- The Dutch government aims to halve nitrogen emissions by 2030 by downsizing and closing farms, sparking a wave of farmer protests and a surprising win for a new agrarian political party.
- Agricultural and environmental experts are calling for the need to introduce food system solutions that both address farmer livelihoods while tackling the climate and environmental crises.
- Agroforestry, agroecology and silvopasture — climate change and conservation solutions that can be profitable — are among the solutions they say can contribute positively to the country’s nitrogen goals.
- Mongabay spoke with two Dutch agricultural experts — Lennart Fuchs from Wageningen University & Research, and Marc Buiter from the Dutch Food Forest Foundation — on how agroforestry could be part of a solution that works for both farmers and the environment.
Last year, farmer protests erupted throughout the Netherlands, riding a wave of rural anger at government plans to drastically halve nitrogen emissions by downsizing and closing farms. This quickly swept the newly founded agrarian party, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging, or BBB), to victory in last week’s provincial elections, making it the country’s biggest political party.
In the face of the farmer and nitrogen crisis, Dutch agriculture and environmental experts are calling for a change to the food system in a way that both reduces nitrogen emissions while addressing the financial and livelihood concerns of farmers, many of whom are in debt.
“As they say in Dutch, ‘You can’t be green if you are in the red,’” says Lennart Fuchs, an agriculture researcher at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands.
Among the solutions the experts propose are agroforestry systems that harmoniously integrate reduced livestock with profitable trees and crops such as hazelnut, walnut, cider apple and timber trees, Fuchs tells Mongabay in an interview. Also known as silvopasture, this is a climate change solution that reduces emissions and can bring large returns on investments by producing multiple streams of income.
The Netherlands has long been a global agricultural powerhouse, and farms there have often been managed by the same families for generations. Home to some 17.5 million people, the country is Europe’s largest meat exporter and the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural produce, after the U.S. The country is also a world leader in agricultural technology and has long encouraged farmers to expand and invest in technology, contributing to part of the debt that farmers struggle with today.
In recent years, the downsides to its intensive farming methods have increasingly come to light. For instance, mainly due to the enormous amount of livestock it holds, the country, which is the size of the U.S. state of West Virginia, also has Europe’s highest nitrogen emissions rate.
According to Dutch environmental organization Milieu Centraal, the country emits four times the European average per hectare. In 2020, according to Statistics Netherlands, the country emitted 124,000 metric tons of nitrogen emissions in the form of ammonia (a harmful nitrogen emission that stems from livestock manure and fertilizers) and 177,000 metric tons of various nitrogen oxides (mainly derived from traffic and industry). Plants and trees absorb nitrogen, yet not in such overwhelming quantities.
An excess of nitrogen oxide is a key contributor to climate change, while ammonia can lead to acid rain, deterioration of the soil, groundwater pollution and biodiversity loss, which the Netherlands is experiencing. The European Union has called on the Netherlands to clean up its act and meet Brussels’s guidelines on nitrate pollution, conservation, greenhouse gas emissions, as well as rules and regulations on air and water quality.
The government aims to reduce nitrogen emissions by 50% by 2030, with some regions in the country required to reduce more emissions than others. Farms near some nature reserves, for example, will need to reduce emissions by 70%. According to the national program to reduce nitrogen emissions, some farms will be made more sustainable, while others will be relocated or bought out, by force if necessary.
These drastic measures came after consecutive governments delayed implementing a change of policy for decades, said Jeroen Candel, associate professor of food and agricultural policy at Wageningen University & Research.
To this end, some Dutch agricultural researchers are looking to climate and environmental solutions that include the livelihoods and needs of local communities, and as a result turning to agroecology and agroforestry. However, despite being an ancient practice that’s widespread across the world, agroforestry is in its infancy in the Netherlands. So far, it’s hardly been discussed as a possible way out of the farming crisis. In fact, in the highly industrialized climate of Dutch farming, most farmers frown upon the practice, and wonder if it can earn them a living anytime soon.
To understand to what extent and how agroforestry could be part of a solution to reduce nitrogen emissions while protecting rural and farmer livelihoods, Mongabay interviewed two Dutch agricultural experts: Lennart Fuchs and Marc Buiter.
Fuchs is a researcher in soil and farming systems at Wageningen University & Research, a world-leading agricultural research institution. Buiter is secretary of the Dutch Food Forest Foundation and works at the Urgenda Foundation, which recently made headlines for successfully suing the Dutch state for failing to implement its environmental policies. He also has a consultancy agency specialized in sustainability.
The interviews were conducted in Dutch and have been translated and edited for clarity.
