Together towards Circular Farming: annual forum – What was said?

Here you can find a rendition of almost everything that has been talked about during the Circular Farming Annual Forum, that was held on the 10th of October in Orion. A shorter article-version will follow.

10.10 Together towards Circular Farming: Annual Forum

  1. Introduction

    1. Circular Farming Platform Wageningen

First there was an introduction about and by the Circular Farming Platform Wageningen. In the introduction, Yanina Willet explained that the agricultural system is ruled by a certain ideology, by a certain paradigm, and now is a time for this paradigm to change. The focus on productivity, on producing more and cheaper food should make place for a focus on sustaining our food production system, on producing less waste, on becoming circular. The mission of the Circular Farming Platform Wageningen is to support the paradigm shift in university, by shifting the focus in agricultural sciences on improvement of productivity towards improvement of circularity.

    1.  Alex Datema

Alex Datema talked for a couple of minutes about what he sees as the future of farmers like himself. He is part of Farmers and Nature, BoerenNatuur, a collective that supports farmers to farm nature-inclusively. The goal is that farming in the future is nature-inclusive. It’s a step higher than circular farming. When making a decision on his farm, in the past Datema used to only look at how much it costs and if it works. Now, he looks at all the effects of the decision on the nature and on the society. This is what it means for him to farm nature-inclusively. It is difficult, because everyone around the farmer thinks in terms of getting more cows, more stables etc.

    1. Scene from the Kringlopen Play by Inspringtheater

After Datema’s speech, we saw a scene from the Kringlopen Play by Inspringtheater where a young farmer is complaining about the fast policy changes that complicate the farmer’s life and make it difficult for him to make sustainable choices and increase biodiversity. After the scene, an interactive part followed where the audience was asked for suggestions to help the farmer to become circular. The audience proposed solutions that included fair price for the farmer, low-tech circular solutions, sustained governance and more.

    1. General Introduction by Imke de Boer

Imke de Boer had twenty minutes to explain her vision on the future of farming. “How do we produce food while respecting the planet?” was the central question. The approach that is mainly used to assess the sustainability of our food production system, is the footprint approach. All the negative emissions of the production of a product are taken into account to determine how big the ecological footprint of the product is. However, with such an assessment, the logical solution is often to increase the production while using less resources such as land, to limit the negative impact per production unit. This approach doesn’t lead to a more sustainable production and is unhelpful. This was one of the main points of Imke de Boer.

We need to use the available resources as a starting point: look at the land and water. Now 40 percent of the arable land is used for animal feed. This space should be used to produce food for human consumption. This land should be fertilized with different waste streams, that include human excretions. Using these inputs also limits the leakage of phosphorus into the water.

For de Boer, circularity is about a healthy soil. We would still need to add more nitrogen, since a part of it is emitted during the food production, and technology can play a role in this. Furthermore, we need to make use of all aspects of a plant, and not only at the part that is most lucrative to sell. Animals should only be fed by the side streams and grass and then they do have a value in the food system. This shouldn’t only be livestock, but also insects and fish. With less animals, the manure will have again value and ecosystem services.

Why do we need more land if we all have a vegan diet? The side streams cannot be valued and then you need a little bit more of plant protein to come to the right amount of nutrients.

Imke de Boer ended her lecture by stating that no farm is circular, because there are always nutrients leaving. However, we used to be more circular on farm level and we need again a system’s change. There’s nobody to point at, but it’s our common responsibility.

Imke de Boer is part of the Strategic Team in Wageningen on the topic of Circular Farming, that strives for integrated education. There are two new education courses that are more developed from an integrated way. That means to teach students about all the different aspects that involve the change that is needed.


  1. First Panel Discussion: a paradigm shift in education? – Moderator: Klarien Klingen

The first panel consisted of Imke de Boer, Saskia Visser, Sjaak Kreeft and Lotte van Dueren den Hollander. Saskia Visser introduced herself as part of the Startegy Team for Circular Farming on the WUR, together with Imke de Boer. The team focuses on building governance in this shift towards circularity and on solutions to valorise side streams, while also excluding the fossil fuel industry from the playing field.

