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An overview of insights on the (un)sustainability of the international food system.

Food & Sustainability

What role does the government play in the Dutch food system?

In recent decades, the government has focused on improving agricultural efficiency. With the emergence of EU policies and increasingly complex food chains, it can be difficult to coordinate its policy effectively or to influence consumer behaviour.

Agricultural policy aimed at efficient production

After World War II, the Dutch government stimulated cheap and efficient food production. Agricultural policy was aimed at protecting farmers, using measures such as minimum prices for grain and publicity campaigns for milk. Although there are still a lot of subsidies and rules, matters are increasingly left to the market, which is increasingly dominated by international trade and multinational food processors. Furthermore, environmental and agricultural policies, such as the Nitrate Directive and rules on crop diversification, are largely negotiated in the EU and laid down in the Common Agricultural Policy.

Although the Dutch government does not set more stringent sustainability standards for production on top of EU regulations, there are certain companies, production chains and alliances that have self-imposed higher requirements. For this reason, the Dutch government tries to set EU production requirements as similarly as possible, in order to create a level playing field for Dutch export.

PBL (2013), p. 102-104, 105-106.

WRR (2014), p. 121.

Complex problems and coordination of government policies

The food system is complex and operates on many levels. Government policy therefore has to be agreed on different scales (international and national). In addition, government initiatives are fairly dispersed, lacking a common strategy: the Ministry of Economic Affairs focuses mainly on sustainable innovation in food production, while the Ministry of Health and institutions like the Voedingscentrum and Milieu Centraal are focused on consumption education.

WRR (2014), p. 111-112.

Influencing consumption

In its Vision Sustainable Livestock (2008) and Policy for Sustainable Food Production (2013) the government states that it wants to make consumption more sustainable, but it remains cautious in actively influencing consumer behaviour (see also “What can I do… as government?”). Nevertheless, there are successful initiatives, such as the Foodbattle, in which groups of consumers receive help and tips to combat food waste, and #SDOF (Seven Days of Feedback), in which people between 12 and 25 are stimulated towards sustainable lifestyles in a competitive context. In terms of healthy eating, there are active measures and programs, such as the required mentioning of salt and saturated fat levels on product packaging. Regarding sustainable products, the government supports mainly with knowledge and monitoring, such as the Sustainable Food Monitor.

PBL (2013), p. 69-70.

Rijksoverheid (2015), p. 6.