Foto Farm of the Future
Flip van Koesveld is an international project manager at Wageningen University & Research. Ask him to explain what nature-inclusive agriculture is about, and he will give you a simple answer: good agricultural practice. ‘You just have to bring back the basic principles, like using organic matter and natural pest control instead of fertilizer and chemicals only. And work on prevention.’
Agriculture, it goes without saying, is a key social and economic sector that provides food, shapes landscapes and influences our environment. Intensive agriculture has also played a significant role in the global decline in biodiversity: just 12 plant species provide 75 percent of our food. A move towards a more nature-inclusive and sustainable type of agriculture, with greater biodiversity and resilience, is necessary. But that transition, as Flip van Koesveld readily admits, is not easy to make.
Van Koesveld is working at Wageningen Plant Research, business unit field crops, which is based in Lelystad. ‘Our ambition is to contribute to the progressive integration of nature-based solutions in farming systems,’ he says. ‘For this we’ve recently started a project that is co-financed by the Topsector Horticulture & Starting Materials. Its aim? To validate the use of green manure crops in tropical vegetable cultivation.’
From soil to crops
Van Koesveld’s main focus is on smallholder vegetable and potato farming in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Another focus is soil health. ‘That’s more than fighting and preventing plant diseases, it’s about stimulating soil life and soil structure, water management to prevent flooding, combatting droughts and salinization, and using rotation crops to sustain the richness and fertility of the soil. A healthy soil is a prerequisite for a more robust and resilient agricultural ecosystem with greater biodiversity.’
In many parts of the world this is not an easy goal to achieve. Van Koesveld: ‘If, for instance, you don’t own the land you’re cultivating, you may not be inclined to invest heavily. Subsistence farmers in developing countries usually don’t plan much beyond the next crop and often lack the necessary money, information and knowledge. Take pest control: there are nature-based solutions you can use instead of chemicals but if you don’t know what they are, you just go to your usual dealer for pesticides. In many countries, it’s hard for farmers to get the right information, and they must rely on what dealers tell them, because they don’t have access to independent sources.’
He stresses: ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the use of all chemicals, it’s more a matter of using them wisely. The industry behind them is well aware of the problems of pesticides and other chemical substances farmers use and is trying to find organic alternatives. We’re working together on this, it’s a common goal because it’s the only way forward.’
Training farmers and knowledge exchange
Informing and educating farmers is an important part of Van Koesveld’s daily work. ‘We are specialized in knowledge transfer, extension, farmer validation through action research and applied research, often in close coordination with the private sector (mainly the vegetable seed sector). ‘The solutions we develop must be tailormade,’ he says. ‘You can’t force farmers to change and adopt new ways of doing things.’
‘We are currently active in a project in Jordan and Nigeria where we’re leading the Training of Trainer activities. Also, we’re working in action research to assess the farmer value of several nature-based solutions and good agricultural practices. In Nigeria we are interested to learn how farmers are using animal manure, both in practice and financially.’
He goes on: ‘We share with our partners what we have learned from our own challenges. But it’s not a one-way street and we learn from them as well. About drought, for example, a relatively new phenomenon in the Netherlands as the result of climate change. It puts serious new demands on the ways we irrigate our farmland.’
Van Koesveld believes that it is important to come up with new and innovative ways to practice precision agriculture. That is why the Netherlands Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality – in collaboration with Wageningen University & Research – came up with a testing ground called the Farm of the Future. Van Koesveld: ‘This testing ground is great inspiration for people from around the world who are interested in farming, and also for the agricultural teams at the Netherlands Embassies. It is a living lab, where new and untested farming methods can be tried out. The goal is to push the boundaries of what's possible in farming. For example, they're experimenting with strip cropping to create more diversity in the soil, and using fixed tractor tracks to avoid soil compaction’.
The Dutch government has embraced a policy of disseminating knowledge and cooperation in the field of nature-inclusive agriculture, says Van Koesveld. ‘The Netherlands Agricultural Network has a key role in helping to arrange funds and finding partners abroad but also in partnering up with Dutch companies active in this field, for instance in seed breeding. We can guide farmers to choose the right varieties and develop crops that are more resistant to disease, drought or saline soils. Cover crops that are more suited to bind nitrogen and can be used as a form green manure, in combination with animal manure and compost. But it takes time, you don’t get results overnight. Fertilizer is still much more attractive in the short term.’
‘The same goes for natural pest control as an alternative to pesticides. Economically, the revenue model is a hurdle we must take. The transition to nature-inclusive agriculture requires public investments, farmers and in a wider perspective the market will need government incentives. In the Netherlands for example, farmers can get financial compensation for inclusing nature on their farms. But in many countries, that’s unheard of. People want immediate results, but it takes years before you’ll reap the benefits of nature-inclusive agriculture. In the long run, however, it’s the only way in which farming has a future.’