Sjaak Kreeft, then, is the director of Wellantcollege, a green VMBO-MBO school in Ottoland. In his introduction, he talked about some projects that they have in the school, for example they set the vegetable garden in contact with the cooking room.

Lotte van Dueren den Hollander is a MSc student of Plant Sciences on the WUR. She co-founded Agriforum, which is an organization that aims to let the students come into contact with the real farming, with the realities of the majority of the farmers in the Netherlands. She explained that they are not happy that the WUR focuses on alternative systems without first explaining how it is right now.

After Lotte’s introduction, Imke quickly jumped in and started the discussion by asking what she would propose, how to change this. Lotte answered that there is a need for introductory course in the Master studies, that give an overview of agriculture in the Netherlands. She also proposes to have a minor on circularity, or a course where mainly a lot of farmers are invited to talk about the topic. A girl from the audience agreed with Lotte. A farmer from the audience notes that it’s typically Dutch to focus on the best, while they don’t have enough consideration for the peloton that follows the front runners.

Saskia Visser reacts to this, asking the question of how to scale-up good ideas to different conditions? How can we speed this up? This is the transition research that the strategy group is doing. If she has to translate this to the education, she notes that they don’t need to teach the students the solutions, but how to look at the world and how to be able to make the transition and to see what needs to be adjusted.

In this discussion, everyone agrees that students need to come into contact with the real realities, and that this isn’t happening in the classroom. Imke de Boer and the strategy team are also trying to come up with a system to change this, and this is also the aim of the Platform. Saskia Visser also adds that it’s important to come up with the best way of spreading knowledge. Sjaak Kreeft adds that the researchers have to come to the farms to do the necessary research for a transition, because the farmers don’t have time to go and look for the research.

From the audience, there are suggestions to integrate eco-literacy in the education system, and that there must also be more attention for inner circularity. Imke responds by saying that they definitely need the social sciences, but that value systems are personal. At the university, they can discuss the value of food systems, but they can’t take a stance in these discussions.

The moderator, Klarien, ends by stressing that this is a plea for plurality.


  1. Second panel discussion: circular farming in policy – Moderator: Renske Hijbeek

Renske introduced the second panel discussion by explaining that there is definitely a support from the Dutch parliament for circular farming, and that there has been a visie presented. There’s a plan and there’s money. How what is the role of policy in this transition?

The first panel speaker is Tim Verhoef, who is a policy coordinator at the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. He’s the son of a dairy farmer in Groningen, and that he has been working for the Ministry since 1997. In 2018, the Ministry was re-established, with the arrival of Minister Carola Schouten, who has built up a strategy and policy plan for the future. A historian by education, Tim also explained some bits of the history of agriculture in the Netherlands. Thereafter, he gave his vision on circularity, which for him is in essence the reduction of the use of raw materials and the aim to keep them in the production chain for as long as possible. And there are many stakeholders: farmers should get enough income, consumers should appreciate their food more and so on.

The Ministry of Agriculture has tried to simplify circular farming to 9 points to provide a sort of scale to test the policies against. To really provide a change, the Ministry has to work together with all stakeholders. But they do try to promote new practices, for example they promote precision agriculture and they go to the farmers to ask them what they need.

With regard to EU policy, they try to implement the CAP more specifically towards circular farming. They want to have a mechanism that rewards the farmer for increasing biodiversity, for farming nature-inclusively.

Herre Bartlema, who, with the Smart Fertilization Network, is an important part of the Circular Farming Platform, asks if there is any way to assess circularity on a farm. Tim answers that there isn’t one good way of circular farming, and so that there also isn’t a correct way to measure it.

Keimpe van de Heide is the head of the NAV, the Dutch trade Union for Arable Farmers. He used to have an arable farm himself but had to sell it because of issues with his eyes. He thinks circular farming is very nice, but it’s more important what the society thinks. If the demand increases, then the demand will go up. The realisation plan is wishful thinking.
Europe is discussing with the rest of the world about free trade agreements. We export 75 percent of our production to other countries. When we sell our products, we don’t sell for quality, we want to sell for the lowest price as possible.

Alex Datema also joined this panel discussion. He wanted to applaud a minister that has a vision for the future of farming, and the realisation plan is a lot of technique, but there’s nothing about how to change the farmers. How do we transition, more social sciences etc.

