Producers and consumers build new food practices
Initiatives based on ‘short chains’ between farmers and consumers are slowly but surely gaining ground in the Netherlands, a country with a strongly industrialised food system. Looking for ecological, healthy, and fresh food, urban consumers are now creating innovative channels that support local and organic food producers.
An increasing number of Dutch citizens are worried about industrial food. They are apprehensive about the effects of additives that keep the food ‘fresh’ and presentable for a long time and reject the large amounts of packaging, food miles and waste connected with the food in supermarkets. They are looking for fresh and healthy food and want to contribute to the local economy and the sustainability of local farms.
‘Short chains’ in which urban consumers engage directly with producers, are opening new perspectives. Consumers get affordable, fresh and seasonal produce, usually produced in an (agro)ecological way. And producers receive fair prices. Direct sales eliminate various steps in the Dutch food chain. The following illustration shows how power in this chain is concentrated in the hands of just a few retailers:
A way out
Direct sales represent an alternative for farmers struggling to survive in the dominant system. Prices of feed, seeds and chemical fertilizers are increasing and at the same time large retailers are pushing down the prices farmers receive. This locks producers into a ‘race to the bottom’ whereby they end up receiving a small fraction of the prices consumers pay. This also locks them into a ‘treadmill’ of upscaling and intensification which requires ever more borrowed money from the bank. Unable to cope, one third of Dutch farmers stopped farming between 2000 and 2013.
Many producers look for ways out of this trap. But due to the continuous trend of upscaling within the Dutch agricultural sector, a large customer base is required to sell all products directly, and finding and keeping customers requires a lot of time and effort. As a result, the many emerging initiatives that facilitate direct sales from farmers to urban residents are a major transition in food and farming practices. They represent a new model in the Dutch context, which by world standards, is particularly globalised. Experiences from two initiatives are presented here.
Food collectives, or consumer groups that buy food directly from farmers, are emerging across the country. A young woman called Judith Vos set up a successful food collective (www.voedselkollektief.nl) in Amersfoort. It is internet-based: each week the participating farmers enter the vegetables, fruit and dairy products they can deliver and the customers place their orders accordingly. Volunteers amongst the consumers pick up produce from the farms, deliver it to a garage in the city, the sorting and collection point for consumers. All of the farmers are within 25 km of the city, thereby reducing food miles. The collective started out with 25 people in 2011, and now has 300 members, all of whom are supposed to contribute in some way or another.
Setting up the collective was not without difficulties. All of the work is done on a voluntary basis by members and with the growth of the initiative people reconsidered whether they were able to do the necessary work. Judith: “The bigger you are the more coordination and feedback is needed. For some people, this isn’t appealing, and for others it is hard to keep on top of more complex initiatives.” The limited opening time for consumers to collect their orders, only one and a half days per week, is another issue. And, she adds: “it is important to keep in mind that decision making in a collective is inclusive, but can be quite slow!”
The next step is to establish a real shop offering additional products such as pasta and bread, and opening six days per week. The anticipated challenges are finding enough customers to pay the rent and a few staff, and professionalising the organisation. “This shop will allow us to reach new people, who may find the collective inaccessible. But we will maintain the collective spirit as the shop too will be owned and run by a cooperative of urban citizens,” says Judith.
There are a few dozen collectives across the country now. But how do you set up a collective? Judith advises: “Just start. Decide what you want and how. You will learn by doing.” She adds that it is important to tackle difficulties as they arise and face up to things that are not working well.
Much more than customers
There is an annual members’ meeting to discuss issues on the farm
At Veld en Beek farm (www.veldenbeek.nl) near Wageningen, the 35 cows are owned by the farm’s customers, who bought a ‘cow-share’. In practice, the farmers work on and maintain the farm but don’t own the cattle. Hundreds of citizens financed the original purchase of cattle since the start in 1999.
Today, more than 1800 members buy their weekly milk, yoghurt, meat and vegetables through an online ordering system and collect it from large refrigerated walk-in containers in five nearby towns. Every member has a key to their nearest container. The system is based on trust and quality products: the members trust the farmers to take the agreed costs from their bank accounts, and the farmers trust the members not to take more than was agreed.
The members also have a voice in decisions regarding production methods and new developments. For example, based on members’ concerns, the farmers work to increase the time that calves spend with their mothers. Vice president of the association’s board Kees van Veluw: “We know that our members appreciate the fact that the cows graze outside (instead of in closed barns) as much as possible, the calves are kept with their mothers and the milk is produced without fertilizers and pesticides. Also, the cows have kept their horns and antibiotics are only used in cases of emergencies. Members have repeatedly said that they find this important.” The farm opens its doors to the public several times a year, and there is an annual members’ meeting to discuss issues on the farm. People who buy and drink this local organic milk are much more than customers.
What makes Veld en Beek so successful? Kees: “Veld en Beek is benefiting from the new food movement in the Netherlands. People are looking for local and transparent ways of food production, and they like having contact with a farmer now and then.” But Veld en Beek’s success has been accompanied by challenges. For example, in the context of municipal regulations, it was difficult to find space and approval for the walk-in containers. And, according to Kees, the learning process continues, “we are still searching for the best organisational model that accommodates the farmers, investors and consumers, three key groups of stakeholders in the farm.”
Building food hubs
Many similar initiatives have emerged in the last few years, providing important building blocks for the transition towards a more localised, sustainable and resilient food system in the Netherlands. However, to really be able to make a difference and provide a serious alternative to the mainstream food system it is necessary to scale up and coordinate in a better way. This is especially true in the Netherlands where the centralised and large-scale nature of the food system makes it impossible for small scale producers to enter mainstream retail. This means alternatives have to operate in a market with very low price margins and where consumers are used to convenience and one-stop shopping.
In response to these challenges, different short chain initiatives of producers and urban consumers are now being connected at a regional scale, forming regional, city-based food hubs which, on the one hand, bring together the demand from consumers and, on the other, aggregate products from local and ecological producers in surrounding areas. One example in Amsterdam is called ‘Ons Eten’ (Our Food) (www.onseten.nu) which brings together diverse actors including the provincial environmental federation to allow direct selling of regional produce from farmer to plate. More of these initiatives are popping up in other places across the Netherlands, of which various aim to supply local ecological produce to public and private institutions. This provides a promising outlook for what might be a next phase in the development of professional regionalised food systems in the Netherlands.
These connections are an important aspect of the emerging food movement in the Netherlands. When the initiatives gain further strength they may together represent a major challenge to the dominant system.
Greet Goverde-Lips, Janneke Bruil and Henk Renting
Greet Goverde-Lips is secretary of the platform Earth, Farmer, Consumer which unites farmer organisations and advocates more regulation and food sovereignty in Dutch and European politics (www.aardeboerconsument.nl).
Janneke Bruil is the advocacy officer at ILEIA.
Henk Renting works for RUAF Foundation.
All authors are part of the “Food Otherwise” movement for fair and sustainable food and agriculture systems in the Netherlands and Flanders.