A conversation with Heleen Klinkert about Carbon Farming

10 May 2019 - Published by Paula Nijman
Heleen Klinkert works as a project leader at Bionext, which is one of the Dutch partners of the European Interreg Carbon Farming project. Heleen grew up in Friesland, a real agricultural province. As a veterinarian and animal scientist, she started working at Bionext on the animal husbandry sector. In the meantime she is mainly concerned with the topics of soil, biodiversity and climate.

What do you do at Bionext?

“At Bionext I mainly work on social themes, in which we work together with the supply chain. For example, the "Man in the pan" project, which seeks solutions to the problem that male animals are often no more than a difficult "residual product" of dairy and egg production. We are looking for ways with farmers to give the goats, roosters and other male animals a good life and place in the organic livestock farming. By simultaneously tempting consumers to eat meat from these animals more often, we also stimulate demand. In another project we are working with the Bird Protection Agency, Weerribben Zuivel and their farmers to protect farmland birds, which breed on farmland and in stables. We encourage farmers to invest in measures to protect this breeding area. We not only address their idealism, we also give them pragmatic reasons for doing this. Participating farmers, for example, receive a stable price for their dairy products or other products and these products also receive the Bird Protection label, which distinguishes them in the marketplace. This makes it worthwhile for the farmers to participate. "

How do you view the Carbon Farming project?

“If you want to work on sustainable agriculture, carbon farming actually makes perfect sense. Simply put, it is nothing but taking good care of the soil. Sustainability is exactly that: taking good care of the earth. This is not only applicable to farmers, but also to all of us. I think it is a matter of common sense to think carefully about the effects on soil at every step of the agricultural process. After all, this delivers almost all of our food. Everyone can play a role in this: the farmer through the soil management at his or her farm, the buyers in the choices they make in their purchasing policy and the consumer in his or her purchasing behavior."

If carbon farming is so logical, why is there a need for it to be encouraged?

"Farmers are faced with a dilemma: in order to make a profit, their production process must be as efficient as possible and farmers are tempted to look only at the short term. Switching to a sustainable, long-term approach such as carbon farming means completely transforming business operations. That is a big risk if you have to deal with such small profit margins. We cannot expect farmers to initiate this change on their own. All other parties in the chain must put their shoulders to the wheel together. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways in which we can help farmers to switch to carbon farming. To start with: knowledge sharing. We need to gain more knowledge about carbon farming in practice and better share that knowledge among each other. By collecting good business cases, farmers can learn from each other. The role of the government is also very important. They must remove barriers by changing policies and highlighting this subject on the political agenda. Take the current manure policy, for example. This is mainly aimed at complying with European rules and not so much at good soil management. These are the topics that we must discuss with each other."

The farmers play a key role. How do they look at carbon farming?

"We see that farmers are becoming increasingly aware of the value of long-term and good soil management practices. If there is a group that takes the quality of soil seriously, then it is them. Good soil management brings many things together for the farmer: being more resistant to droughts and heavy rain showers, which we are already seeing due to climate change; improving soil and crop health; increase in biodiversity, such as insects and meadow birds, on the farm. With the Carbon Farming project we want to add the climate theme to this. By capturing more carbon in the soil through good soil management, the farmer can contribute in reducing CO2 emissions from the atmosphere."

How can we increase the benefits of carbon farming for farmers?

"To begin with, the quality of soil naturally improves through carbon farming. But, as I said, farmers need more reasons to choose such a big change in their business. The market is needed for that. Awareness must grow among retailers and consumers. It would be fantastic if the market also started to feel responsible for good soil management and actively asked for products that are grown in this way."

Carbon farming should lead to a reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere. Can we prove that?

"We know that carbon farming offers many benefits, but there is still much debate about the numbers. We must prevent ourselves from being slowed down and discouraged by this. There are so many benefits! It is not just about the link between carbon farming and the climate, but also about keeping the soil healthy, promoting biodiversity and preventing fertilizer leaching."

When are you satisfied with the results of the project?

"I would be very pleased if we can achieve a paradigm shift. If, as soon as it is about agriculture, the question asked as standard should be: "What about the soil?" There is already so much knowledge, it is up to us to collect it and make it accessible. And to make people realize: the soil is literally our basis. Let's take good care of that!"



Heleen Klinkert
Project leader at Bionext
Knowledge & Innovation