A Farmer’s Letter to the Research Community

What follows is a rare guest article on this page. The letter, translated from Dutch, is a powerful response by Dutch farmer Michiel van Andel to a recent opinion piece by two Wageningen activist scientists who look favourably on the opportunities of the European Commission’s Farm2Fork strategy of attaining 25% organically grown food. Straight talking, he refers to their antics as “science populism”.
Michiel’s voice must be more widely heard, especially in Brussels where it is clear that farmers’ concerns have been completely ignored amidst the Farm2Fork pandemonium. I first learnt about Michiel when he took the Dutch organic food industry lobby, Bionext (part of the True Cost of Food campaign), to court in the Netherlands for lying about his profession (and he won).
His letter raises an interesting polemic: Should the agricultural research community support farmers or chase their own opportunities and political idealism? Michiel’s message is quite clear: they should stand up for agriculture, providing more realism in the wider debates (like Farm2Fork) and less pie-in-the-sky opportunism.

Dear Wageningen University,
Dear Han Wiskerke and Rogier Schulte,

I have respect for Wageningen University and everything it has meant for the Netherlands and the agricultural sector in particular. It has quite rightly built up a formidable reputation, not only in the Netherlands, but throughout the world. That said, I see more and more how professors affiliated with this university are abandoning the scientific method and instead walking down the path of: “It sounds so nice“, and “This is what ‘society’ wants to hear, so it must be true”. I would call it science populism‘. And that worries me. The opinion piece you published falls under this category.

My jaw dropped reading such nonsense from Professors Wiskerke and Schulte. Their opinion piece was written in response to an article by a Wageningen colleague from a week earlier. Wiskerke and Schulte’s argument is full of contradictions and unfounded claims. Let’s take a closer look at some extracts.

We are missing the point if we think that the Commission’s choice for organics is based on its perceived environmental credentials.”

So it is not that the European Commission chose 25% organic because organic is perceived as better for people and the environment? I bet if you ask the average Commission employee or indeed their vice-president, Frans Timmermans, why they chose “25% organic”, that this is precisely the reason they will mention. After years of lobbying at the European level and years of marketing talk by activists for the organic sector, it is also exactly what a large part of consumers think. I agree with you that they are perceived benefits, not actual benefits. But if we agree on this, why then proclaim all of the organic “success stories” (Sweden, Austria, Sikkim)? There are so many inconsistencies in your story, starting here:

The assertion that ‘solutions need to be realistic’. While that may sound like a truism, we argue that as a society, we have run out of realistic solutions towards sustainable food systems.

Say what???

We are dealing here with scientifically trained, professional academics who claim that we should forego realistic solutions. “We have run out of realistic solutions???” First, that’s nonsense. Second, the proposed alternative to realistic solutions is: ‘unrealistic solutions’ (like Sikkim, see below). What kind of madness is this?

These professors apparently think along the following line: It is not wise to do things based on facts. We can reach our destination to Utopia much better by peddling our air bikes.

But pay attention as we now come to the moment of madness in this story. In order to support their argument for 25% organic, its feasibility and desirability, they come up with examples and arguments that only further undermine their entire narrative. Our researchers say the following:

“It pays dividend to look outside our existing room for manoeuvre, which is very limited indeed, and learn from those who have already gone before us and found new futures. Within the EU, Austria has already exceeded the 25% target, with Estonia and Sweden hot on its heels. Looking further afield, the most recent addition to our Global Network of Lighthouse Farms is a farming community in Sikkim: this Indian state has successfully adopted and implemented a 100% organic target at state level, undoubtedly against the advice of many who previously considered this ‘unrealistic’. How did they succeed where others failed? ”

To start with, how can Sikkim, the least densely populated state in India, located in the Himalayas, serve as an example of how farming can scale up and even reach 100% organic? I have almost no words for it. Sikkim! Just read this article (Sikkim’s organic farming delusions, page 7) or this article.

Some quotes from the Indian newspaper about the situation in Sikkim:

“In the past 20 years the production of staple food grains in Sikkim has declined by an alarming 60%, as her population increased from 400,000 to 650,000 ″

“The huge shortfall in food grains production inevitably leads to huge shortages. Over the years Sikkim, the 100% organic state, has come to heavily depend on other states to feed her people and tourists, frankly speaking, there would be starvation deaths and social unrest in Sikkim, if food grains fail to move in daily from the food grains surplus states such as West Bengal, Punjab, UP, Bihar, etc. Remember, all these states practice intensive agriculture using chemical inputs. ”

“As the wheat production in the state has fallen from 21600 tonnes in the 1990s to 350 tonnes, over 95% of Sikkims requirement of wheat now comes from other states.”

“Sikkim is the worst kind of model for the other states in India to follow. Sikkim’s organic agriculture suffers from a fatal combination of narcissism and politically propagated delusions. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the term “delusion” as a rigid system of beliefs with which a person is preoccupied and to which the person firmly holds despite the logical absurdity and lack of supporting evidence”.

Is this the new future, Messrs Wiskerke and Schulte? You call this a successful implementation of a 100% organic goal? They are delusions. What we can learn from Sikkim is that it is a disastrous idea to think so dogmatically about agriculture and food.

And what about comparing Austria with the Netherlands? Don’t get me started. Austria (twice the surface, only half of the population compared to the Netherlands) with all its subsidised mountain slopes with horrible agricultural yield levels. Austria is beautiful, but a disaster if we had to produce serious amounts of food there. Fortunately, that is not necessary and such countries can import food if necessary, for example, from the Netherlands.

In any case, let’s continue with the opinion piece. We are almost there!

“As a leading knowledge institute on the frontier of sustainable food production, it is easy for us to critique initiatives that, imperfectly no doubt, aim to make a difference to farmers and consumers alike. If the solutions were easy, they would already have been implemented years ago. Isn’t it our core business to think bigger?”

“Instead of shaking our wary heads, let us heed the clarion calls and help shape the futures that society wants.”

I would say: Think bigger indeed! Because what you are doing is the perfect example of very, very small-minded and blinkered thinking. How do Messrs. Schulte and Wiskerke (and also Frans Timmermans and co) think we can reach this misguided and counterproductive goal of 25% organic? The consumer does not want 25% organic; “the consumer” or “society” simply wants more sustainable agriculture. And even that remains to be seen.

But with goals that aim at a marketing label rather than sustainable farming, you will not achieve sustainability. Dan Glickman, former US agriculture secretary in the United States said it very clearly years ago: “Let me be clear about one thing: The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety, nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” I would add to that: Nor is organic a statement about environmental benefits, the opposite is more true, at least if you are willing to look at the issue without blinkers.

In the quest for more sustainable farming, it is a horrible idea to start by setting goals that are not sustainable at all. And it is really heartbreaking that at a “leading knowledge institute”, which Wageningen still is, there are people walking around who prefer pie-in-the-sky idealism to common sense.

We already have columnist / activist Patrick Jansen who, as lecturer, airs his poorly substantiated activist agenda every day in the (social) media (in addition to the students he indoctrinates). We already have Violette Geissen flooding the media again and again with hyped stories about pesticides (filled with inaccuracies, especially when it comes to the substance she is personally obsessed with, glyphosate). And now I find out there are even more anti-science professors roaming the halls at Wageningen. I find it shocking.

Wageningen, it might be an idea to see if the Louis Bolk Institute is still looking for people … or better yet, at Bionext – I understand they are also fond of smooth talking and unrealistic, unfounded opinion pieces. Better for everyone I think.

I am also aware that this piece, written by this simple farmer, won’t change anything. It won’t change the European Commission’s Farm2Fork goals. Nor will it change the number of dreamers and activists Wageningen University will increasingly staff and empower. But in any case, it’s nice to get this off of my chest! 😉

Until next time dear friends! And enjoy the beautiful weather that is coming!

P.S., I would like to hear from Professors Schulte and Wiskerke. If possible, I’d like to hear from them how the whole Sikkem debacle has been such a success!

Translated by the Risk-Monger. See the original Dutch article.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrew Carey says:

    For ‘farmer’ read ‘farmland owner’. I am sure that Michiel van Andel is not a mere farm labourer.
    He makes good points, but am just saying that he comes across an owner of farmland, with its per hectare subsidies centralised to Brussels incident on people like him, probably benefits from the protections of the EU Customs Union, and operates under EU restrictions such as on GM which stop him being more productive.

    Like

    1. RiskMonger says:

      Thanks for the comment Andrew – I have had the good fortune of visiting Michiel’s farm and walking the field with him (an opportunity I have been privileged to have frequently been offered and rarely pass up). His is a family farm passed down from his father who was one of those Dutch pioneers involved in the land reclamation process (they had a fascinating way to desalinate the land). Like water management, Dutch agriculture has been a success story exported the world over (why Wageningen is so special) but these are mostly family farms passed down through generations and built up with the best technologies. People who think this is all about industrial processes, subsidies and land ownership should visit a farm and talk to a farmer. But not now, they are really busy with getting H21 into the ground – that’s not done with subsidies and trade restrictions, that’s done with hard work.

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