Nature-inclusive agriculture. A hot topic. But what is it really? And how important is nature-inclusive agriculture in relation to the major UN goal of achieving climate-neutral agriculture by 2030? Is it feasible, scalable and affordable? What processes will help in achieving this? How different is nature-inclusive agriculture from mainstream agriculture? Will the EU’s new Farm2Fork strategy – a strategy in which Europe must achieve 25% organic agriculture by 2030 – give a boost to nature-inclusive agriculture in the Netherlands? In 2030, that’s in 8 years, say 3,000 days from now!
More questions than answers.
4 (former) lecturers of HAS University of Applied Sciences, 1 professor of Wageningen University and 1 HAS alumnus (winner HAS Foodmanship award and member Food100) search for opinionated answers in a series of 6 articles. Daan Groot, Erwin van Woudenberg, Harry van Delft, Roger Engelberts, Ruben Burger and Martin Scholten each look at the issue from their subsequent perspectives. The challenge: could the Netherlands become a guiding country defined by nature-inclusive agriculture and crucially, with high earning models for associated farmers? That’s the question! The second blog post is by Harry van Delft.
Is economic survival possible for a ‘nature-inclusive’ farmer whilst also contributing to the earth’s health?
Harry van Delft
I think you can! But then we have to do a few things differently. The starting point for me is (1) that consumers or citizens naturally want to do good, (2) that farmers need to find smart partnerships, (3) that ‘the sustainable story’ needs to be communicated in a more transparent, simple and attractive way and (4) that the earth can no longer wait for actions. With this last aspect, I mean collective action by all stakeholders, including governments. Let me explain.
Focus on price
In his book ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ Rutger Bregman describes that people naturally want to do good. Not only for themselves but also for the environment in which they live. What about consumers? In line with me contention, they also want to do good- as long as the product offers more than sustainability alone. In food marketing, we know for example, that consumers select on a combination of, taste, convenience, health, sustainability and, of course, price. It is exactly this focus on price that seems to be the biggest barrier to increased sustainable purchasing behaviour.
A food cabinet article from 2020 claims the following: “(…) How often doesn’t one hear the exhalation that ‘the average consumer acts so differently from his ideals as a citizen?’ It seems that man has evolved from hunter-gatherer to ‘bargain hunter’(…).” What is the cause of this? Is it due to man’s nature or to the environment in which the consumer finds itself, overloaded with offers, price incentives and a large supply of unsustainable and unhealthy products? Hans Dagevos, consumption sociologist at Wageningen University says: “Overestimation of the price factor seems to keep pace with underestimation of other principles that help determine the food choices consumers make. Until retailers and other product providers start seriously valuing these other factors, they won’t have the leverage needed to play a decisive role in consumer choices either.”
The question, then, is how do we ensure that consumers make choices in which values such as health and sustainability play a greater, fairer role? That question was central to the July 2020 report ‘Changing Food Consumption. Building blocks for policy to encourage more sustainable eating patterns’ by the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency. The researchers conclude, “Food routines are shaped by consumers as well as by other actors, such as food companies, retailers, civil society organizations, food influencers and governments. The report closes by stating that changing food routines requires a collective effort: consumers cannot do it alone (Source: foodcabinet.nl).
Changing behaviour – in this case – to increased levels of sustainable buying- and consumption therefore requires cooperation. Cooperation amongst farmers, between farmers and retailers, and between farmers and consumers. A good example of the latter is “Our Market. An initiative of French entrepreneur Nicolas Chabane who in 2016 allowed consumers to have a say in price setting and quality requirements for food. He wanted to contribute to dampening the plight of many dairy farmers and aimed to achieve a fairer price. To arrive there, he conducted a large online survey and let consumers vote. There was massive response and vote for a fair price for the farmer.
A new brand “Cést Qui, Le Patron?”(who’s the boss?) was introduced. With resounding success. Major food retailers in France now offer a range of 30 different “Cést Qui, Le Patron?” products (varying from milk and butter to potatoes). The story of “Cést Qui, Le Patron?” proves that a fairer and sustainable food system is possible. Not through expensive marketing campaigns (although those often work too), but through involvement of consumers in decision making processes, by being transparent and handing the buyers co-ownership and responsibility.
