural landscape, but also in the neighbouring nature areas, is both significant and a cause for concern. We need to switch to other forms of agriculture that centre around biodiversity. But that would require a transformation of the entire agricultural system.”

In order to truly scale up, we’ll need to rebuild the entire system.

Dutch agriculture is focused on exports. Runhaar: “The motto is: use lots of fertiliser for high yields. We produce high-quality food, but the problems are piling up. In the first place, there’s the familiar high levels of nitrogen deposition, which puts a lot of pressure on biodiversity. Plus, our agriculture results in high emissions of greenhouse gases, both by the livestock itself and indirectly: dairy farming lowers ground water levels, so greenhouse gases escape from peat soil. And agriculture causes a third problem as well: as a result of leaching of nutrients and pesticides, we do not meet European requirements for water quality.”

Nature-inclusive agriculture as a comprehensive solution

Koeien in grasland

Runhaar considers it his mission to contribute to a transition in dairy and crop farming. To arrive at a solution, he says it is vital for us to study how all of the stakeholders can contribute. “Not just farmers and the national government, but also large agrobusinesses and retailers. To me, they don’t contribute enough to the debate about the future of agriculture. What are they doing today, what could they be doing, and what are the obstacles that prevent them from contributing to an agricultural transition?”

Nature-inclusive agriculture is considered to be an alternative to our current intensive agriculture on sandy and peat soils, and near nature areas. “That type of agriculture may be slightly less productive, but it causes fewer problems and makes a positive contribution to biodiversity”, Runhaar explains. But: “Switching to nature-inclusive agriculture is problematic for many farmers, because they run into all sorts of obstacles. In order to truly scale up, we’ll need to rebuild the entire system: from the intensive use of fertiliser, the network of players that controls agriculture, and the legislation and regulations. And those kinds of change processes are extremely complex. So scientific research is vital.”

Phosphorus disastrous for rare plants

Jerry van Dijk, Associate Professor of Restoration Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation at the Copernicus Institute and research fellow at Future Food Utrecht, studies the question of how we can bring about such a transition. “To start with, the proposed measures are solely focused on nitrogen reduction, while our research has shown that high amounts of phosphorus in the soil are limiting the growth of rare plant species. Equally important is the relative proportion of phosphorus compared to nitrogen. So if you only reduce the amount of nitrogen without doing something about the phosphorus, it can be disastrous for those rare species.”

Proposed measures are solely focused on nitrogen reduction, while our research has shown that high amounts of phosphorus in the soil are limiting the growth of rare plant species.

We also face challenges in the areas of water quality and climate in the very near future. “In principle, all of those challenges result from the same cause: a highly intensive form of agriculture with a single-minded focus on high levels of production. In addition to helping us achieve our biodiversity goals, a less intensive use of resources would also help us get closer to reaching the goals for both the European Water Framework Directive and our climate goals.”

Opportunities for cost savings

Unfortunately, without additional measures the transition would also result in decreased production and lower incomes for farmers. Van Dijk is therefore also studying ways to keep Dutch agriculture profitable with lower inputs of artificial fertiliser, soy as animal feed, and pesticides. “Reducing production isn’t in the interest of the current earning model for feed suppliers, banks and chain partners, even though some of those parties use interest discounts or price premiums for sustainably produced products. To facilitate change among the farmers, these parties will have to be part of the transition as well.”

According to Van Dijk’s findings, many farmers are willing to take the necessary steps. “Switching to more nature-friendly agriculture also presents opportunities, such as cost savings because the farmer doesn’t have to invest as much in maximising production. Or they can get compensation for nature conservation and other ecological and societal services. Several of the farmers I work with currently even earn a higher income despite the lower production, because they aren’t chasing the carousel of constant growth. But that requires new collaborative efforts, often with players outside the traditional value chain partners.”

Necessity of clear goals, support and management

According to Associate Professor Marie-Jeanne Schiffelers from the School of Governance, clear and ambitious policy objectives are vital, as is a well-managed and careful process for achieving those objectives. Stakeholders must be closely involved in the process. “If that doesn’t happen, then resistance will quickly arise against new proposals or decisions, which can erode support or even cause backsliding”, says Schiffelers. “We saw that with the nitrogen map, for example. In my opinion, the resistance to the map has little to do with the map itself, but mainly with the fact that people want to be heard.”

If stakeholders are not closely involved in the process, then resistance will quickly arise against new proposals or decisions, which can erode support or even cause backsliding.

Schiffelers, educated in environmental science, is also an expert in the field of transition issues and transdisciplinary projects, where scientists work together with social partners, businesses and NGOs. “I study which processes help in addressing wicked problems; the complex problems that we face as a society, such as the biodiversity crisis or the climate crisis. In problems like these, both the problem itself and the necessary solutions are subjects of debate, and sometimes even conflict. Without clear goals, coordination of the process to achieve the goals, commitments by the parties involved, and intensive coordination of who will be taking which steps, the problem will not be solved are even worsen.”

The nitrogen crisis is a clear example of that, explains Schiffelers. ‘This problem has been on the Dutch government’s agenda for around 50 years, but it’s never been addressed properly and from a clear perspective. Under pressure from stakeholders like farmers and agricultural organisations, the agro-industry and financiers, a policy of minor technological interventions was chosen to solve the problem. And that’s clearly not been effective. Making agriculture more sustainable therefore requires well defined policy objectives and clear directions how to achieve those objectives.”

Perspective for farmers

According to Schiffelers, there’s also another problem that needs to be solved to restore biodiversity in nature. “The Netherlands has committed to the European goals, but hasn’t connected them to a clear perspective on which types of agriculture are still possible in a specific location, and which ones are not. Farmers are left in the dark as to what kind of support they will receive over the long term in the transition to nature-inclusive agriculture. Clear perspectives are needed to be able to commit farmers and to drive the transition. The overall goal needs to be clear to everybody, the way to reach that goal is the task that lies ahead of us and requires the joint definition of pathways to get there.”