No. 1 · May 2005

Trends in organic farming research in the Netherlands

Blom-Zandstra, M. and Teenstra, E.

Innovation Centre Organic Agriculture (IBL), Wageningen University & Research Centre,
P.O. Box 9101, 6700 HB Wageningen, the Netherlands, Email:

The cultivated area of organic farming in the Netherlands is low (i.e. 2,2%) compared to the European average. Therefore, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality stimulates the development of market oriented organic farming with the ambition of 10 % of the total area cultivated to be organic by 2010. Research is one of the instruments to reach this target.

Due to further urbanization one expects agriculture to diversify into small scale, regional oriented farming on one hand and large scale, global market oriented farming on the other hand. It requires a strategic vision on the transition to a production system that is more integrated in social life, well equipped to follow global trade and sustainable in the sense of People, Planet and Profit. At the same time this production system has to deal with global warming and concomitantly upcoming water stress and drought. New research programs are focussing on these challenges for the near future.

One of the important political ambitions is to use the innovative strength of the organic production sector to increase the sustainability of the whole agricultural sector. Organic farming may serve as forefront of the development of the conventional agriculture. Many cases in organic farming are shown as examples of the innovative power to improve sustainability and they may serve as pilots for implementation in conventional farming.

Research strategies

The required transition to a sustainable production system comprises three strategic development pathways with different time horizons:

1. Transition targets in long term (2030 – 2050)
Farming systems coping with the development of regional oriented farming or global market oriented farming are designed. So, new and robust future oriented production systems come up, in which agriculture and urbanization are interrelated on one hand, and functions, like social life, labour and recreation are combined on the other hand. This could for example result in urban agriculture, recreation points in agricultural centres, combinations of nature preservation and agriculture, energy cycling (clusters of) greenhouses or agriculture combined with human healthcare.

2. Desired innovations within 10 – 15 years
Based on the designs developed in the long term projects, necessary transition points are characterized by the technique of backcasting. This provides new research themes for the mid-long term. A few examples are: the development of new heating and cooling devices or buffering systems for close system greenhouses; multifunctional growing systems in which nutrient cycles are optimally closed; combining agriculture and social life; development of GPS-driven equipment for weed control; combination of dairy farming and water management.

3. Knowledge networks (0 – 5 years)
This comprises of problem oriented knowledge networks of entrepreneurs. The effectiveness of the participation in these research networks differs between farmers. Real innovations of farming systems only occur when farmers are front liners, the so called inspiring examples or ‘pearls’. Examples of remunerative organic farming systems inspire conventional colleagues, thus making farming in general more sustainable. It is the result of a good balance between the future oriented innovative power of the pioneers and the effective interaction with and spin-off to study groups of the more conventional farmers and other parties involved in the production-consumption chain.

Research themes

Until recently, research mainly focussed on primary production, as most problems were related to technical imperfections. This increased organic production but had no effect on consumer behaviour and thus did not increase the sale of organic products concomitantly. The governmental policy to aim at a market oriented organic production, however, demands a shift towards more knowledge on consumer awareness, food safety and food quality and appropriate production costs. Fitting organic farming systems into the rural environment or even into urban life also needs a shift in focus of the research towards a multifunctional approach.

This implies a shift from a pure beta-approach towards a beta-gamma approach. Researchers will work in teams with different expertises, varying from technical experience to social-economic skills. The research groups consequently consist of researchers from different research centres and universities, guaranteeing a systemic, holistic approach.

Optimazating knowledge production, dessimination and circulation

In the past knowledge on technical solutions for farmer use was mainly produced at the research centres. Advisers and farmers were instructed on technical improvements within their farm systems and methodologies. It turned out, however, that this knowledge dissemination system was insufficiently tuning to the demand for knowledge of individual farmers. Since a few years research activities have been moved towards the farms and experiments are executed in a participatory way together with the entrepreneurs. Farmers and researchers are organized in socio-technic knowledge networks for knowledge dissemination and mutual support. In this way, research aims are maximally tuned to farmers’ individual and collective demands and generate solutions for local problems. Knowledge will be transferred from researcher to farmer and vice versa, resulting in an intense knowledge circulation. Upscaling and developing generic solutions are the new scientific challenges.

In 2005 a new system has been developed in which the interactions between researchers, entrepreneurs, chain-players, non governmental organisations and policy makers are optimised in order to achieve the approval and mandate of the different groups of interest for the way research develops. A platform of parties involved in the chain production, processing and marketing of organic products is the central pivot responsible for monitoring and control. An advisory board pursues an optimal synergy between product chain and knowledge chain. This new system should guarantee an optimal articulation of the demand for knowledge and maximize knowledge dissemination and use.