Two leading figures from the Dutch fresh produce industry said circular agriculture could be one of the keys to ensuring its growers’ future success.
During the educational sessions at the London Produce Show and Conference — which also included Dutch produce CEO Gert Mulder — Tim Heddema, agricultural counsellor at the embassy of the Netherlands in the UK, said circular agriculture will ensure Dutch growers use as little energy as possible and create a lasting legacy of care for the environment.
“It will allow for precision farming,” said Heddema, “and the low input of nutrients means the soil system can recover and regenerate a lot faster.”
Better for the environment
It’s easy to think of circular farming as a throwback to the 1900s, with livestock and vegetables all packed into the same land. Yet what it essentially means is that farmers keep residuals of agricultural biomass and food processing within the food system as renewable resources. By being more efficient with scarce resources and wasting less biomass, fewer imports, such as fertilizers, are subsequently needed. The idea is to farm in such a way that losses in the production chain are reduced to a minimum.
Circular agriculture not only focuses on good yields and the sparing use of resources and energy, but also stresses the importance of putting as little pressure on the environment, nature and climate as possible.
Heddema says the Dutch market wants to become a global leader in this practice by 2030.
“We need to appreciate natural food production a lot more, and Holland must retain a leading role in innovation when it comes to production methods," he says. "We really do see circular agriculture as the future.”
Reflecting on a market that’s built on low prices and production focused on creating big volumes, Heddema admits implementing circular agriculture won’t be a simple process.
“It isn’t easy to implement all this," Heddema says. "You need strong economic position of powers and fair price, which is rewarded by market. We need to appreciate food more and not undervalue it. If the consumer knows their fruit and vegetables have been produced in a sustainable way that’s good for the environment then we have to keep the faith that they will be prepared to pay a little bit more as a result.”
In order to implement circular agriculture across the country, there will be a significant financial outlay that’s perhaps reliant on supermarkets increasing the price of Dutch fruit and veg. But at a time where German discounters such as Aldi and Lidl have made low prices and discounts the new norm, is this possible?
Heddema admits the Dutch industry is still taking baby steps.
“What we do now is try to find what is the true cost and what is a fair price," Heddema says. "My minister takes steps to find out that info, and we try to get supermarkets to charge higher prices if we can prove the producer has gone above regulatory baseline for the consumer and to improve the quality of their fruit.”
He said that the grocery code adjudicator role in the UK — which acts to ensure that supermarkets treat their suppliers properly — is the kind of role the Dutch market could have soon, but with someone more focused on ensuring pricing is fair.
According to Mulder (above), the chief executive of Dutch growers association theFresh Produce Centre, supermarkets need to be held more accountable for prices they charge by both producers and consumers.
“We need price anchors again," Mulder says. "There’s a lot of people in fitness, and it’s proven if you eat two apples before going to the gym then your body recovers a lot more quickly from exercise.
“The difference in price between two apples and an energy drink is staggering and shows you why we still need to work hard to up the prices of what we grow.”
Creating more consumer awareness around sustainability
Mulder says the Fresh Produce Centre has 320 members and represents 80% of the country’s fruit and vegetable industry, and that the Dutch fresh produce industry, which currently exports €11.3bn worth of fruit and vegetables to 152 countries on an annual basis, is in “rude health.”
Despite this, the next big battle, according to Mulder, will be to get Dutch consumers to consider why maintaining a healthy lifestyle is also good for the environment.
“We have a great responsibility to reflect what the consumer wants and, increasingly, that’s a healthy diet that is good for the environment," he says. "We’re lucky we are in the fruit industry as our environmental impact is less. It makes us have a special position for branding. Our core values can be about being healthy and sustainable.
“In the Netherlands, if you move from your present diet to a more healthy one, which involves eating less meat, you can save so much carbon dioxide per person. Our core value is based around good health and well-being. Look, the fruit and veg industry’s total global turnover will more than double in the next 10 years. This means we have plenty of impetus to become more sustainable and create a better planet.”
Moving to one certification system
As part of this journey, Mulder would like the world to have one fresh produce certification system and says the Fresh Produce Centre is working on one that it hopes will be adopted by countries outside of Holland.
“Our new certification system will be planet-proof," he says. "It covers energy and the climate, crop protection, bio-diversity, soil fertility, light emissions, waste management. It really should be the new industry standard. We shouldn’t compete on sustainability. Rather, everyone should do it at the same level and work together.”
He also spoke about the idea of doing away with plastic packaging. However, Mulder believes getting rid of plastic altogether isn’t yet an option and that we should instead be working to make it more reusable.
“Packaging is an interesting debate as we’re growing rapidly towards plastic-free," Mulder says. "Can we do without it altogether? I don’t think so. We need alternatives and to make packaging recyclable. You can now laser-print the origin of an avocado on its skin, and that’s the kind of innovation we need. We also need to make current packaging more reusable for the consumer.”