A Dutch circular agrifood system does not stop at the border either*

Part one: Corporate concentration and power imbalances in the food system

Some staples of Global North diets such as coffee can only be grown in specific climatic conditions and dominate global trade. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after crude oil. Image from Unsplash.

Towards a socially just and globally-minded Dutch agrifood system

As the Dutch government looks to the circular economy to boost the resilience of its national agrifood system and reduce impacts on the environment, it is crucial that they consider the global context they operate in and that they take into account people within and beyond their own borders in designing and implementing their plans. This may be a difficult message to consider when the country is in the throes of mass farmer protests. But social inequities run deep in the global food system, and managing the interests of people both near and far will only be crucial to achieving a global circular economy that is effective in achieving its environmental goals.

Decisions on the future of food systems cannot be made without the people they impact. Image from Unsplash.

Corporate concentration and power imbalances in the global food system

Thanks to the globalisation of food value chains, a handful of corporations in high-income countries today have become the funnel through which millions of farmers reach billions of consumers — boosting Big Food’s influence over everything from global policy and which foods are grown to food prices and working conditions around the world. Civil society groups have raised the alarm bell over the undue influence that these companies may have and, while a 2021 OECD report found little evidence that corporations are systematically abusing their stronger positions at the expense of farmers, this undeniable concentration of power inherently makes the global food system more vulnerable. While the lion’s share of these companies is headquartered in the US, 15 out of the top 20 biggest agrifood companies have major production or R&D sites in the Netherlands.

A recent study by the ETC Group found that many agri-food sectors are now controlled by just four to six dominant firms. Image from Unsplash.

‘Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.’

Power imbalances in the global food system also manifest in the form of ‘land grabs’: the opportunistic buying or leasing of large pieces of land by domestic and transnational companies and governments, often in high-income and rapidly industrialising countries. While this may not be their intention, these transactions effectively strip local communities in lower-income countries of their right to food by restricting access to the same land and resources the same communities relied on in the past for sustenance. This is often in order to meet the needs of higher income countries — in the form of crops destined for exports — or in the context of well-intentioned climate financing schemes, such as reforestation or rewilding projects, that can sometimes do more harm than good. This imbalance is made worse by the competition over land for purposes other than food production for direct human consumption — for animal feed, biofuels or biomaterials, for example. Only 20% of global agricultural land is utilised for the production of crops for (direct) human consumption. As a result, while enough food is grown to feed the globe, food insecurity levels are still rising.

A significant portion of global crops is used for animal feed, driving global competition for agricultural land. Image from Shutterstock.

What this means in the context of the Dutch circular agrifood transition

Circular food systems could reduce competition over land and help build the case for the circular agrifood transition. By promoting plant-based diets and reducing livestock numbers — and, as a result, the animal feed imports they require — , land-grabbing practices could also potentially be reduced in the long term. These changes, however, could also cause disruptions in the short-term — for example to soy-producing industries both near and far — that should be carefully managed. A key principle here is to take decisions as close as possible to the people these decisions affect.

The Netherlands: An advocate for food sovereignty in the future?

The Netherlands is one of the most agriculturally productive countries in the world relative to its size and will likely continue to play a leading role both in circularity and in the global agrifood market. The Dutch government clearly acknowledges the need for a transition at both a local and global scale — as well as their role in increasing interest from- and building the capacity of other countries to follow their lead.

Dutch agriculture is world-renowned for its efficiency — can it help build a future where success is no longer measured by agricultural yields alone? Image from Shutterstock.

About Circle Economy

We are a global impact organisation with an international team of passionate experts based in Amsterdam. We empower businesses, cities and nations with practical and scalable solutions to put the circular economy into action. Our vision is an economic system that ensures the planet and all people can thrive. To avoid climate breakdown, our goal is to double global circularity by 2032.

About the Circular Jobs Initiative

The Circular Jobs Initiative (CJI) defines and identifies circular jobs, analyses the environment needed to create them. We produce research, training and advocacy to champion circular strategies that governments and businesses can use to have a positive social impact.‍

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We empower businesses, cities and nations with practical and scalable solutions to put the circular economy into action.

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Circle Economy

We empower businesses, cities and nations with practical and scalable solutions to put the circular economy into action.