Mongabay: Can agroforestry form part of a transition plan for Dutch farmers that reduces nitrogen emissions (by downsizing livestock numbers and fertilizer use) while also increasing biodiversity and maintaining their income?
Lennart Fuchs: Agroforestry in the Netherlands is still in its infancy. The interest in agroforestry and related systems has only really taken off in the last five years or so. However, seeing the many challenges facing Dutch agriculture, a growing number of people believe agroforestry can offer advantages in various ways.
I’m happy the question mentions the three interrelated problems: maintaining income, reducing nitrogen emissions, and improving biodiversity. I believe agroforestry can positively contribute to these issues, yet it is not a silver bullet. It is not a matter of planting trees today and tomorrow all will be well. Agroforestry is not the solution for the nitrogen crisis.
What agroforestry will look like within the Dutch agricultural practice depends a lot on context and design as there are many types of agroforestry systems with different positive effects: varying from alley cropping [rows of trees with crops in between] with up to 100-meter-wide [330-foot] crops in between, to the food forest [productive ecosystem modeled after a natural forest]. In my unit of research, we mainly focus on integrating tree lines in arable farming. We are looking for synergies between the main principles of agroforestry, the Dutch climate, and the crops and markets in which Dutch farmers excel.
For example, in the Netherlands you have less warmth and light than in, say, Brazil, while most crops we grow need a lot of light. Yet, trees produce shade. Also, we want to see what system fits what landscape. What works on the clay soils of Zeeland in the west of the country may not work on the sandy soils of Brabant in the east of the country. As agroforestry in the Netherlands finds itself in a pioneering phase, there are still a lot of questions.
Marc Buiter: Food forestry offers the most promising alternative for today’s monocultural agricultural model, not just in the Netherlands, but anywhere in the world. Anywhere where it is not too dry or too cold you can grow a forest. In addition to a canopy of high trees, a food forest has at least three other layers of vegetation, respectively lower trees, shrubs, herbs, ground cover, root vegetables and climbers.
Designed by humans, food forests have a great diversity of perennial woody species, parts of which, such as fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves etc., serve as food products.
A food forest is the most lavish form of agroforestry. Other types of agroforestry include alley cropping and silvopasture, which offers a good alternative to monoculture farming, because they are more diverse. And, generally speaking, the more diverse a system, the more resilient and productive it becomes, as you are working with nature, not against it.
Modern agriculture is too reliant on adding nitrogen in the shape of fertilizer or animal manure to increase production. It’s important to know that plants are also capable of doing this, like nitrogen-fixing species such as leguminous plants and trees like the Acacia or Alder.
Mongabay: What profitable crops can form part of such an agroforestry system?
Lennart Fuchs: So far, the focus is mainly on nut trees. Hazelnut and walnut especially, and to a lesser extent chestnut and almond. Nuts represent a high-quality product and a good revenue model. And they can grow well in the Dutch climate. Also, there is a growing trend for people to eat less meat, so it could play a role in the protein transition.
So far, in my work, we have not really been looking at a second, lower layer of, for example, fruit trees. The problem is that most Dutch farmers are used to a large-scale mechanized system. With different tree lines you must think about how to harvest. In food forests everything can be done by hand, but for most traditional farmers that is not an option.
The projects I am working on mainly focus on how to best integrate trees into the system. We generally start with tree lines [alley cropping]. Only when people are really interested, will we go one step further. For example, at some point you can think about planting herbs under the trees. For now, however, we do not want to complicate things, as each extra step requires capability and knowledge.
Fruit trees could be interesting, apples and pears especially. The problem is that this is a well-developed market in Holland. So, that means you will have to compete with existing orchards. Financially, with only one or two tree lines in an agroforestry system that is virtually impossible. So, farmers can also look for a niche market. Cider, for example. Or pesticide-free fruit. Or specific types of fruit.
Timber is an option. In the east of Germany, farmers are planting fast-growing trees to mainly produce wood chips. Due to the high land prices in the Netherlands, that is arguably not profitable. However, farmers can produce high-quality timber to be used in the construction sector, as there is a growing demand for sustainable, environmentally friendly construction materials. But at this point, as timber trees take years to mature, this is a long-term strategy for the future.
Marc Buiter: A productive food forest, on average, has some 15 to 20 edible species per hectare spread over various vegetation layers. In the highest layer you often find nut trees, such as walnut and sweet chestnut. Below that, you have hazel and many fruit trees. On the ground, farmers can, for example, grow wild garlic, ostrich fern, the young shoots of which are edible, and Japanese ginger. They are currently imported and easily fetch up to 3 euros [$3.20] per shoot. Regarding climbers, farmers could produce hops, grapes and mini kiwi. Worldwide, there are some 6,000 edible plant species, the majority of which are polycarpic [reproduce more than once before dying]. So, a food forest offers a sea of choice for farmers in different climates.
