‘Business as usual is no longer an option’
Tholen – Eosta, the market leader in the European organic vegetable and fruit sector, is doing a brisk trade these days. ‘Turnover is mushrooming and demand for organic fruit and vegetables is through the roof. It is not the first time that we have experienced an exponential increase in the demand for organic products in times of crisis. Times like these tend to make people consider the impact of food and pesticides on their health,’ says director and founder Volkert Engelsman.
However, to him, the fact that sales are currently going well is of secondary importance. ‘It is now key for us to avail of the momentum and put the pro-active health aspect of nutrition on the map. Before now, we assumed that externalising social costs related to health or the environment would affect future generations. This has meanwhile been superseded, because it now affects our own future as well.’
Not the last
‘Stanford University researchers and others found a direct link between pandemics and intensive agriculture and factory farming. While the vehemence of Covid-19 caught everyone by surprise, articles in Nature and The Lancet already warn that this will not be the last’, Volkert continues. ‘They refer to the sharp decline in biodiversity caused by intensive agriculture, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which leaves ecosystems more vulnerable. It affects their capacity to self-regulate in order to keep these types of virus outbreaks in check.’
Volkert is afraid that, after the crisis, the economy will be kick-started using the customary means, with a focus on jobs and regardless of environmental or social conditions, all on the principle that now is not the time for any climate, nitrogen or other sustainability measures. It would be ‘penny-wise, pound-foolish’ if these measures concern jobs that serve enterprises that are part of the problem and that contribute to the weakening of ecosystems and health. This will increase our economy’s vulnerability, as well as the risk of new disruptive pandemics. If we really want to get the economy going again, we should take nature-inclusive agriculture as a new point of departure. We should stop steering towards increased productivity per metre, and start concentrating more on health and ecosystem services that contribute to the greater resilience of ecosystems and thus economies.’
Three think tanks
When asked about how he hopes to be able to realise this, Volkert replies: ‘We’re currently involved in three think tanks that meet regularly to discuss this topic. The first – multidisciplinary – think tank was initiated by green banks. The second think tank consists mainly of financial institutions that feel concerned about the old revenue model which is proven to be vulnerable if health and environmental damage are not included in financial risk analyses. The Bank of the Netherlands is also involved in this. And then there is the third think tank, the Transitiecoalitie Voeding en Landbouw (Nutrition and Agriculture Transition Coalition) that involves various ministries, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries and the Ministry of Economic Affairs.’
‘We have been pushing agriculture in the wrong direction for too long, focusing only on productivity. Covid-19 is a wake-up call to start taking biodiversity and health into consideration as well. Inflating agriculture using chemical fertilisers and pesticides will ultimately affect long-term profitability. It may not come as any surprise that banks and institutional investors are currently involved in the accelerated implementation of sustainability criteria in their financing conditions,’ Volkert continues.
‘Naturally our customers are also working on this, some more than others. As with any leadership issue, the first phase concerns crisis management, measures to flatten the curve and prevent peak absence or the overburdening of ICUs, for example. The first diagnoses are made during the second phase. Contrary to what Trump claims, it is now clear that this could take up to two years. We are facing a time of periodic lockdowns and releases, the only constant being the one and a half metres of social distancing and no more travel. This will have a huge impact on the economy, the on-trade sector and tourism. Despite aid and support measures, the future of certain sectors will be seriously at stake. Apart from the 8% recession predicted by the IMF, we must be selective in relation to the businesses we wish to continue supporting and those we will no longer support.’
‘The third phase will be about contemplation and reflection on policy. People have noticed the clean air and the silence. One of our Indian suppliers is able to see the Himalayas again. All this makes people think about the society they want and prefer to live in. Do we really need all these items we are buying, and do we really need to fly to Barcelona for 39 euros? In conjunction with EFSA, neurologist Bas Bloem has recently pointed out the direct relationship between Parkinson’s disease and pesticides. We are starting to see and understand the relationship between human health and the health of nature, and that a fragile ecosystem leads to a fragile economic system. In our technological genius, we were convinced that we could provide a solution for every problem, and instead we now find ourselves stuck for answers. At the same time, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. The climate crisis, nitrogen crisis and health crisis have been forcing us to face the facts in relation to system change for some time now.’
Volkert refers to the Rogers model: ‘As with any theme, this one also involves trend setters, early adopters and laggards. Traditionally, the fresh produce sector is more of a follower, and Eosta is something of a red herring in this respect. Let’s show some leadership and not be tempted by putting out fires. If we won’t embrace Carola’s [Minister of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries] circular agriculture now, when will we ever?’