Background and request for advice
Agriculture in the Netherlands must become more sustainable. The necessary transition will have a significant impact on how farmers operate their businesses. The Council for the Environment and Infrastructure has considered which government policy will help agri-entrepreneurs to determine their own future within the boundaries of sustainability set by government and society. In other words: how can the government encourage farmers to use their entrepreneurial skills to earn an acceptable income within the boundaries that the environment imposes on their business? We spoke to farmers from different backgrounds to find out what they think about building a sustainable future for themselves.
Policies intended to foster sustainable agriculture currently emphasise the restructuring of agricultural businesses (buy-outs, expropriation) and the adoption of ever more detailed rules on how to farm. We believe that more should also be done to support agri-entrepreneurs who are willing and able to carry on their businesses sustainably. Government should make them part of the solution by allowing them to take responsibility for developing a future-proof (and in many cases multifunctional) business that is resilient enough to handle changes in policy. Government support for farmers – policy, money and expertise – is indispensable for this. We offer six recommendations in this regard:
1. Provide maximum clarity on farm-specific sustainability standards
Authorities will need to clarify the goals that must be achieved and the corresponding timeframes. These goals should be broken down into farm-specific standards, as far as possible per unit (plot/building). The standards must be set in a way that policy goals are actually met, obviating the need to tighten up standards for farmers midway.
2. Give agri-entrepreneurs as much freedom as possible within the framework of government standards
Standards set by government can be generic or specific, depending on the parameter concerned and the particular situation. In the latter case, the standards are specified in a permit. We recommend that these standards should, as far as possible, be laid down in goal-conditioned provisions and that it should be left to the agri-entrepreneur to decide on the means used to achieve the goal. We realise, however, that the necessary monitoring will require considerable effort.
3. Facilitate the establishment of an integrated sustainability performance certification system and create an independent authority to set up and monitor this system
We recommend that the national government should promote the introduction of an integrated sustainability performance certification system and an associated independent authority (with practical knowledge of the agriculture sector). The independent authority we are advocating can also play a coordinating role with respect to government oversight. An added advantage of such coordination is that it fosters learning from best practices.
4. Commit to proper farm-level enforcement
Giving farmers more freedom and more responsibility for their sustainable practices makes proper enforcement all the more important. The authorities will remain responsible for oversight and enforcement. However, the outcome of reviews by the certification authority (including possible decertification for legal infringements) may actually result in less (or, occasionally, more) government oversight. It goes without saying that the responsibility for penalising farms that do not abide by the rules remains with government.
5. Be actively involved in and support regional collective policymaking
In some regions, the tasks are shared between many stakeholders, for example to raise the groundwater level or restore biodiversity. Such tasks should be adapted into criteria for individual farms in regional collective policymaking processes in which the farmers themselves are involved. The national government must play an active role in such processes, with the province offering support.
6. Commit to improving the sustainability of the value chain and to changing consumer behaviour
Whether agricultural businesses can become more sustainable also depends on the extent to which their partners in the food value chain and consumers alter their practices and behaviour and support them in the transition to sustainable business practices. The national government must encourage lenders, supermarket retail groups, marketing cooperatives and consumers to do more to share the responsibility for the transition to sustainability.
The advisory was presented to the Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality on 2 December 2021.
For more information about the advisory report, please contact project leader Nicole van Buren at email@example.com or +31 (0)6 1017 2005.