Mongabay: In your organization’s concept of a food forest (not accounting for other agroforestry systems that have space for animals to graze), how do cattle or chickens fit in?
Marc Buiter: [In these densely forested food forests], farmers can have their livestock next to this [type of] food forest, but not in it. This is for various reasons. First, cattle hinder forest formation. Farmers will lose young trees within no time. Second, especially in the Netherlands, farmers will be virtually forced to put a fence around their food forest, as they cannot have livestock roam freely. Third, in a food forest, you want to reach as fast as possible a fungal-dominated soil, so you cannot have animals graze in that area as manure creates too much bacteria.
Mongabay: To what extent can agroforestry help supplement lost income and address farmers’ needs, while balancing the needs of the environment?
Lennart Fuchs: Nut production on a certain scale certainly has potential, although it remains hard to predict what a market looks like in, say, 10 years. On the one hand, farmers look at the value trees and bushes may produce. On the other hand, we research the effects a tree line may have on the main crop.
Close to the tree line, farmers will lose some yield due to an increase in shade and competition for water and nutrients. Further away from the tree line or hedge you may gain some yield, due to less wind stress and evaporation. Especially in a dry year this may save water. We are doing a large experiment in Lelystad [in the province of Flevoland] to see how these things work in a Dutch context. With an eye on climate change and increasing drought this can become a very important factor.
Marc Buiter: In the medium to long term, food forestry can surely do, but you must invest before you can harvest. And you must be able to overcome the young growing years of a food forest and harvesting is more labor intensive. But not to such an extent that it threatens your profitability. Farmers may be able to overcome that by not transforming everything in one go into a food forest. That is also how we work, in stages. Though in the long term, a food forest is a very diverse system with a considerable number of cash crops. And it does not require any expensive external inputs: no manure, no fertilizers, no pesticides, no heavy machinery.
Mongabay: What are the main challenges facing the implementation of agroforestry in the Netherlands?
Marc Buiter: Farmers will have to invest in design and construction and must be able to overcome the early years of a food forest. We reckon a six-year period for a food forest to produce any significant quantities and become profitable. Earning back your initial investment will take some 10 years, while within a 20-year horizon you will have a very profitable enterprise.
However, in reality, this is not very different from the shortcomings of regular agriculture. If you want to start a cattle farm, then you will also have to pump in a lot of money, which you will not earn back just like that. Cattle are expensive. Mega stables are expensive. Machines are expensive. Expertise is expensive.
There often is this misplaced notion that regular agriculture is a profitable endeavor. But often it is not at all. Economic research in the Netherlands shows that only a small part of Dutch agriculture is in fact profitable and many farmers are in debt. And even that profitable amount is because many external costs, including farmers paying for nitrogen pollution, is not subtracted from their returns. The polluter does not pay. Thus, a very artificial distinction is created. A food forest should first prove it is a money-making model. Fair enough. But they tend to forget that regular agriculture often is not.
Lennart Fuchs: First of all, the investment. Farmers will have to invest now to earn later. There are some state incentives that can help them finance planting. But still, farmers will have to be able to wait to see a return on investment. Certainly in Dutch agriculture one of the first questions will be: how much will it make? This is a country with extremely high land prices. If a farmer is going to give up part of his land to plant trees, which will not offer much of a return in the first 10 years, then that is a big step that needs to be justified. On top of that, many farmers are in debt. And as they say in Dutch, “You can’t be green if you are in the red.”
Second, there is still a lot of fear among traditional farmers. What will be the effect of a tree line on their potatoes? In a dry year, a tree line may help contain moisture and save water use. But in a humid year, an agroforestry system might get more humid, which may lead to more mold. So, we are also looking into this effect.
The third issue is knowledge. As said, agroforestry is in its infancy and we still do not know very well what the effects will be or what the best combinations are. The problem with agroforestry is that if you want to say something sensible from a scientific point of view, you must be able to measure it in a mature system. But we don’t really have those. So, this is an enormous challenge.
Mongabay: What other solutions could play a role alongside agroecology to maintain livelihoods and address farmers’ needs?
Lennart Fuchs: In a wider sense, there is still a lot that can be gained in terms of agroecology. A more nature-inclusive agriculture, which for example sees the introduction of hedges and flower beds. At Wageningen we experiment a lot with strip cropping [planting several strips of crops that are alternated in rotation], which is another way of disrupting monoculture and increasing diversity.
