NL-1 :: Agriculture and food

World’s population will grow with more than 2 billion towards more than 9 billion people. This will increase the need for food production. Towards 2050 the agricultural production needs to grow worldwide with 60%. Also urbanisation has taken large quantities of agricultural land. The need for more food, together with other land use functions put pressure on our resources, including land. To keep agricultural practice sustainable: maintain the production function without damage elsewhere or later, asks for a healthy and well-functioning soil-sediment-water system.
The ambition to move to a biobased economy puts pressure as well on agricultural land. In the bio-economy, renewable resources such as algae, crops (residues), organic waste are used as food fodder, building material, chemicals, plastics, energy and fuel. This lowers the dependency on fossil natural resources such as natural gas and oil, lowers CO2 emissions and contributes to circular economy. This shift to biobased will increase the demand for biomass. This can partly be met by residues and waste but the other part must be delivered by an even higher (global) agricultural production. In the Netherlands, agriculture is already very intensive and productive, so the biomass should come from elsewhere when the Netherlands want to invest in biobased products. This can cause severe shifts in nutrient availability disrupt nutrient cycles worldwide (surplus in importing lands and losses in exporting lands). The current European diet is characterised by a high intake of meat, dairy products and eggs. Livestock production in the EU is the driver of around 80% of the nitrogen losses from agriculture. These losses cause a number of environmental problems, including eutrophication. Halving the current consumption of meat and dairy in the EU would achieve reductions of around 40% in agricultural nitrogen losses and 25% to 40% in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture . There are different types of farms in the agricultural sector : the specialized rural farm (mainly family farms, agriculture, dairy or horticulture), the semi-industrialized farm (greenhouse farming, intensified cattle farms) and urban oriented farms (multifunctional).

A higher demand for biomass asks for higher productivity. This intensifying of production has repercussions on the quality of soil and water and nature. This e.g. contributes to the difficulties to comply with regulation such as the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Nitrates Directive .
Ground bound agricultural production systems need productive soil: that are fertile, have a good physical structure, can retain water, bind carbon in humus and repel diseases. In the following narrative this is discussed.
Narrative: What is a good soil for sustainable agriculture and how can sustainable agriculture contribute to good soils?
What is a good soil for sustainable agriculture and how can sustainable agriculture contribute to good soils? These questions start many discussions. At the one hand we can look at the natural suitability of soils for a certain agricultural function. At the other hand can land use management and agricultural practices can improve soils. A vital soil can deliver ecosystem services to its full potential. To achieve and maintain a vital soil, sustainable agricultural land use practices are needed.
There is not just one, but multiple models for “doing it right”. Ingredients are:
Knowledge of the soil (processes) and the relation with management practices are indispensable. Both scientific knowledge and knowledge from the farmers’ experience are important here.
Which sustainable agricultural practices and business cases are effective? Circular processes and resource efficiency can contribute here. There is a need to lower emissions and utilize nutrients more efficiently. “Prevention is better than cure”: lower inputs of or alternatives for pesticides.
Insight in (external) drivers: Farmers have to deal with many external influences and boundary conditions, such as regulation and economical drivers. How can they be used in a positive way for long term sustainable productivity instead of short term high economic yields?
Next to the farmers, also other parties in the chain from “soil to mouth” are important: retailers, consumers, the large purchasing agents for supermarket chains. Further stakeholders are the authorities (EU to local), research organisations, seed-producers, NGOs and financial parties such as bank investors,.

Specific research questions:
• How become stakeholders aware of the importance of good soil quality for food safety and quality and their role in this matter?
• What can we do in the Netherlands to achieve sustainable use of soils and recover soil quality here and elsewhere and, with that, contribute to the UN-Sustainable Development Goals?
• What do trends en developments in the agricultural sector, such as scaling up short-term business cases, agriculture that follows market trends instead of the possibilities of the soil-sediment-water system, entail for soil and subsurface (possibilities and threats for the use of the soil-sediment-water system)?
• What are trends in diets and what do they entail for soil and water use and health. How can people be convinced to change to a diet with less animal proteins?
• Who are the winners and losers in the food chain in the transition to a more healthy (for people and the environment) diet and sustainable agriculture? How to take care of the losers? What can be the role of the common agricultural policy (CAP) in this transition?
Natural capital
• What is a healthy soil? And, more specific: What is the condition of the soil (soil life, structure, quality, amount and quality of the soil organic matter etc., integrated fysical-chemical-biological) connected to the agricultural function and other ecosystem services (water storage, biological control, soil fertility, productivity, etc.)?
• How can natural processes being used to recover degraded soils and maintain healthy soils?
• What is the effect of good soil quality for emissions of nitrogen and phosphate from agriculture and horticulture?
Land management
• How can the soil-sediment-water system being used in an optimal way to make agriculture sustainable?
• What knowledge of the soil-sediment-water system is needed to transform agriculture to a resource efficient sector? Both on a regional and global scale. This is related to closing cycles and the footprint of agriculture products.
• Which factors determine if the suitability of soils for agriculture is taken into account in spatial and economic decisions and which optimizes are possible?
• How can we value soil and biodiversity as natural capital for agriculture and translate this to earning models?
• How can agriculture and other functions such as water and nature management, energy production and climate adaptation and mitigation being combined, using the knowledge of the ecosystem?
• How can farmers being stimulated to implement (new or improved) agricultural methods in such a way that low productivity is avoided, soils are recovered and dependency on external resources is decreased?
o How to design and/or close nutrient cycles?
o How to utilize biological residues of production changes in agriculture to contribute to circular economy, and an improvement of soil quality?
o How to manage soil organic matter effectively?
o What can precision agriculture contribute to more awareness of soils?
o How can traditional agriculture such as crop rotation being combined with modern agricultural insights?
• How can we deal with, or avoid threats such as soil compaction, microbial risks from pathogens in the soil, antimicrobial resistance, soil subsidence and salinization?
• How can we translate existing knowledge of soil biodiversity to actions for farmers to improve soil biodiversity?
• How can we implement the Nitrates Directive and the Water Framework Directive in such a way in the Netherlands that farmers are stimulated to manage the soil-sediment-water system in a sustainable way?
Net impacts
• What is, on a short and long term, the result of conscious management of soil fertility?
• The global development of the standard of living (more or less consumption of animal protein, choice for organic food) has effects on agricultural practice. What does this mean for land use in the Netherlands and footprint elsewhere? What are the risks of land degradation? Is policy needed?
• What are effects of agricultural methods on the sustainability of agriculture and improvement of soil quality?
• What are effects of agricultural practice for eutrophication of coastal zones, groundwater quantity and quality and climate on a global scale?