When developing an agricultural system; when creating a media landscape, in fact: when building a society: please take lessons from mistakes we already made in the Western world. This was the message during my speech on World Environment Day, June 5th, 2023 at Bay University in Mogadishu. Here’s the complete speech:
Good afternoon and Salam Aleikum everyone. Thank you very much for this opportunity. A special thanks to secretary general Daud Abdi Daud who invited me to this honourable occasion.
First I shall introduce myself and tell something about my organisation Farming Africa. Then I will tell you about journalism and communication in relation to agriculture. I shall tell you about how our intensified farming system in Europe reached its borders, and how we are on the brink of a forced transition to a completely different farming system. And finally, I will tell you how media can prevent farmers, policymakers and the entire rural society from falling into the same trap as the western society did. I already gave you the central subject of this speech: Independency.
So. I am a freelance journalist from the Netherlands. I write a lot about agriculture and often travel to Africa for interesting stories or other business. I think Africa can learn a lot from Europe, but Europe can learn even more from Africa.
I am an independent journalist, which is badly paid. The trap for most colleagues, especially when it comes to agricultural journalists, is that they combine journalism with communication and PR. Now communication is a very well-paid job. You can even get rich if you play your cards right.
However: PR has nothing to do with independency. Journalists and communicators have very little in common. Yes, they work in the same field. They both have a story to tell. But they have another relationship with the truth. Where journalists want to reveal the truth, communicators want to mould the truth. In this light, you can take journalism and PR as opposites.
A straight journalist will not do any commercial gigs. I don’t. So how do I, as a freelancer, pay my bills? Well, I also do other things, besides journalism. With Farming Africa, for example, I also do research for NGOs and companies. I do surveys and even market research.
As a journalist, I am trained to do research. It’s all about getting the questions clear and tracing all sources to find answers to those questions. The advantage of doing business with a journalist instead of an academic or economic researcher is in the reporting. An organisation that works with a journalist, can be certain that the final report is clear, well-written and accessible for all parties involved.
Is it less detailed or less elaborated? Not at all. Of course, I am not an economist or a specialist in many other subjects, but therefore, it is of utmost importance to set the goals clear. What exactly do you need to know? Which questions lead to the final conclusion? When I’m well prepared, I go out, I dive into archives and records and travel to Africa if necessary to find the answers.
Is this independent? Well, for me it’s easier to draw a line, than when I combine journalism with PR. I bring out the report, I get paid for that, and that’s all. I am not going to write about my findings in the press, I even don’t make a press release. That’s up to the communication department. I earn enough for the research and it brings me a lot of connections and the possibility to travel, to speak with people and even write other journalistic stories that I find along my journey.
Well, I have been talking enough about myself. I should be talking about climate change, food security and agriculture. And, in my case, about the role media can play.
I told you already about the importance of independency, well everything is in this magic word. My message to all colleagues in Africa, Asia and other upcoming regions, is simple and clear: please be aware of your independency. Journalism is always independent, transparent and pluriform.
It’s transparent, to show your independence and it’s pluriform, because every view, every interpretation and opinion, matters. As a farmer’s son, and as a journalist with more than 25 years of experience, I can’t help to develop an opinion. This however is not important for the audience. Yes, I write an opinion now and then, I also act as a philosopher now and then.
But journalistic stories need to be independent. Pluralism helps to obtain this independency. As a journalist with a strong opinion, I always look for other views, contrary to mine. They are more interesting than my own opinion, simply because I already know mine.
So far for a basic lesson of journalism. Now let’s take a look at agriculture, the main contributor to food security. I am from The Netherlands. Our leading agriculture is world famous. Our dairy, our pig farming, our horticulture, our glasshouses and flowers. The Netherlands is a very tiny country, which happens to be the second exporter of agricultural products in the world.
People from all over the world are impressed by this enormous production on such a small area of land. To be fair: a lot of our export comes directly or indirectly from import. And the dense populated area’s of Germany are close. But we do produce a lot. On a very intensive scale. That’s why thousands of students from abroad come to learn at Wageningen University, a well-known Agricultural University in our country.
The successes of our agriculture are enormous. We can talk very enthusiastically about this. As a farmer’s son, I am really proud. My two younger brothers are on the family farm, they have a very big farm nowadays with arable land and turkeys.
But, as it befits a good journalist, I also have to consider the downside of this enormous economic success. At this very moment, the government in our country is in dire straits.
The matter is that The Netherlands is nearing its environmental borders, as they have agreed about within the European Union. In our case, it’s the amount of nitrogen pollution that’s caused by traffic, and industry. But by far, over 60 per cent, it comes from agriculture and in particular animal husbandry.