The problem in the Netherlands is that for many years we have aimed to produce as homogeneously as possible. Ideally, every potato should be roughly the same size and should be harvested at roughly the same time. The Dutch green revolution was built on homogeneity, so you can efficiently harvest with machines. If you adopt nature-friendly principles, per definition you will get more heterogeneity. The question is how do we deal with that?
Marc Buiter: To create a profitable farm, a food forest or other agroforestry system, exploited in an environmentally friendly manner, is enough. But looking at the wider Dutch food supply chain, then it is of course better not to start producing against the low bottom prices on the world market but to sell your products in short chains near the food forest. Localization and regionalization are key: bring food production and consumption nearer to one another.
Mongabay: How exactly would an average farmer go about transitioning to an agroecology system?
Marc Buiter: The first thing you do when designing a food forest is zooming out. You look at the farm from an ecological perspective. What is the landscape in which the terrain is located? What nature is there? Is it possible to connect? What is the highest and lowest groundwater level? What does that mean for the species you can plant?
Then you zoom in: taking into consideration the local circumstances and the farmer’s personal wishes, what is the best way to arrange the forest. At times the farmer wants to reserve part of the land for people to visit. In that case you design a hectare for recreation. On a recreational hectare you can easily plant 200 edible species. On a productive one we generally reckon with 15 to 20.
When it is time to plant, we start with hedges and tree girths. Especially in the Netherlands, wind is an important stress factor. That is why we start with the more robust tree species to offer the edible species a comfortable micro climate. It is thereby very important that you cherish the sprawling weeds in the pioneering phase. This creates a lot of resistance in the Netherlands. But weeds really are the first stage of a forest. Plants like thistle and nettle grow very quickly. They create a cover for the young trees and shrubs, which do not want to be exposed to full sun or wind.
One of the first things we teach young entrepreneurs is this: be a lazy farmer. Do as little as possible. We have all been raised with the idea that modern agriculture “produces” food. And that agriculture is “hard work.” But now you are working with nature. Now you have millions of allies offering a helping hand. A food forest is one great symphony orchestra of cooperation.
A transition of Dutch agriculture will have to include a drastic reduction of livestock. And a complete stop on the use of fertilizers and pesticides. We simply do not need it and it screws up the very basis of our existence. Such a transition plan would require political courage, a strong support policy and more ecological knowledge.
Mongabay: Should agroforestry systems first be implemented close to nature reserves?
Lennart Fuchs: The Netherlands has 162 protected nature reserves as part of the European Natura 2000 network, most of which are quite small and surrounded by agricultural fields. In the context of Natura 2000, the debate is more and more about things like transition and buffer zones, and extensive and nature-inclusive agriculture. So, I think agroforestry and related systems would fit there very well.
Marc Buiter: That is certainly a good idea. In the 1990s, the ecological principal structure (EHS) was introduced in the Netherlands. The idea was to try to connect the country’s larger nature reserves so there could be a healthy exchange of plant and animal life. But the EHS was always a paper concept.
The nice thing about food forests is that you do not have to buy expensive agricultural lands to turn them into a viable ecosystem. A food forest is both an ecosystem and an agriculture space, which would be perfect to connect nature reserves. In addition, food forests would form a good buffer between nature reserves on the one hand and intensive agriculture on the other.
Mongabay: What does the ideal situation look like?
Lennart Fuchs: The most important thing is, on the one hand, that agriculture meets the demands of the environment. That it does not contribute to pollution or produce emissions. On the other hand, I hope we can maintain high-quality food production on the fertile land we have in the Netherlands.
A more diverse system than today is desirable, but preferably one that remains economically viable for farmers as well.
Marc Buiter: The ideal situation is a much more varied landscape than what we have today. Imagine an ecological principal structure in which nature reserves are surrounded and interconnected by food forests, in between silvopasture and annual crops managed in an ecologically friendly way. Last summer, we called upon the Dutch government to aim to develop 170,000 hectares (420,000 acres) of food forest in the near future. That’s about 10% of the total Dutch land devoted to agriculture.
That leaves more than enough space for cattle raising and non-perennial crops. That has always been our approach. You don’t have to transform everything in one go.
Banner image: Farmers protest in the Netherlands on June 22, 2022. Tractors from all over the country drove to Stroe. This picture was taken along the A27 near Houten, just in front of the Lunetten interchange. Image by Frank Magdelyns from Pixabay.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at how agroforestry, an ancient indigenous technology that is increasingly being adopted by farmers around the world, can help solve many of the major environmental issues we’re facing, from deforestation and biodiversity loss to climate change. Listen here: