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Nature-inclusive agriculture & the consumer: an unfortunate combination

By November 21, 2023 November 23rd, 2023 No Comments

Nature-inclusive agriculture. Everyone is talking about it. 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 far is nature-inclusive agriculture actually from mainstream conventional  agriculture? Will the EU’s new Farm2Fork strategy – a strategy in which Europe must achieve 25% organic agriculture by 2030 – give the supposed boost to nature-inclusive agriculture in the Netherlands? Also noteworthy, 2030 arrives in 8 years, that’s about 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 take up the challenge and each look at the conundrum from their subsequent perspectives. The challenge at hand: can the Netherlands become a GIDS-nation with nature-inclusive agriculture, in which a good earning model for the farmer is central?

Erwin van Woudenberg kicks off the blog series.

Nature-inclusive agriculture & the consumer: an unfortunate combination

Erwin van Woudenberg

Free-market entrepreneurs are not going to change the way the world utilizes land. That is the conclusion reached by resigning lecturer Erwin van Woudenberg after ten years of research into entrepreneurship with nature. He gives 5 reasons why nature-inclusive agriculture will never grow seriously without a strong government. On the eve of his departure as lecturer “Entrepreneurship with Nature” he pleads for a radical and strong government in relation to this theme and sees 3 options to enable better decisions on behalf of the future of our earth.

Farmers are the entrepreneurs in agriculture. Entrepreneurs need to make money to stay in business, otherwise the impact on the land will also cease to exist. Much of the future of our earth depends on the way lands are being used. Nature-inclusive agriculture is based on a caretaker stance. In other words, nature-inclusive agriculture ensures a more future-proof earth. However many nature-inclusive farmers are struggling financially. They safeguard our earth but consequently suffer from lower production and thus a higher cost price per product. However, as it stands, the nature-inclusive farmer himself is responsible for receiving a higher selling price per product. This is too big of a task and, as a result, the number of nature-inclusive farmers remains low.

What is nature-inclusive agriculture? It is difficult to define nature-inclusive agriculture precisely. I assume the following: it entails ‘all farmers who take care of their environments at the highest level possible and, because they take such good care of nature, are unable to achieve the highest possible sales, thus facing a higher cost price per product’.

To be blunt: within the current system, this is not going to change. the Dutch system is focused on marketforces and does not encourage entrepreneurs to achieve a better and more beautiful country since within the domestic market, ecosystem services are not sufficiently valued. It is not that farmers are unable or unwilling: I have no doubt that farmers will line up if there is a financially sound alternative to conventional agriculture.  Consumers too are not the bottleneck: I’m convinced that people would prefer not to limit their negative impact on our planet. Yet nature-inclusive agriculture is nowhere near successful. Why is that? Below I list five reasons why consumer demand for nature-inclusive agriculture lags behind, resulting in farmers opting for conventional agricultural practises.

Two truths

Firstly, there is the concept of sustainability. Sustainability is a word that encompasses everything and thus nothing anymore. Everyone understands and interprets the term differently and many things are labelled “sustainable” nowadays. Yet the term is of great importance to consumers, because consumers feel good when they buy something with the designation ‘sustainable’. The questions of how, what, where and why seem inferior to the that the product is deemed ‘sustainable’. In reality, what the consumer is actually buying is unclear, to say the least. It may sound like an unimportant issue at first, but in the world of marketing, it’s hard to underestimate the importance of the word ‘sustainable’.  For the implication is that expectations of the market changing, are unrealistic as long as everyone can appeal to the qualifier ‘sustainable’.

Within agriculture, it’s a little trickier still. Since the sector is deifned by a decades long debate between two beliefs. On the one side there are proponents of conventional and intensive crop cultivation, with high resource efficiency, on the other are those who defend extensive and nature-inclusive crops. This debate is beautifully articulated by Charles Mann in his book “The Wizard and the Prophet,” We seem to be unable to agree, in both crop and livestock farming, upon what is better for the planet. Although intensive and nature-inclusive agriculture are defined by completely different approaches, both ways have their merits. One could therefore say that being sustainable is not only diffuse to marketeers, agricultural scientists can’t figure out what it means to be truly sustainable either. This in turn, makes it virtually impossible for farmers to distinguish themselves on sustainability, which is problematic if you are hoping to receive a premium price for nature-inclusive practices. The labels of organic and biodynamic are an exception to this rule. They are in fact the result of proper classification and standards.

Your brain

The second cause is the workings of your brain. The way you make decisions. Quality, price and convenience are the three central conditions when choosing what products to buy. The quality of the product motivates the consumer to purchase the product, the right price makes the consumer pay the amount he is willing and able to pay, and providing convenience allows the consumer to strike a deal at the right time and place. Every brand and product faces these market conditions in order to be considered an option for consumption. Self-interest prevails here. It’s “Ego” vs. “Eco. ‘Ego’ is always present in a purchase; after all, a product must always meet your requirements first and foremost. Then the ‘eco’ aspect can come into the equation. However, due to the way your brain works, this only happens when ‘eco’ is easy to understand (think climate-neutral, vegetarian or palm oil-free). Nature-inclusive agriculture is less straightforward and the benefits suffer from a lack of appeal to the ‘ego’. So nature-inclusive agriculture does not make it into the consumer brain.

The convenience offered by sellers

The third cause lies with the sellers of products, especially supermarkets, but also restaurants, clothing stores and gas stations. These parties are very good at meeting consumers’ needs and rate well on the convenience’ scale. They listen to the needs of consumers, which is what they ultimately depend on. Sustainability, meanwhile, comes into play only when vendors opt for it in the simplest of interpretations. On-the-way-to-planet-proof for example, constitutes “the more sustainable choice,” we hear on the radio. Aside from offering these low hanging fruits, the current situation provides close to no reason for most sellers to drastically change the supply. Also, time is a factor, the demand for biodynamic candy in places like sports club will take some time to materialize. This reactionary rationale deviates potential sellers from nature-inclusive agriculture.

The power of brands

The fourth cause is the collective perception of brands. People, it is proven, love brands. We are known to recognize brands as recently introduced as 2 years ago.  Why? Because they radiate  familiarity, we know what to expect from them in decisive areas such as taste and quality, but also, on simple indicators of sustainability, like vegetarianism or plastic-free-score. Land use indicators however are mostly absent on branded packaging.  Only the labels ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ are sometimes featured.

The power of price

The higher the price, the smaller the demand. This is a general rule in economics.  Nature-inclusive agriculture is, by definition, more expensive than conventional agriculture. As a consequence it has a more marginal market. Selling smaller quantities at higher prices is, in most instances, still feasible. However, the larger the volume becomes, the greater the importance of price. Selling on a reasonalbe scale against a premium price has proved to be very difficuilt.

Marketing of nature-inclusive agriculture is not going to entice

Over the past 15 years, I have become a huge fan of biodynamic agriculture and food forests. I have frequently marvelled at the fantastic environment that such nature-inclusive farmers manage to create. On the premises of biodynamic farmers one can have lunch in the barn whilst being surrounded by dozens if not hundreds of different species of plants and animals. On every hectare of these farms, you encounter an abundance of ecosystem services, such as clean water, rich soil life and carbon storage to protect the climate. Without structural changes, however, I don’t see the share of nature-inclusive farmers increasing.

But what about marketing? Whilst it is true that marketing can help to promote an individual farm, it won’t entice people to start consuming nature-inclusive  products on a large scale. In a free market that also offers many conventional alternatives, believing that nature inclusive farming will ever become the standard, is unfortunately naive. The five reasons I have touched upon are so difficult to change that I am now convinced that we cannot alter the way the world uses land through entrepreneurs in the free market. An individual entrepreneur may succeed in doing so and attract a small group of consumers, but the realm of a niche will never be exceeded.  Ultimately, the benefits of nature inclusive farming for the earth remain absent without sizeable upscaling. Even exceptionally good marketing is not going to change this. The subsequent conclusion: as long as we leave our planet’s future to the free market and to the choices of farmers and consumers, we are sentenced to a country ham struck by biodiversity loss. At present, more than 70% of the original species richness has been eradicated.

The future of our earth

Should we wish to (re)develop a biodiverse farming landscape in the future, we will have to invest both time and energy in alternatives that hand nature-inclusive agriculture a fair chance. I see three promising routes. First and foremost, I suggest measuring the impact on the environment per hectare for each product, in addition to the impact per product. This will give substance to the concept of sustainability and provide leverage, enabling the sector to start making nature inclusive impact immediately. Regardless of the results, a well-defined concept of nature-inclusiveness will improve the discussion about sustainable agriculture. Secondly, let’s think about shifting the financial responsibility for the environment we exist in from farmers to brands. Brands receive most of the price that consumers pay for products and have real power in the chain. In addition, changes in prices are barely reflected in the company’s financial results, whereas price fluctuations have substantial impact on the income of farmers. Finally, I believe it should be mandatory to value ecosystem services and to have companies pay for them. Although valuing ecosystem services is complex, it remains an important avenue to explore. Adequate valuation of ecosystem services has the potential to notably contribute to ensuring a different future for our planet. A start has already been made with co2 certification.

In all three of these considerations, bypassing the government is indispensable. Consumers are incapable of changing the future of our earth by themselves; it is unclear what sustainability means, the brain can only factor in simple things, sellers and brands have no motivation to change their supply in favour of nature-inclusive agriculture, and the higher cost price per product remains a bottleneck. Without interventions, there will never be fair competition for nature-inclusive entrepreneurs. As a consequence, without systematic reforms, our environment will continue to be shaped by mainstream agriculture. Nature-inclusive agriculture will only become a solid alternative when utilisation of land is factored into the business result.

To end this blogpost on a positive note, I like to end by citing my mom, she used to always say: “Where there is a will, there is a way”. In other words; conviction and desire are needed. I, for one, believe that a Dutch farming landscape including alls sorts of species whistling and fluttering, is very much achievable. I, wholeheartedly, hope that my willingness is shared and that the three itineraries listed above can contribute to making the required transition happen.

This blog previously appeared as part of a blog series on the website of HAS University of Applied Sciences. All blogs can be read here:

Deel 1: Natuurinclusieve landbouw & de consument: een ongelukkige combinatie – Door Erwin van Woudenberg

Deel 2: Kun je als ‘natuurinclusieve’ boer economisch overleven als je ook de aarde wilt redden? – Door Harry van Delft

Deel 3: Boeren in symbiose – Door Roger Engelberts

Deel 4: Nabuurschap in Nederland: natuur en landbouw in een nieuw perspectief – Door Martin Scholten

Deel 5: Een rituele dans rondom de natuurinclusieve wisseltrofee – Door Ruben Burger

Deel 6 (slot): Op zoek naar een nieuw samenspel tussen boeren, overheid, consumenten en ketenpartijen – Door Daan Groot