NL: Debate on future of food production

"Is intensification of agriculture necessary?"

Is intensification of agriculture necessary to provide a growing, increasingly affluent world population with enough, sustainably produced food, or is large scale, commercial farming doing more harm than good to the planet? That question, posed by a group of Wageningen University students, was debated on December 11 in the university’s biggest lecture room (C222 in Forum), which was filled to capacity.

The debate on the future of food production was initiated by students, in reaction to the public statements made by the chairman of the Executive Board of Wageningen UR (University & Research centre), Aalt Dijkhuizen. During the opening of the academic year in September 2012, Dijkhuizen had said that intensive agriculture is more sustainable than extensive farming. “This made me really angry”, said Moira de Klyn, one of the organizers of the debate. And she wasn’t the only angry student. Sibilla Laïdi said: “The one-sided statement made me wonder whether my Master’s degree in Organic Agriculture, for which I had come from Italy to Wageningen, would hold.” But at the end of the debate she concluded that there was room for a wide variety of views in Wageningen and that her degree would definitely be of value.

Most debaters, from professors to students, argued that it is not the role of scientists to decide which system should be used, but to provide the facts and figures. Dijkhuizen pointed out that within the sustainability debate there was a “conflicting issue” when aiming for increased animal welfare on the one hand, and striving for a lower carbon footprint on the other hand. “Our task is to make clear what the consequences of those choices are; the decision is taken by society.” Or, as Professor Lijbert Brussaard put it: “We inform the public of the consequences of the trade-offs that have to be made. By doing so, we increase the decision space.” Brussaard added that scientists, citizens themselves, of course have their own views and values, which influence the outcomes of their research. Therefore, he stated, scientists should be open about their personal views and the scientific community should stimulate the plurality of ideas.

Within minutes after he said that, Brussaard practiced what he preached. When Laïdi, the Italian Organic Agriculture student, made an openly value-driven statement: “I keep hearing that we have to make trade-offs, but I believe that small scale family farms improve all aspects discussed, from animal welfare to biodiversity. Don’t you think that intensifying agriculture is actually drifting us away from the solution?”, Brussaard replied: “I would suggest you turn your believe into a research question.”

Cees Leeuwis, Professor of Knowledge, Technology and Innovation, also made a plea to cherish “the enormous diversity in value systems.” He said: “Do away with saying that this value is more important than that value. Don’t be overly normative about it. Make clear what the consequences of the trade-offs are, but leave the decisions to others: politicians and, more importantly, consumers and producers.”
Societal context

The debate that followed, about what “the ideal food production system” would look like, showed little diversity in value systems among those debating the issue. Most debaters were in favour of small scale farming. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Professor of Rural Sociology, even went as far as promoting the idea of peasant agriculture. Animal Sciences student Frederik Leen replied: “If we go back to peasant agriculture, we wouldn’t be here, but milking our cows right now.” He touched upon a crucial part of the debate: is the ideal farming system of the debaters (scientists) also ideal for those deciding about the future of food production (society)? Unfortunately, the societal context was not discussed further. Perhaps in a next debate.

The entire debate was taped and can be viewed on WURTV.

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