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The soil symposium has come to an end, the final days provided some flashy presentations of data visualizations, databases and pilot projects to address our pressing problems. The concluding remarks however were not all optimistic, mentioning the fact that most of the people involved remain in their own bubble, unable to reach out and inspire others to collectively envision the soil as a common focus to address the climate challenges. All the technology in the world doesn’t seem to help to overcome the biggest hurdle, the human factor, too many different and diverging interests, each defending their own territory. 

Meanwhile in Friesland, an ambitious goal, driven by EU demand, is to transition to a circular agricultural system by 2030, that is, yes,  in about 8 years. From my place in this region, it is hard to imagine that it can actually happen and I wonder what the biggest problem is, maybe it is the lack of understanding in politics that agriculture is not a normal business, it cannot follow standard economic rules. It is time to take soil seriously and pay the real price of healthy food cultivation, healthy for people and other organisms that share our ecosystem. 

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View from the Terp, the strip of land along the northern coast, the Waddensea, is suitable for potato cultivation. The heavy marine clay is apparently advantageous over other soils for its disease resistant qualities. The potato, forever ‘married’ to the Dutch identity by Vincent van Gogh’s ‘aardappeleters’, is actually an indigenous crop imported from South America during Colonial times. 

Friday evening, my neighbor knocks at the door for a chat. On his fields he grows potatoes, onions, sugar beets and some summer wheat. He tells me this year he is at least three weeks behind schedule due to the cold and wet spring season, but now everything is planted. I think he knows I hail from the organic sector and is eager to explain me some things, I appreciate that. 

Along with the urgency for soil regeneration is the very troubling issue that globally it is the farmers who take the brunt. Supporting farmers is a cause I feel strongly about.  Even if farmers are willing to transition to a circular or preferably organic way of farming, there is very little (financial) support to do so, leaving farmers with little choice to keep on doing what they know how to do, in order to keep their head above the water. 

As all the crops are in the ground, now the next phase starts, spraying plant protectors, a euphemistic term for herbi- and pesticides. (this renaming ‘propaganda’ is another troubling issue all together). Salinization is another big problem in this region, especially after dry periods when not enough rainfall dilutes the salty seawater that reaches to the core of the northern region underground. The solution for that problem is ‘flushing’, as my neighbor explains, using a pumping system to refresh the water system. Water is a scarce resource, also in the Netherlands.. And if you think this is all necessary because the Dutch love eating their potatoes, well maybe that is not entirely the case. Most of the potatoes my neighbor produces are for export to Africa, a growing market. Meanwhile the algae are lushly blooming in the ditches. 

With me, a number of us ask ourselves: why does a tiny country as the Netherlands need to be the biggest EU and second biggest exporter of agricultural goods worldwide? Why do we need so much money, while our soils are depleting, our fundament is crumbling, toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ are threatening our soils and ourselves? When will it start to click? That it is urgent NOW to support farmers in making a transition to sustainable practices, here, and everywhere. 2030 is less than 10 years away. So far we haven’t met any of the climate goals set on the international agenda, levels of carbon dioxide are rising, despite the pandemic, it is time we take soil seriously.

Even stronger an image than van Gogh’s ‘aardappeleters’, is the scene from the film The Turin Horse (2011), by Béla Tarr, where father and daughter sit facing each other with a single raw potato in from of each of them. Everything that made life possible at subsistence level is stripped away…is there any point in eating the raw potato to stay alive. 

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FARMERS! 

https://www.wur.nl/en/Research-Results/Research-Institutes/Economic-Research/show-wecr/Value-of-agricultural-exports-increases-slightly.htm

https://www.government.nl/latest/news/2020/01/17/dutch-agricultural-exports-worth-€94.5-billion-in-2019