The congress was attended by representatives from the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, local authorities, academics, environmental NGOs, companies in food production and retail and farmers – both conventional and sustainable – who took part in interactive debates on three themes: ‘How to significantly reduce the impact of agriculture and horticulture on the environment’, ‘How to accelerate the registration of new biological agents for use in this sector’, and ‘How to find commercial opportunities for farmers using sustainable cultivation methods’.

Opening the congress, the Editor of Foodlog, Dick Veerman, said it was time for a new plan for Dutch agriculture and horticulture in order to reinvent its leading role in agricultural practice by developing the promising field of biological solutions: ‘Everyone thinks things are fine, but we are losing our winning edge in this crucial field.There is an urgent need to accelerate the changes needed for more sustainable cultivation.’ In his opening address, Koppert’s Corporate Marketing Director, Peter Maes, added: ‘We urgently need more dialogue on all levels, better-informed citizens when it comes to food safety, and a responsible food chain with a minimal impact on the environment and society.’

from the left to the right: Hilde Anna de Vries (Greenpeace), Henric van der Krogt, Dick Veerman

Crucial need to work together
Flower producer Henric van der Krogt said there was a need for agriculture, horticulture and retailers to pull in the same direction: ‘Sustainable products have an added value, but farmers get nothing extra for their efforts. Retailers rarely ask us what chemicals we use. Price remains the biggest negotiating factor.’ He added that consumer concerns were often neglected in the debate about sustainable cultivation: ‘Don’t wait for the NGOs to take a stand or consumers to protest. Tell consumers our story so that it is relevant to them.’
Much of the debate revolved around the need for an integrated approach by farmers, retailers, NGOs, consumers and the authorities. ‘We are not talking to each other enough,’ remarked one farmer present. A high ranking retailer agreed: ‘We need to understand one another’s businesses and processes far better to in order to create uniquely positioned offerings our customers prefer and trust.’

Photo 1 (mid): Rob van de Lindeloof (Agrifirm) Photo 2 (mid): Rob Baan

Registration hurdles
Some of the most heated discussions concerned ‘protracted’, ‘slow’, and ‘over complicated’ registration procedures for biological solutions for use in agriculture and horticulture. Representatives from the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality and the Dutch Board for the Authorisation of Plant Protection Products and Biocides, fielded a barrage of questions from delegates who pointed out that the Netherlands had some of the longest product assessment and registration procedures in the world. ‘It’s frustrating when I have to tell a farmer that we have a biological solution for his problem, but that it is unlikely to be registered before 2023! I really hope we have opened more effective channels of communication with the ministry,’ said Koppert’s Manager Regulatory Affairs, Evert Hamblok. ‘Another problem is that while consumers demand organic solutions for their food safety, many are skeptical about biological solutions that involve bacteria and viruses. There is still a lot of communications work to be done in this regard.’

Photo 1 (left): Albert Schulp (Schulp sappen); photo 2 (mid): Tjeerd de Groot (MP, D66), right: Rob Dortland (Foodlog); photo 3 (right): Henri Oosthoek (Koppert Biological)

Ecology and the EU’s geopolitical urge
Other delegates pointed out that the same regulatory assessment criteria continued to be applied by the authorities to biological solutions as were applied to chemical agents, and that there was a lack of expertise to evaluate the biological components in new products. There was a need to prioritize low risk biological solutions to accelerate the registration procedure, said Professor Michel Haring, Plant Physiologist at the Vrije University of Amsterdam. At the same time he stressed: ‘We’re uncannily comfortable with the environmental risks of authorized products, while contemplating how to assess risk in the whole new and promising field of systems biology in agriculture. In the public interest, we need to find new, less formal ways for assessing risk and opportunities at the same time.’ Dick Veerman added: ‘It’s in the Netherland’s and the EU’s geopolitical interest as well, as new biological registrations might end up in the America’s if we continue to hesitate to rethink agriculture. Why on earth should we let that happen?’

Almost a dozen experts spoke on the future of sustainable agriculture and horticulture at the congress. Foodlog will establish an open sourced network of the kind Professor Haring suggested – an idea that was supported by many of the delegates at the congress. Scientists, politicians, farmers, (non) governmental organizations and related businesses will be invited to participate. More detailed news on the initiative born at the congress will follow in two weeks’ time.

Foodlog now hopes to establish the conference as an annual event and permanent channel to accelerate change in this sector. For more reports on the ‘Agriculture without chemical – How?’ congress, please follow this item.

A full photo report of the congress by Bas Uterwijk is available.

This press release by Koppert Biological Systems will be followed by a more detailed impression of the main congress and its three sub-conferences next Tuesday. We will link it here.
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