Start panel discussion:

An Organic Agriculture student asks Tim Verhoef if – as a farmer’s son, but a government employee, he can sympathize with the farmers that are taking to the street. The answer was that he definitely can.

A person in the audience says that it’s naïve to think that we can make a big change fast, because this also isn’t happening with organic agriculture. After this Imke de Boer and another man in the front row start talking about transition theory and the tipping points for transitions to take place. For agriculture, 25 percent of the farmers have to be on board, for things to change. Alex Datema reacts saying that 20 percent of farmers are involved in the agri-environmental scheme of the CAP. He also stated that organic farming should stay small, to be able to keep the prices. He also thinks the market of the retailers are changing a lot faster than the farmers realize.

Keimpe reacts saying that the industry is asking a lot from the farmers, but that they’re not paying for it. The key role is on the demand side, not on the farmers’ side alone. Tim agrees with him but adds that we need to agree with everyone what direction we want to go in and then everyone has a role to play in that.

A girl in the back has a question for Tim: “You said that we need to minimize use of resources instead of minimizing costs. But minimizing costs is done because of the need for maximizing profits. Can we do the first thing in this system that want profit maximizing.” Frank Verhoeven, sitting in the front, answered that the advisers don’t come to the farm with solutions to minimize costs, but rather to maximize them. Minimizing inputs usually means minimizing costs for the farmer, and for this we need new business models.

What can governments do?

Tim Verhoef says that different situations call for different solutions. To protect the Natura 2000 areas, we have to limit the nitrogen we use, and one of the possible solutions could be to buy some farmers out.  Alex Datema reacts to this that we shouldn’t have a discussion about how much less animals we should have now, but we could follow the vision of the Schouten to change the future of agriculture, and then we will have less cows anyway, but hopefully all the farmers can stay and don’t have to be bought out.

Keimpe adds that first we should stop the free trade agreements, as this doesn’t cost a thing, to which Imke de Boer asks the question if we should keep producing for Europe. Keimpe responds that in the case of plants, we should, because there is more agricultural land here than in other areas.

How do we make people pay more for food?

Tim answers that we shouldn’t make food more expensive, but that we should make quality food more valuable. For Keimpe, the solution is also with the consumer. If people would only half a percent more of their income to food, we could give our farmers a good price, and then we can use the CAP subsidies for ecosystem services.

The last point during the panel discussion is that of true pricing, and how to get a fair price for farmers that limit negative emissions and increase biodiversity.

Evelien de Olde, who is a part of the team of Imke de Boer, has done research about true pricing. It is a political question, though, she says, because “who’s going to decide what is measured and recompensated and how?”. Alex Datema also warns that true pricing can have a negative effect. Raising the price of artificial fertilizer, for example, could urge farmers to increase their production to meet the costs.

Keimpe ends by saying that nobody here is going to pay for the landscape. We need the government to make a system that pays for these things. Society should be the government.


  1. Intermezzo by Herre Bartlema

After the break, Herre Bartlema had some time to explain what his vision for circular farming is. He sees it as production with only circular inputs, and no negative effects. The most harmful outputs, he says, come from artificial fertilizer. And the Netherlands can farm without this fertilizer, which can even increase output. Bartlema also distinguishes an important role for private companies in the transition towards circular farming. Then he talks about the Circular Farming Platform, of which his Smart Fertilization Network is also part. We have made ten points and one of them is appointing a professor/chair on circularity. First thing for the university, says Herre, is to organize a chair. The second thing is: if you need a good competence indicator, it is this (referring to his system).


  1. Third panel discussion: circular farming and new business models – moderator: Klarien Klingen

Frank Verhoeven gives an introduction to the last panel discussion. He starts by remembering his time as a student at WUR. Then he goes on to explaining what his organization, Boerenverstand, does. Boerenverstand works all through the Netherlands. His work shifted from work for the government, now he’s working with all kinds of dairy companies throughout the country: it started with Ben & Jerry’s and now also Friesland Campina. He’s inspired by low-input farmers. They don’t see the maximalization as what they want, but optimization.

