Bas Rüter on the importance of biodiversity for farming

“Respecting the ecology of the farm”

“Biologists’ insights can be of real value to the banking sector,” says Bas Rüter, Rabobank’s Sustainability Director. In this podcast he explains why biodiversity is crucial for sustainable farming – and how banking can help.

A version of this article was previously posted on Rabobank.com on March 6, 2018.

Listen to the podcast now (in Dutch), or read on for the English synopsis.

Bas Rüter, Director of Sustainability at Rabobank, is a trained biologist. He doesn’t think the combination of biology and banking is incongruous: “Luckily, banks are paying more attention to biodiversity and the environment these days. Certainly it has everything to do with our business at Rabobank. We are the agrifood bank after all. Biologists’ insights can be of real value to the banking sector. The human race must take better care of the environment in order to ensure sustainable agricultural production in the long term.

“Biodiversity encompasses all the plants and animals in a particular area, in a meadow, in a forest, along the edges. It’s crucial to look at how many different species are present in that area and whether they are in balance with each other. In the case of dairy farming, you need to look at how to produce high-quality milk while respecting the ecology of the farm and the surrounding land.”

Bas Rüter is speaking at Springtij Forum 2018 this week about a joint vision toward a sustainable and healthy food system.

Asking a lot of the land

“I’m concerned about biodiversity in the Netherlands. Not only are we a small country with one of the highest population densities in the world, we are the second-largest exporter of agricultural produce. That combination means we ask an incredible amount from the land. We need to work together and be really smart about managing our resources or it will all be over and our primary production will disappear.

“That’s important for food security and having a pleasant environment to live in, but also in terms of simply acting responsibly towards the earth. We could carry on farming monocultures on our grasslands for a while, but it won’t last forever. And when species die out, they are gone for good. That means we’ll be the inhabitants of an ever more barren earth.

“At a certain point it will become clear that the checks and balances between different species create a very delicate, intricate system. If we remove certain species from that system, instability is the likely result. That’s not only bad news for our ability to grow food, but for the ecosystem as a whole.”

“You’re trying to control an intrinsically unstable situation”

- Bas Rüter, Director Sustainability, Rabobank

An alternative to monocultures

“Intensive agriculture leads to instability in the ecosystem, but there is no incentive for farmers to change. Dairy farmers receive more money if they farm intensively because they have more milk to sell. However, intensive farming leads to a situation where you need ever larger amounts of inputs like artificial fertilizers and pesticides to try to control the situation. In truth, it is intrinsically unstable and if you remove one of the factors, production drops and the farm is no longer profitable. It’s a dead end road. What we need to do is look after the biomass in the soil in order to ensure that the grass is resilient. Agrobiodiversity – biodiversity on farms – plays a crucial role here.

“Right now we are seeing a split in agriculture. Some farmers are sticking to the controlled monoculture model and scaling up, resulting in less and less biodiversity on their farms. Others are prepared to accept a slightly lower income, but also have lower expenses. They have slowly but surely invested in their land so that their meadows can now be productive with less inputs.

“I am convinced we can produce enough if we take this last route. We do not need to resort to the highly managed production methods of the monoculture model. With a more balanced, stable approach we can be proud of our farms. The problem is that there is a transition period when a farm switches to the more stable model, during which biodiversity needs to build up and income drops, making it temporarily less profitable.”

“Agrobiodiversity – biodiversity on farms - plays a crucial role”

- Bas Rüter, Director Sustainability, Rabobank

The role of banks? Rewarding farmers

“As a bank we can play a role in helping farmers bridge that period. At the end of the day, it is up to the consumer’s willingness to pay a few cents extra at the supermarket for milk that has been produced responsibly. In the long term I hope we can set out clear norms laying out how milk should be produced. Meanwhile, we need to create awareness of the situation and reward farmers for making the switch. If we as a society want to make that switch, we need to value a farmer’s willingness to go through that transition.

“In order to help do that we have set up a detailed monitoring system in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund and FrieslandCampina. The system will be able to measure how far along in the transition a farm is. It means we can reward the farmers according to their progress.

“It’s an unusual collaboration. The World Wildlife Fund is aiming to maximize biodiversity. Dairy farmers, meanwhile, are looking to create a biodiverse environment in which they can produce milk well. What unites us is the conviction that milk production is not currently rewarded in the right way.

“External expenses are passed on, which creates pressure on farmers to produce more, while farmers willing to take a more stable approach are not rewarded. We want to change that. Dairy farmers are actually proud if their land features plenty of birds and other flora and fauna. We need to remove some of the pressure they are under to produce as much as possible. That way farmers have room to run their farms in the way they know is best. After all, in many ways farming is a calling, not just a job. That way they – and the country as a whole – can really take pride in their work and we will have more biodiversity.”

Bas Rüter: “Dairy farmers are looking to create a biodiverse environment in which they can produce milk well.”

Working together

“We involved the WWF to create more awareness of the situation. Setting up a robust monitoring system with the different parties involved has proved more complex than anticipated. That’s why it is taking slightly longer to launch. But we look forward to getting to work with farmers on this.

“A farm producing more than just milk will produce less milk than before. As consumers, as a society, we need to be prepared to pay the farmer for making that sacrifice. I believe we are the only bank in the world to set these goals out so clearly. The most important word in our ‘Growing a better world together’ mission is ‘together’: we’re going to solve these problems with you, not for you.”

Sharing knowledge: a global approach

“Farming in the Netherlands is well advanced in terms of knowledge and technology. We can’t apply all that knowledge to our own situation. Land is very expensive here which encourages intensive agriculture. But we can use everything we learn in this high-pressure environment to help farmers in other countries adopt more sustainable methods. Our skills – including the new monitoring system – attracts a lot of interest from countries like New Zealand. They also have a large dairy industry there and are looking for ways to reduce pressure on the land.

“We also want to share our knowledge to help smallholders globally to increase their yields without causing environmental damage. Within Europe, long-term commitment is needed from governments to ensure everyone does their part. The work Rabobank is doing with its clients and NGOs is a potential example for new EU agricultural laws from 2020. There is also work to be done in terms of international agreements. Trade agreements between countries are often dependent on the political mood of the day. We try to focus on long-term strategies, which will hopefully negate the effect of short-term political wrangling.”

10 billion mouths

“I’m not worried that we won’t have enough to eat in the short term. But we need to start now to make production more sustainable. We need to look at our footprint and rebalance production so that we have enough food for the 9 or 10 billion people we need to feed in the long term.”

Bas Rüter is speaking in a roundtable at Springtij Forum 2018 on the Frisian island of Terschelling on Friday, September 28. The speakers will consider a joint vision toward a sustainable and healthy food system.

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