I read with great interest, commiseration and sympathy your experience of Sustainable Development Studies in Big Dutch Academia, and wish to wade in on the conversation. The following is an account of my perspective and experiences as a researcher from the side of food system sustainability at the Wageningen University – the food valley, industrial heartland, purveyor of fine methane emitters, the corporate breadbasket of the country.
Colonialism in Europe, with the chauvinism, white privilege (read: supremacy) and sequestration of wealth by the few - under the guise of bringing civility and prosperity to the savage lower class – lives on in the corporate growth models of capitalism’s retirement years. Croaking capitalism is like my semi-retired boss (an academic who enjoyed decades of generous speaking fees from the likes of Danone and Unilever, all-inclusive exotic trips to the East to preach the industrial agricultural approach towards better health and ‘development’). He hits a few thousand golf balls a week, flies recreationally monthly, and looks proudly down on an ever-expanding legacy of both academic and biological grandchildren. “I had my hey-day, but god damnit I’m still here”.
While fossil fuel (and other) resource extraction and manufacturing grinds to a slow halt as we are confronted with the limited resources this planet has on offer, we can’t (and won’t anytime soon) escape one of the more necessary commodities: food. Add to the recipe a growing population, on track to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 (our planet’s sustainable carrying capacity is 1 billion), and a dash of climate catastrophe threatening crop yields and general food production capacity in the poorest and most populated regions. Examining our own economic hive, now that knowledge and technical services rather than raw goods dominate our exports (nearly a trillion tomatoes per year notwithstanding), and our riches cannot be forcibly and directly reaped from other nations, academic institutions have become houses of the holy for capital and power. What better platform from which to extoll our industrial food efficiency? Programs such as the troubled and colonial-rooted development studies, as described in the previous Emancipation or Indoctrination, and the deeply problematic technocratic solutions to the climate crisis are but some of the examples (petri dish meat; electric cars; reflective clouds; moving civilization to Mars).
Staying within the context of food. Most of us know the evils: global food production is responsible for one QUARTER (25%) of global greenhouse gas emissions, over 75% of which is attributable to our appetite for animal flesh. Beyond greenhouse gases alone, our food systems are the primary drivers of biodiversity loss, deforestation, freshwater pollution, the list goes on, making you want to eat a handful of oak leaves for lunch. Locally, the Dutch agro economy is the proud son of the European grand-uncles Danone, Unilever, Albert Heijn and the like. A recent call by dozens of prominent scientists to reach ‘peak meat’ by 20301 had zero signatories from the Netherlands, amidst staggering CO2 emissions from the Dutch livestock sector and the expanding Nitrogen crisis.
At Wageningen University – deep in Gelderland’s ‘Food Valley’, Extinction Rebellion, collective and self-determining social housing organisations and truly low-waste and sustainable local agricultural initiatives sit cozily next to Unilever, Monsanto and its pub-mate Syngenta, Friesland Campina, and others. There is no university policy for food sustainability, and campus cafeterias are run by massive international food service corporations. Our president, Louise Fresco, sits or has sat on the board in an executive capacity of Unilever, Syngenta, the SHELL FOUNDATION (that’s Royal Dutch Shell, to be crystal clear) and Rabobank. Many graduate students are co-appointed to one of these corporations, and, anecdotally, I have witnessed in seminars many of said students openly deride with confidence the idea of reducing our dependence on animal offerings. How does this ivory manure tower smell to you now?
As in other realms of sustainability activism, study, or intensive involvement, as a food sustainability researcher one is confronted daily by the citizen-consumer paradox – we must eat to survive in this twisted economy of Albert Heijns and Jumbos. As both researchers and citizen-consumers we are trapped in perverse systemic feedback loops driven by corporate interest, and utterly staggering levels of policy inertia perpetuating climate change, disillusionment, depression, obesity and overweight, socioeconomic divide, the dismantling of social services. Yadda yadda yadda, the rich get richer and older still.
What does this all mean for academia, and for the academic pawns in this current ecosystem? In my own psyche, the comfort found in status quo academia butts its head daily against the sheer hypocrisy and inadequacy of it all. I see how easy it is to toe the line, how easy it is to strap yourself in to the mechanical cart that moves you through the chambers of academia. You must only sit, mesmerized and obedient, tapping the test tubes and keyboard and regurgitating the desired result. I once rode the (children’s) Carnival ride at Efteling on mushrooms. It feels like that. Step and speak gingerly around the (almost exclusively) old white, indigenous Dutch men, so as not to disturb them in their waking slumber. They run the departments and refer to you as ‘lieve schatje’ if you interrupt or pose a challenging thought. The radicalism and sense of extreme urgency and purpose fall away as you are massaged by the small comforts and successes of publishing small pieces of bullshit that will do absolutely nothing for the world, save to secure you another few years on your academic contract.
There are so-far no burning answers that come to mind to divestment our collective understanding of what constitutes knowledge and progress away from industrial academia, particularly not in this country. We can start by asking some critical questions. Perverse and rigid European funding apparatuses make dipping into the (fairly deep, seemingly unlimited) pot of Euros for the sake of citizen initiatives nearly impossible. Considering public funds alone, with an operating budget of 13 billion regionally (European Research Council, 2014-2020) and 1 billion per year locally (Nationale Wetenschapsagenda), we’d do well to convene a citizen’s court and judge whether these investments have been paid forward to the masses, or have done enough to secure a livable planet for generations to come (they haven’t). What is the role of the academic institution as a bona-fide puppet of industry on this melting planet inhabited by a civilization in peril? What powers and norms are responsible for maintaining the illusion that a) a university education is the natural gateway to a fully formed human and b) universities are the real engines of free thought and progress? How can we identify and dismantle these deeply societally conditioned avenues so as to divert both monetary funds and physical efforts towards more meaningful action? Finally, on a personal note, it is up to disillusioned academics to exit the institute and find more ethical and constructive ways to apply our knowledge skills to society outside of the ivory tower. Europe’s newly announced ‘Green New Deal’ promises to throw billions of Euros towards research and innovation, tasking public institutions with the bulk of the transition work. But what good is the deal if the structures in place to digest this money are the same as those that got us in this mess?
Academics from many other realms, locations and seats of power are demanding rapid and transformative system change, see for example the outspoken Swedish rock-star of sustainability science Johan Rockström. In this country, we are complacent and complicit, academics and non-academics alike. On our padded bike seats, eating cheap, plentiful food, rinsing plastic containers of ultra-processed veggie meat, dreamt up in a lab in Gelderland. Let us radically rethink how we look at sustainable development and agriculture through the lens of academic, publically-funded research. Divorce these public private partnerships and make agricultural programs paid for by people work for people and the entire planet.
1) Harwatt et al. Lancet Planetary Health, December 2019