“Sustainable food systems require a rethinking of connections and interactions between the actors involved”


Research focus: Policy and governance for reconciling food production, biodiversity recovery, environmental sustainability, and health

Hens Runhaar (1971) is Full Professor of Sustainable Food System Governance at Utrecht University and Visiting Professor at Wageningen University and Research

Western food systems are highly productive but also face substantial sustainability challenges, including ongoing biodiversity loss, climate change, and diet-related diseases. These sustainability challenges find their origin in a series of connectivity problems, such as:

  • A disconnect between food production and local and regional environmental conditions, resulting in pollution and biodiversity loss.
  • A disconnect between food and feed production locations, leading to deforestation, climate change, and food insecurity.
  • A disconnect between places where food is produced and where it is consumed, leading to an alienation of consumers with farmers and agricultural landscapes and their values.
  • More generally, a disconnect between food prices and their societal costs, and a disconnect between actors that benefit from modern food systems and actors that are faced with their burdens.

In my research and education, understanding the existence and persistence of these connections is key for (re)designing sustainable food system governance: rethinking connections between food system actors. Many farmers for instance are limited in their choices about what to produce, where, how, and for whom due to their dependency on large agrifood companies (Hendrickson, 2015). Community Supported Agriculture in contrasts brings together farmers and consumers and enables more sustainable food production (Egli et al., 2023).

I see biodiversity as an important indicator of a sustainable and healthy food system. Therefore, I am very interested in (the scaling of) agroecology, regenerative agriculture, and ‘nature-inclusive’ agriculture (see Vermunt, Wojtynia et al. (2022) for definitions).

Selected projects: 

  • COMBINED (funded by NWO): reconnecting grassland biodiversity and dairy farming for sustainability and climate resilience in the Netherlands.
  • REWIRE (funded by NWO): leveraging new collaborations for circular agricultural missions in the Netherlands.
  • Water Framework Directive after 2027 (funded by STOWA): rethinking the governance of, and legal framework for, agriculture’s contribution to freshwater quality.
  • DivGrass  (funded by INTERREG): innovative biodiversity for climate resilient dairy grasslands in the European North Sea Region.
  • UNMAKING (funded by NWO and ERC): how grassroots initiatives in Europe unmake unsustainability in capitalist food systems.


Selected publications:


Selected outreach activities: