Why organic is slow to break through in the Netherlands

In March 2021 Dutch daily Trouw published an interview with Eosta CEO Volkert Engelsman. The central theme was the question why the Netherlands are behind with organic agriculture. While other countries present impressive growth rates, in recent years organic food sales have not been making much headway in the Netherlands. Why is this, and how can things be improved? We made an English translation to save you the trouble of learning Dutch:

Volkert Engelsman – Eosta CEO and a market leader in the international trade of organic agricultural products, especially overseas and tropical fruit – is as happy as a king in his modern business premises in Waddinxveen. Over the last three decades, he has witnessed quite a few breakthroughs in organic fruit cultivation in various corners of the world. Nonetheless, such a breakthrough has not yet occurred in Eosta’s home country, the Netherlands.

In 1990, Engelsman, the number 1 in the 2017 Trouw Sustainable 100, founded Eosta in conjunction with a college friend. The company name refers to Eos, the Greek Goddess of the dawn. At that time, organic was a faint gleam of a new normal on the far horizon, and in various countries this faint gleam has since grown into a fully risen sun. With a long-term large lead on the Netherlands, German supermarkets, for example, provide a wide selection of organic foods.

‘The one and only principle that applies in the Netherlands is to maximise yield per hectare’

The Taskforce Biologisch, which was discontinued in 2011, focused on a 5% market share of organic products in large Dutch supermarket chains by 2007. They failed to succeed: in fact, it still hasn’t been achieved thirteen years later. Last summer the market share of organic products on the shelves of large chains like Jumbo and Albert Heijn was a mere 3.21 percent. The Netherlands is behind by a mile from Europe’s leader Denmark (11.5 percent). It seems as if the sun simply won’t to rise for the Dutch organic sector.

‘One possible cause is in the history of Dutch agriculture,’ according to Engelsman. ‘After World War II, food shortage was a problem that was counteracted by intensive agriculture: to produce as much food as possible, as efficiently as possible.’ Engelsman believes that this was highly profitable for the Netherlands. ‘The Netherlands is one of the main players in global agricultural trade.’

Demand changed almost one century later, as consumers started requiring varied, healthy and sustainable food. As a result, the international demand for organic food skyrocketed. ‘The Dutch system is not set up for that,’ says Engelsman. ‘For years on end, our technocratic attitude has been based on one single principle: to maximise yield per hectare.’ 

He takes greenhouse farming as an example: ‘From the assumption that growing an edible product would require just a limited amount of sunlight, this has in part been replaced by LED lighting. Substrate – a substitute of soil that basically only contains nutrients that are strictly necessary – is used to cultivate on. This comes from the notion that plants possess a mere 4 percent of relevant DNA while the rest is superfluous.’ 

Key concepts: health and vitality

According to Engelsman, this is illustrative of a rather limited view of agriculture and food. Compared to the Dutch approach, he believes that the international markets’ view of food has a stronger focus on people and nature. ‘Although everyone recognises that a piece of fruit or vegetable can be grown with very few resources, people in other countries want more than that.’ 

Two key concepts are involved here: health and vitality. ‘They consider a complete product as a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. The international market demands products grown using more than just the strictly required building blocks. In other words: healthy and vital crops that were grown under the sun and in real fertile soil.’

Engelsman refers to ‘new normal’. ‘The old normal of intensive farming and monoculture no longer suits the world in which we live today. The Dutch agricultural sector thus requires a far greater change in mentality and thinking than many other countries. The new normal will require quite some getting used to, in particular with this deeply rooted old way of thinking.’ He describes the fear of change as ‘a bacillophobia of anything organic’. ‘This phobia has resulted in other countries having become the guide countries while we remain followers.’

Prosperity gaps

According to Engelsman, Dutch farmers and exporters will therefore have to go all out to retain their international role. ‘Proponents of the old normal further argue that intensive agriculture is the only way to feed the world’s growing population; an argument that is supported by fewer and fewer people.’ He explains: ‘There is plenty of food available for everyone on this planet. Especially if we ate less meat, which would result in a smaller part of agriculture being used for cattle feed. Hunger is mainly caused by differences in the standard of living, which will not be reduced if developing countries become even more dependent on Western suppliers of fertilisers and pesticides, for instance. So the main question is: how do we retain our natural resources so everyone can share in the global food supply?’

Groente en fruit bij supermarktketen Dirk van den Broek. Het marktaandeel van biologisch in de schappen van de grote supermarktketens was vorig jaar zomer nog slechts 3,21 procent. Beeld ANP 

Vegetables at the Dirk van den Broek supermarket chain. Last summer, the market share of organic products on the shelves of the big supermarket chains was a mere 3.21 percent. Photo: ANP

According to Michaël Wilde, Managing Director of the chain organisation for the organic sector Bionext, the important role intensive agriculture played in the Netherlands has had a major impact on Dutch consumers. ‘Dutch people grow up among large farms. We are less familiar with more natural methods of food production, such as vegetable gardens. This had led us to make lower demands on what we eat.’ He believes that this also determines what we buy in the supermarket: ‘Organic products are usually more expensive, and we often still buy from the perspective of our wallets.’ Dutch people are generally more fussy about their money, he says. ‘It’s what we are known for in Europe.’

The government is well-suited to address this frugality, so both Wilde and Engelsman want the government to make increased room for sustainability in their budget. ‘Society is struggling with the fact that the main polluters keep receiving tax and competitive benefits, while common citizens are left to clean up their mess.’

0% VAT

‘So let’s start making polluters pay fiscally,’ says Engelsman. Fiscal advantages for organically responsible companies may be a solution, according to Wilde: ‘The sector would be given a giant boost if we would levy 0 percent VAT on organic products.’

Engelsman also thinks that the government should stop listening to the advocates of the ‘old normal’. Take Aalt Dijkhuizen, former director of Wageningen University and currently active in the agribusiness, and comrade-in-arms of the angry farmers in the nitrogen protests. And there’s Dijkhuizen’s successor in Wageningen, Louise Fresco, former member of the supervisory board of the Rabobank and currently commissioner of Syngenta, a multinational company which also trades in genetically modified crops. ‘These people really need to retire, because their expiration date has long passed,’ is Engelsman’s firm belief. ‘It’s time to fully embrace the new normal.’

Despite the lack of a main breakthrough, Engelsman and Wilde are optimistic about the future, such as about the European Green Deal of EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans, which has the objective of 25% of European agriculture to be organic by 2030, says Engelsman. ‘We see that all those involved, from ministers to farmers and supermarkets to suppliers, are prepared to talk about organic to a much greater extent,’ says Wilde.

Engelsman: ‘We’ve been splitting hairs in Europe for years, and it is great that the European Commission has now drawn a line and presented a clear plan.’ This will not be realised overnight because Europe will continue to subsidise conventional agriculture by billions over the next seven years. ‘Organic’ was long considered a swear word, something that is no longer the case,’ according to Wilde. The Dutch bacillophobia is certain to ultimately fade away.

(The original Dutch article by Roelant Frijns can be found here).

Het is tijd om het nieuwe normaal volledig te omarmen
Volkert Engelsman