Verhoeven makes the statement that manure is not the problem, but the solution: we need to move away from synthetic fertilizer and from concentrates. The whole debate is about phosphate, carbon and nitrogen and a farmer needs to be very smart to know what way the government wants him to go. Boerenverstand puts it into one measuring tool. He shows a graph about the production of protein and the losses of protein and he says that he has to keep on explaining the graph, but he hopes that it will move in a better direction soon.

He goes on with explaining the system of “Planet Proof” of Friesland Campina. There are several Key Performance Indicators, which are all important, but we often only focus on nitrogen, for example, and then you lose attention for protein and for co2 emissions. Planet Proof is a pulling factor on the whole group of farmers, they all want to be planet proof and you see it moving towards circular farming. And then, you also have to reward. With an integrated scoring system, these rewards are going up. In Drenthe it was very tough to put European money in the rewarding system.

With this good example, Frank wants to show that pulling the farmers towards new systems works better than pushing them. They have to focus on performances.

The next speaker of the third panel discussion is Jessica Tepper-Kuiper. She studied psychology and worked as a psychologist. Then 4 years ago, she and her husband bought a farm in Drenthe, initially just to live in. One month later they bought 5 Groninger Blaarkoppen. One year later, she stopped her job and became a full-time farmer. And she noticed that it’s great to produce food. Now they have 150 cows, 180 hectares of land, partly own partly rented from people and also Natuurmonumenten and Staatsbosbeheer and they are starting milking in a few months. Nature-inclusivity, bio-diversity, circular farming is very important for them and they became a research farm for Wageningen. For her, circular farming is possible if we start focusing on the ones who are already doing it or the ones who want to do it, instead of focusing on the obstacles.

The third speaker is Stefan van Merrienboer. He did research for Rabobank, but he’s not a banker himself. He considers circular farming to be the future of agriculture. Efficient optimal production with minimal negative emissions. Soil quality is, of course, very important. But how can we finance a transition like this? He adds that now it’s circular farming, with the next government it can be something else.

Klarien asks what the result of the report was, to which Stefan answers that a lot of it has already been said: knowledge integration, working together between sectors, scale and so on.

The last speaker in this panel discussion is Piet Hermus. He is an arable farmer and member of both BoerenNatuur and NAV. He’s also part of ZLTO Drimmelen, which is an independent section of LTO. He talks about his experience with climate change. He talks about his own experience with climate change as a farmer. He started digging trenches 20 years ago, because of the heavy waterfall and he experiences more extreme weather conditions. But his sugar beets do thrive in the new climate, so it’s not all bad, and as a farmer he can store CO2. He does think that it is the role of the government to provide a good life and climate and prevent that we hurt ourselves.

Klarien asks the main question of the panel discussion “Who is going to pay?”

Jessica answers that the farmers can also create demand, by having a good story. Frank Verhoeven that you have to be able to sell the services as well. You can’t just let consumers pay more for the products.

Piet gives the example that he wants to start with agroforestry, but that that requires experimenting. The main thing for him is to make connections with everyone around you, and to focus on creating a society. He states that we need a new social contract.

Stefan adds that there’s also a lot of room for technology to come into the picture, and that’s why we ask WUR and so on if they can develop this. The thing for financial institutions is that they want to have a number, they want to know the risks and they need to properly divide the risks, and this makes it more expensive to invest in these new technologies.

Piet Hermus notes that the new technologies and the increasing specialization broke the circle on his farm. He wants everyone to connect the land with the animals again.

Jessica adds that she also wants this for her farm. Now it’s mostly cows, but they’re starting with grains and they also want other human food like potatoes. She raises a critical point, which is that the farmers need examples and knowledge but somehow, they prevent us to get an opportunity. When they apply for funds and all this, it is quite difficult. In order to have a transition, she thinks the government is doing more than the sector itself. She thinks it’s the biggest threat that the sector is not allowing the early adapter to start with new projects, with new green initiatives.

In the end, Stefan adds that we should also look at other sectors, how they are handling big transitions.

Piet ends by saying that Jessica is one of the heroes of the future, that he maybe is one of the heroes of the past. We have to connect the old and the new. Become a farmer! Buy a share of a farmer!

  1. Thank you’s and closing