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Farming of the future

Assistant Professor Maarten Schrama works at Leiden University’s living labs, where biology, environmental sciences and knowledge about agriculture and policy come together. We met him at the new Polderlab to ask him about his research.

Can you tell us a bit about your research and what you find so fascinating about it?

‘The future of Laag Nederland, roughly the area of the Netherlands between the dunes and Utrechtse Heuvelrug, is under great pressure. A combination of rising sea levels and subsidence caused by current agriculture put it at risk of disappearing under water in the long run. That’s why we need different farming methods, ones that will counteract subsidence. We plan to investigate these new methods of future peatland farming over the next ten years at Polderlab near the village of Oud Ade, and to do so together with farmers, citizens and the authorities. Only institutions like Leiden University have a long enough time horizon to be able to study this.’

What will your research mean for the world?

‘We desperately need a new perspective on peat meadowlands, not just in the Netherlands but throughout Northwest Europe. Otherwise we won’t be able to get farmers to change. I’m convinced we need to take an integrated approach to the various challenges: the nitrogen crisis, the climate challenge, the decline in biodiversity and the lack of prospects for farmers. If we succeed, then this will be an example for the world, a place where the Sustainable Development Goals have been put into practice.

‘Together with current and new farmers we are implementing four radically new farming methods in the area and we – researchers and students – will be monitoring this in the years ahead.’

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What challenges do you face?

‘The lock-ins we’ve all been in, all the mechanisms that maintain the bad status quo. Consumers who don’t want to pay for products from sustainable landscapes, permit procedures that are geared towards current practices and above all a society that has no money available for the experiments that are needed to create a very different “harvestable landscape”.’

Why did you choose Leiden?

‘Bastion of Freedom: the place to seek daring new solutions to the grand challenges of our time. We’re not an agricultural university but a large part of this task isn’t about agriculture at all but about law, governance and social processes, all areas that Leiden is very good at. The new Liveable Planet programme is a great example of this.’

Why is your research so important right now?

‘We have to use the time we have to make the changes that are needed. Now is the time to turn things around: the farmers are ready, the citizens who started the initiative are ready and the authorities want a different kind of rural area. Such a moment probably won’t come around again.’

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