So our government is working for more than a year now on a new agriculture agreement. Maybe you have seen the farmers’ protests in the news a year ago. Many farmers do not want to change the system so there have been fierce protests going on last year.
But things need to change rapidly because nitrogen pollution has a big impact on society. Because we are at the maximum level of nitrogen emission, houses can’t be built. Industry can’t expand, the same goes for traffic by road, rail or air. And farmers are most in trouble because the government might cut the number of farm animals in our country. But nothing is decided yet. The uncertainty is devastating.
And it’s not only governmental rules that are a problem. The consequences of nitrogen pollution are trivialized by many – who also want to deflect the blame to other parties – but we can already see it in nature. Rare plants and animals are in danger of extinction. There’s an enormous loss of biodiversity. And the surplus of nitrogen is not even the only consequence of those successful intensive farming methods. Also, the quality of surface water and even groundwater is going down, but also the amount of groundwater is decreasing.
Yes, farmers did a lot to improve their stables. They invested in different expensive inventions. There are filters and air washers on the ventilation system to reduce the emissions from stables. The industry developed large manure treatment installations. Farmers have to pay a lot to get their manure treated. And they even adjust animal feed, which leads to less emission of greenhouse gasses.
All those inventions didn’t bring what was expected. The results simply are too little. The pollution continues. This not only applies to animal husbandry; also to intensive arable farming is grown out of its ecological borders. Farmers reduced the use of pesticides, but the pollution is still going on. So they need to reduce this even further.
Arable land gets depleted and exhausted due to the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of big tractors and machinery on the field causes soil compression.
For more than eighty years, farmers in Europe have been fighting against nature. Yes, it did bring us a booming production. Something that was needed badly, because the Netherlands suffered from a famine right after the Second World War. But today we are at the point where our farming system reaches its borders. It turned out dramatically for nature.
Our intensive farming system didn’t only affect our nature and environment, it also has important social consequences. Intensifying agriculture means bigger farms and fewer farms. Only in the past twenty years, has the production in our country increased, while the number of farms halved. People went living in cities and turned their back on farmers who ruin their view of the countryside with their so-called mega farms and monocultures.
Many citizens are not proud of our highly productive agriculture. They complain about the smell coming from stables, about their personal health because of fine dust in the air and even viruses coming from animals. They complain about nature that gets ruined, birds and insects that are disappearing and also about animal welfare.
Yes, farmers produce their food. But they also see that 80 per cent of our agricultural products are exported. And when they go to the supermarket, they experience that 80 per cent of the food is imported. So yes, farmers produce a lot of food, but it’s not their food.
And also on an international scale, we receive complaints. Our country exports all over the world. European farmers get subsidies for producing and even for exporting, which leads to the dumping of products in developing countries, where there’s no money to subsidize their agriculture. In Africa, many farmers cannot compete with those products coming from Europe.
So at this moment, we depend on a farming system that makes an enormous production, while it delivers, at the same time many environmental and social complications. In The Netherlands, but also in other European countries. Ireland wants to cut down the number of dairy cows with 200.000. And in Spain where there’s a lot of drought, farmers want to water their strawberries, are in a fierce conflict with people who want to protect nature from drying out.
How did it come this far? First of all, there’s the economy. The profits are big, and not in the first place for the farmer. The real money is with the agribusiness that sells seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, animal feed, machinery, animal housing equipment et cetera. The farmer needs to invest in all those inputs.
And they sell their products to companies that are too big to negotiate with on a fair basis. International slaughterhouses, dairy companies, traders of vegetables and grain trading companies. But also supermarkets have much more power than farmers. This means that farmers need to make debts, so also big agricultural banks make big profits in this sector.
Farming becomes more professional, but foremost very risky. Many farmers just go bankrupt. Only the big farmers survive. This is because big farms are more efficient and because those farmers are more professional. At least, this is how the narrative goes.
In fact, for the bank, as well as for other agribusiness, it is also more efficient to work in a field with a few big farmers, instead of many smallholders spread out all over the rural areas. And if a bank invests much in a big farm, it would also be a loss for the bank when they let the farm go bankrupt. So also a farm can be too big to fail.
Those, however, are stories that are rarely told. Which does not mean they are less true. At this point, ladies and gentlemen, we come to the subject of communication. In the field of communication, the truth is moulded by the parties with the biggest economic interests. This is why farmers are told about the advantages of expensive inputs like fertilizers, pesticides and technology. The negative impact it has on the long term will be marginalised, trivialised or bluntly denied.
