10 December 2018

Marca Wauben appeals for a new food production system

"We have to tackle the food chain as a whole"

In order to keep the earth livable, we must move towards a new system for our food production. The current system has reached its limits, especially where natural resources, biodiversity and social acceptance are concerned. Marca Wauben and her colleagues from Future Food Utrecht are looking for sustainable and healthy food solutions for future generations.

"If we want to keep the earth liveable, we will have to deal with the earth in a more sustainable way. This includes plants, animals and people, but you cannot view them separately. Everything is connected

We spoke with Marca Wauben, Professor of Intercellular Communication at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and a board member of Future Food Utrecht, the hub* in which Utrecht University bundles all its expertise on nutritional issues. "The production of milk, meat and vegetables is extremely vulnerable," says Wauben. "The food chain depends on numerous external factors, such as artificial fertiliser, pesticides and animal feed, but also on the world market with strongly fluctuating prices, regulations, transport and climate change. Think of drought, flooding or extreme weather. These makes our food production extremely vulnerable and complicated."

*Through so-called hubs, Utrecht University, together with societal partners, tackles fourteen key issues from various disciplines, including Future Food Utrecht. For this, the university will make € 26 million available between 2018 and 2022.

New model needed

Many farmers can barely keep their heads above water. "The sector is aware that the current system can no longer be maintained. So we need a new model for our food production. That system must not only be sustainable, but also financially and socially acceptable."

What does such a new food production system look like?

"For starters, we have to tackle the food chain as a whole and deal with land and protein sources in a sustainable and efficient way. Can we, for example, stimulate the consumption of vegetable protein sources by people, so that the sharply rising demand for animal proteins can be curbed? Will we continue to feed high-quality soy in our livestock farming, or should we look at how we can develop more circular systems by feeding animals with residual vegetable protein sources from local agricultural crops? It’s important that we start working in a circular manner."

"This cannot be tackled separately per sector," she continues. "We cannot say: In the dairy sector we do very well without involving the veal sector. Calves are a by-product of dairy farming thus, it is the same sector. We have to consider the entire system and design it differently."

Is there still too much thought from different sectors?

"Absolutely. Nature-inspired future food can only come from a transdisciplinary approach, i.e., across the sectors. From different disciplines, but also with all stakeholders involved. All parties in the chain must come together at the drawing board. We need to think about a sustainable, holistic food system right from the start."

What does that look like?

"Consider, for example, the design of an ideal barn. If, from a sustainability viewpoint, we think about reducing taxation, a mega-barn is perhaps the most efficient and cleanest production method. But this conflicts with a circular system and with our ideas about animal welfare and societal wishes. If we continue to think of the highest production and highest yield from an economic perspective, this often comes at the expense of sustainable production and biodiversity. The trick is to create a solid food system, in which we have to make conscious concessions on some points to make things better. We want to be inspired by nature itself, and how it is all arranged there."

What do you mean by nature-inspired food production?

"By that we mean, how can we produce enough food in which we can preserve the diversity of plants, animals and micro-organisms on our planet and maintain balance?"

What are the most important changes compared to the current system?

"In such a new production system, closing cycles and maintaining biodiversity is central. With the changing climate, more and more extremes are coming.

"We need to move to a circular food system with fair prices, recognisable products and short chains"

 The current system, which is based on highly productive monocultures, is not the most ideal solution. These are the most productive under certain conditions, but we cannot fully control these conditions. Moreover, local differences will increase. Then we may need to go to a system that produces less optimally, but is more robust. With this we can achieve a guaranteed return, but may sacrifice the high production that we currently have."

Can you give an example?

"Take 'dual-purpose cows', such as the Dutch Belted (Lakenvelders) and other breeds. These are used for both milk and meat production. Double-purpose cows do not give the highest milk yield, but may be more robust in other areas."

What should such a new model satisfy even more?

"The new model must be based more on decisions that are value-driven rather than price-driven. Maximum financial gain must no longer be the only goal, but the system must serve multiple purposes. We must also use micro-organisms instead of fighting them. We’ve been keen for years on eradicating pathogens and do everything we can to make products free of germs, but we’ve gone too far."

"In the new approach, we need to try to keep pathogens in balance. This will be good for the microbes and will keep a focus on the good immune system of plants, animals and people. An early and correct training of immune systems through nutrition and microbes is of great importance for plants, animals and people. For a healthy life we’re therefore dependent on all organisms around us."

Do we have enough to feed everyone in the world?

"Food shortage is not the only problem. We also create a lot of waste, and distribution of food in the world can also be improved. So we will have to work simultaneously on waste, protein transition and distribution of food. Again, they all depend on each other."

Will we no longer eat any meat at all?

"I don’t think that eliminating meat now or in the future is necessary.

"Bargain-basement meat really cannot be done anymore!"

But I do think that we have to consume less animal protein and therefore have to handle it more carefully. People need to be more aware of where their meat comes from and are closer to the farm. "Bargain-basement" meat really cannot be done anymore!"

How will you convince all parties?

"Most stakeholders in the chain are convinced of the urgency to change our food system. By measuring and researching, we want to contribute to this transition with scientific knowledge, facts and scenarios in order to arrive at a holistic approach. We can play a role connecting stakeholders, in which we bring knowledge and input, and critically look at the exact figures. For example, how important is a veal sector really for the Dutch economy? And what are the consequences of such an industry in the greater context of our food system? If something can be expressed with testable criteria, we can put things next to each other and compare them. By measuring, we can also move beyond sentiment and put general interest first."

Keeping forest pigs

People with new ideas are now often taken hostage by current regulations, says Wauben. "If you think out-of-the-box and want to keep forest pigs, for example, how do you deal with the current regulations on air control in pigsties? They do not say anything about forest pigs. We should also look at this in a more differentiated way and come up with creative solutions in terms of regulations."

How do you get all these stakeholders together?

"That’s a big challenge and I don’t know exactly how. It must be a collective change and that’s quite a challenge. Much will depend on the formulation of the right transdisciplinary questions and the retrieval of relevant data."

Where do you see the biggest bottlenecks or challenges?

"The Netherlands is a knowledge country, we’re very good at thinking carefully about model systems and making things work differently, and we also collaborate well. Our export product in the new system will then become more knowledge about dealing with climate change and difficult to manage systems through a more naturally-inspired food supply. The ideas and process for transition and the innovation that we gain is then our knowledge product. The Netherlands as a breeding ground? That would be nice. Of course, transition is gradual, we have to think and optimise from the current system into a new vision for the long term. The rudder cannot suddenly turn around on itself. But if we continue down this current path, we will soon be too late for a gradual transition."

You are a professor in Veterinary Medicine, but have studied biology.

"Yes, I always wanted to be a veterinarian, but I was not selected three times for this degree program - I’m a 'wannabe'. I ultimately went to study biology and came into contact with scientific research there. I loved it! Since then this has been, and still is, my passion. My husband is a veterinarian, so I have a direct link with the professional group. Our house and practice are full of animals: three snakes, two tortoises and three cats, one with three legs; and in the winter, hedgehogs from the hedgehog shelter. Everything flows together in a friendly manner."