What does sustainability mean to the VanDrie Group?
Everts: ‘As chain coordinator, we are driving the transition to a more sustainable sector. On the one hand, by focusing our production chain on the maximum value of the calf, making our products more sustainable, the use of alternative raw materials and optimal use of residual waste flows and residual heat in the food system, which are all enabling us to fulfil the ambitions for a circular agricultural system. But also by applying smart technologies and developing innovative solutions that reduce emissions in every link of our production, which is enabling us to contribute to the national climate objectives. We are not doing that, and cannot do that, alone. That is why we are investing in partnerships with knowledge partners and stakeholders in order to strengthen and innovate the chain, and make it more sustainable. In this way, we are ensuring that the work carried out in every link of our chain is increasingly efficient, the impact on the environment and the surroundings is reduced and waste is prevented.’
It has been in the news a lot recently: Friends of the Earth Netherlands won a case against Royal Dutch Shell. The Hague District Court recently ruled that Shell has to reduce CO2 emissions faster. In February this year, Friends of the Earth Netherlands published a report in which, among other things, it blames the VanDrie Group for the fact that Dutch climate objectives will probably not be reached. What can the VanDrie Group expect?
Everts: ‘We have a duty of care and that is something we feel as a family business too. That means that we are actively working to reduce our climate impact. We have set out in our strategy that we want to reduce our CO2 emissions by 49 percent by 2030 compared to 1990, in accordance with the climate agreement. We see that adjustments are probably necessary. Europe has tightened its ambitions and we don’t know what is happening with the formation of the new Dutch government. We are able to act quickly, so we will do so. I think it’s important, however, to add something for proper perspective.’
Everts: ‘Discussions must be well-substantiated. The report published by Friends of the Earth Netherlands is based on old figures when talking about our emissions. In addition, veal production in France and Italy is included in the total emissions of the company, while Friends of the Earth Netherlands constantly appeals to the impact of the emissions in the Netherlands. In fact, on the basis of an environmental analysis carried out on the veal sector in 2019 and 2020 by Blonk Consultants, the CO2 impact of the VanDrie Group in the Netherlands is more than 50% less than claimed in the report. This consultancy agency indicated to Friends of the Earth Netherlands beforehand that figures from this environmental analysis were more recent and more precise than those which were ultimately used. Unfortunately, nothing was or is being done with that.’
Nevertheless, the VanDrie Group is being called to account as polluter
Everts: ‘I understand very well that we are being critically monitored as a big company. Logically, with size comes more impact, of course, and ultimately more responsibility. That’s why we are taking active measures through innovation and investments to reduce and prevent negative effects of our production.
Is reducing CO2 emissions the most notable one then?
Everts: ‘We need to push ahead to reduce emissions. I’m not only talking about carbon dioxide (CO2), but also, for example, ammonia (NH3) – the compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. Ammonia is released from manure. In spite of a spectacular fall in ammonia emissions from agriculture in the past 30 years, that must be reduced further.
A considerable number of innovations are currently being tested, such as new stall systems. These low-emission stall systems with attention to animal health and welfare will hopefully soon become the new standard. It is estimated that with new stall systems, a minimum 60% reduction in ammonia emissions in veal farming can be achieved compared to 2019. Promising, but not yet regular practice unfortunately.’
That’s why we are taking active measures through innovation and investments to reduce and prevent negative effects of our production. - Marijke Everts
What challenges do you envisage?
Everts: ‘We are facing dilemmas with the implementation of our strategy and the steps that we are taking to achieve our ambitions. Difficult choices, where development in one area can mean stagnation in the other. Or where unforeseen circumstances have an effect on developments.’
That remains a bit vague, can you make that more concrete?
Everts: ‘Of course! New stall systems on the farm are expected to achieve significant reductions in ammonia. That transition requires large investments, from both us and veal farmers. At present, however, there are few recognised stall systems that already deliver substantial emission reductions. At the same time, the sector is having to contend with tight legal frameworks and limited financial support. In addition, the effects of the coronavirus crisis in the sector are clearly tangible, as a result of which financial resources are limited. Without investment opportunities, there are no innovations. Without innovations, there is no significant improvement in sustainability. How do we ensure that we can continue to make the sector more sustainable in spite of these challenges?
Have you already got an answer to that question yourself?
Everts: ‘We are committed to gradually removing the barriers to that necessary transition. We are doing this through several routes, in which collaboration and dialogue with stakeholders are essential to finding solutions and generating support.
With national and regional governments, we are emphasising the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and setting up schemes that veal farmers can use for large-scale investments. In addition, we always ask for clear frameworks that have long-term perspective. There’s nothing wrong with setting challenging targets. However, if you want to get everyone on board with a transition without too much social upheaval, clarity and calm is important. I hope that the formation of the new Dutch government will restore confidence in the agricultural sector and provide support in the route of improvement through innovation.’