The power of those companies is massive. Agro-multinationals play a crucial role in the field of policy development, but they hardly communicate about this. They spent a lot of money on research, done by independent institutes like Wageningen University. When the results are beneficial to the company, the communication department will go all out and introduce the new technology widely, pointing out the ‘independent’ research. When, however, the results are not that beneficial, or even oppose their intent, the results are neglected. Maybe they can find another institute that can approve their premise.
As a journalist, it is a tough job to work in this field. Especially when you want to stick to your fundamental journalistic principles like transparency, pluralism and, of course, independency. For every journalist, there are more than ten communicators and other PR professionals.
So, when it comes to publications about new technologies or innovations, as a journalist you always have to search actively for a different point of view. What can be the negative consequence? What are the costs? Not only for the farmer who needs to pay, but also for the consumer at the other end of the chain. What does it cost society? Or the environment?
When it comes to new policies, you always need to be aware: are those proposals really going to change anything? Or do they postpone or relocate the consequences?
What makes it even harder for agricultural journalists, is that they are completely alone when they want to work independently. All over the world, agricultural journalists are organised within the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. This organisation also provides press cards.
Now, the fact is, it is not a federation of journalists only, it also is a federation of communicators! PR people from agribusinesses receive the same press card! Communicators join the same conferences and meetings! Moreover: conferences are for a crucial part paid by agribusinesses. Those agribusinesses organise journalistic workshops and courses and they even sponsor awards. So it is companies who will decide what good quality journalism means.
The problem, when it comes to communicating about agriculture, is that the difference between journalism and PR is not recognised in the field of agriculture.
Well, I am still a member of this club, but, as you may understand, I am a real troublemaker within this organisation. Of course, I have tried to change things, but I don’t get much support. But I keep on making comments.
And I also speak up to the Pan African Agricultural Journalists. An organisation in which I am involved since its start in 2018. They are still a young organisation, so I really hope they do not make the same mistakes.
What I really look forward to at this moment is the Congress of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists in 2025. This will be held in Kenya, where it is organised, not by a national guild of agricultural journalists only, but by Mesha, which has members from Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture.
So, for me, it will be very interesting to see how journalists who write about agriculture and their colleagues, who are specialised in the environment, go along. And of course, I am very interested in how they deal with commercial issues, like sponsorship.
So, I look forward to this event in Kenya. Maybe I will give a workshop or a lecture on this topic about that. That’s another job I do. I have done some workshops in Kenya before. I can give trainings on journalism, about the necessity of independency and most important: how to bring journalistic productions, interviews and other stories, and how do I guard my independence.
The world is changing rapidly. The Western system of agriculture is on the brink of a paradigm shift. And with agriculture, also consumer patterns need to change. The whole society, primarily the economy, needs to change drastically.
We should take lessons from the collapse of former civilisations. If you look at history, the main reason for a fall of a civilisation is not so much warfare, they more often collapse because of environmental changes. Often caused by people. Deforestation, for example, for producing food and energy. And most times a civilisation will collapse due to a sudden decline in energy- and food supplies. All those factors at this moment are in a downward trend. But this is a topic that goes too far for this event. We should organise another conference on this theme.
For this moment, I only want to tell you that there is a lot to learn about our production system in Western countries. Lessons to increase food production in an efficient and highly productive system, but foremost lessons about the downside of our overwhelming economic successes.
Journalists have to withstand the temptations and even threats coming from agribusinesses. Big agro multinationals still hope to continue selling their products and they keep on trying to buy farm products for too little money. Banks want to continue to issue as many loans as possible. They are fighting fiercely against changes because a new farming system that is starting to sprout does not and should not need this economic system at all.
New farming systems, mostly agroecological methods, do not work against nature, they work with nature. They make use of the ecosystem to keep pests and diseases in control. They use organic materials for fertilizing their crops. It is even possible systems even fertilise themselves.
With those methods, farmers are not going backwards in time at all. They make use of the newest scientific insights about, for example, mycorrhiza. A symbiotic association between fungi and plants, where still is a small bit discovered. Science on this point has just begun.
With this. I come to the end of my speech. I hope you learned that when it comes to climate change, food security and agriculture, there still is a lot to learn from Europe. And the most important lesson is not to fall into the same traps. This counts for farming methods, but it also counts for the way journalists are organised.
And there’s a lot of talk about human rights coming from Europe. (Which is very important. I don’t want to trivialise this.) A free and independent press is one of the most important things when it comes to human rights. But keep in mind: agricultural journalism in the Western world is not really independent.
What applies to agriculture, also applies to journalism: Please take lessons from the errors our Western society made. When developing an agricultural system, when building a society and when creating a media landscape; please take lessons from mistakes. You don’t have to make those mistakes yourselves, just look at the errors we in the West already made.
Thank you very much for listening to me.
© Marc van der Sterren
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