Sustainability through ecosystem restoration

A fifth of the Earth’s land surface is showing signs of declining productivity, which is a direct threat to the livelihood and lives of more than one billion people and has serious implications for food security. Why is this happening? Mainly because of our own bad habits, say two members of the RSM community who lead initiatives that promote sustainable agriculture and sustainable business practices.

Story by Bennett Voyles

Agriculture is focused on short-term profits, regulated by governments more focused on more immediate priorities, and driven by the demands of consumers who are also not focused on the bigger picture. This collective sleepwalking is having a profound impact on the supply of food – half of which in the Netherlands never reaches the table – and the world’s ecosystems farmland depends upon.

In an address to the Dutch parliament last year, Willem Ferwerda, executive fellow business and ecosystems at RSM, and CEO and founder of Commonland Group, an organisation dedicated to large-scale land-ecosystem reclamation, noted that a recent G8 study found that the present structure of the agriculture industry is the number one cause of landscape degradation.

Thinking local

‘We could already have had a much greener world than we have today,’ said Meiny Prins, CEO of Priva, a company that develops hardware, software and services for climate and process control in horticulture and in buildings, and founder of the Sustainable Urban Delta think-tank. An RSM graduate (Parttime Master Bedrijfskunde 2002), Prins argues that our collective decision to subsidise fossil fuels and agriculture is holding back the shift to a more sustainable life and a more secure food supply.

Prins’ organisation’s website showcases dozens of initiatives underway in the Netherlands, all focused on improving the country’s ecological sustainability.

Agriculture-related projects highlighted include:

  • NoFoodWasted, a group that hopes to reduce food waste by 50 per cent over five years through a discounting app that advises shoppers when products are near their sell-by date and priced for a quick sale.
  • A 1,000-square metre roof farm in Rotterdam that grows vegetables for local restaurants and consumers.
  • A one-hectare experimental farm on Texel, where researchers are finding salt-tolerant crops that could be grown on the one billion hectares of saline soil now left uncultivated.


Thinking global

Meanwhile, Ferwerda’s organisation Commonland is trying to restore landscapes on a massive scale at various places around the world.

Ecosystem restoration is not easy, but some committed governments have shown that it can be done, according to Ferwerda. For example, the Chinese government’s restoration of the Loess plateau (3.5 million hectares – an area roughly the size of Belgium) has resulted in more jobs, higher incomes and higher levels of education, greater social wellbeing, and an expanded economy, according to The World Bank. Often, Ferwerda says, the ecological functions of landscapes, and the sustainable productivity of soils can be improved substantially within 20 years.

Wageningen University and Commonland are currently working on a study to show that the value of the soil will increase by more than triple if the right measures are taken.

‘Within a landscape area of less than 500,000 hectares we foresee the development of many new business activities, like regenerative agroforestry using perennial species of trees and shrubs (timber, fruits, nuts, oils, etc.) with annual crops (cereals, beans) and rotational grazing (meat, milk, dung); composting, fencing, water and infrastructural works, leisure, circular forms of high tech / low input efficient agriculture (greenhouses, shade houses) and aquaculture,’ Ferwerda recently wrote.

Massive reclamation initiatives

Based on the ‘4 returns, 3 zones, 20 years’ framework on landscape, and in conjunction with local partners, Ferwerda’s Commonland foundation is developing several massive reclamation initiatives with local partners in Australia, South Africa, Spain, and the Netherlands. At a cost of roughly one euro a hectare per year in stakeholder orchestration (and backed by public-private partnerships that include government credit guarantees and private investment), Ferwerda believes that Commonland can achieve even bigger results than these successful government programmes.

As Ferwerda told the Dutch Parliament last year: ‘We need to restore our earth – our life support system – and as entrepreneurs, corporations, journalists, scientists, politicians and citizens, we have the task of telling this big story to the world. We must hear those who are living in the rural areas’ concerns: farmers, fishermen, local and rural businesses. They often have answers, but were mostly not heard. Over time they have seen their roles reduced to producer, at the expense of fulfilling their tasks as stewards. Here I remember the words of a French farmer, who said that a good product is a complete chain of respect.’

Willem Ferwerda is the author of 4 returns, 3 zones, 20 years: A holistic framework for ecological restoration by people and business for next generations, published as part of the RSM Series on Positive Change.

This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2018 – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

More information

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