The cooperation I am advocating is also especially needed to increase the supply of sustainable products. Because our buying behaviour is very much influenced by the products we are offered. Many researchers agree on that. Take a look at a YouTube video (‘all people are virtuous’), in which Sebastiaan Aalst explains in great detail that over 70% of the current food supply consists of non-sustainable products and the effects this levies on our consumption patterns. Aalst concludes that the current situation is not sustainable and cannot be carried onto the future. But how do we turn things around? A reduction of VAT on fruits and vegetables? Introduction of a sugar tax? And what about true pricing? Can a price system that incorporates all costs that are currently covert – such as future damage to people and the environment, have an important effect on reducing the (unfair) price advantage for unhealthy and unsustainable products? Could this true price system initiate a situation that better reflects the values we hold as a society? In a July 2021 interview for Change.inc (just google it), Drees Peter van den Bosch, director of Hutten Catering, explains that True Pricing is no longer wishful thinking, but the hard reality of today and tomorrow. Hutten is already applying it.
And how about seduction? Is the story of “nature-inclusive agriculture” communicated in a sufficiently attractive way? Of course I do not know all existing (national and international) concepts that revolve around nature-inclusivity. Certainly, there are very good examples out there that manage to communicate their stories simply, transparently and attractively. For the biggest part though, providers, in my opinion, still fall short in the way they communicate to buyers (food retailers, out-of-home, consumers,…). Subsequently, a question that naturally arises is whether the concept of ´nature-inclusive agriculture´ is strong enough to appeal to large groups of consumers. In its current ‘niche’ state, nature inclusivity will probably fail to contribute in a meaningful way to achieving our climate goals. Since very few sustainable market concepts have been successfully introduced with a sole focus on sustainability, values such as “taste, convenience and health,” must become more dominant in the market concept of nature inclusivity. That is the only route to success. It can be done, but it requires a lot of time and investments. Another option is for the entrepreneur in “nature-inclusive agriculture” to switch to “organic agriculture. The sustainability principles of the two farming concepts are very similar, while the market opportunities of ‘organic’ are much, much greater. In other words, without abandoning your sustainability goals, you increase your chances of operating your farm profitably.
Consumers like to contribute to a better world, a better future. But also want: enjoyment, convenience, health. Three important factors that are indispensable to appeal to a broad group of consumers. Look at the success of Tesla and compare that to the Toyota Prius. The beauty & the beast? The (ugly) Prius only appeals to a limited group of “sustainability” consumers. Tesla, with its concept (beautiful styling and appearance, luxury, convenience, etc.) appeals to both business and private drivers across the full spectrum of society.
Beauty & the Beast
Successfully marketing sustainable agriculture requires an approach that appeals to large groups of consumers. Nature-inclusive agriculture, by converting to the “beauty” – organic agriculture – would do itself and its sustainability goals a great service.
Professional and with ambition
Marketing sustainable agriculture is possible. It can be done. To do so, however, something must change in the current approach. I come up with 4 action points. (1) The government will adjust regulations in favor of nature and our health and actively support ‘nature-inclusive/organic agriculture’. (2) Food producers and food retailers will, with innovations, translate sustainability into a more attractive offer, replace non-sustainable products, and pay farmers better. (3) Chain cooperation will strengthen market propositions and (4) we will entice consumers into new behaviors through promotional communication. If this is deployed professionally and with ambition, it will bear fruit. Continuing on the current footing is not an option. We cannot feed the 10 billion people in 2050 and the generations after that. Sustainable agriculture is possible. Let’s start today!
This blog previously appeared as part of a blog series on the website of HAS University of Applied Sciences. All blogs can be read back:
Part 1: Nature-inclusive agriculture & the consumer: an unfortunate combination – By Erwin van Woudenberg
Part 2: Can you survive economically as a ‘nature-inclusive’ farmer if you also want to save the earth? – By Harry van Delft
Part 3: Farmers in symbiosis – By Roger Engelberts
Part 4: Neighborhood in the Netherlands: nature and agriculture in a new perspective – By Martin Scholten
Part 5: A ritual dance around the nature-inclusive challenge trophy – By Ruben Burger
Part 6 (final): In search of a new interplay between farmers, government, consumers and chain parties – By Daan Groot