Sustainable use

Sustainable production and consumption, sustainable trade chains

In tropical countries on a large scale crops are being produced for food and other products we use here in the Netherlands. This has a large impact on nature. Ecosystems such as forests have to make way. This impact is called ‘ecological footprint’.

Sustainable trade chains

Internationally the pressure rises to manage biodiversity an ecosystems sustainably. Therefore criteria are being developed for the sustainable production, processing and trade of agricultural commodities. For the entire chains – from producer till consumer – there are (or will be) quality marks or label systems. Via ‘Round Tables’ all parties are in dialogue in order to make chains more sustainable (for example for soy, palm oil).


Also the production of commodities is often harmful to biodiversity. Resources are getting more scarce worldwide. Reuse of raw materials thus is not only good for the economy but also for biodiversity. The Dutch government wants to develop towards an economy in which fossil resources are being replaced by (rest products of) plants, animals of algae: the ‘biobased economy’. This then however has to happen sustainably. Replacing tropical forests with palm oil plantations for example is not sustainable.

Genetic resources

Genetic resources are animals, plants and micro-organisms which mankind uses for food, clothing, medicines and industrial purposes. These can be species that have been adapted by humans already for a long period of time (take for example cereals or vegetables), or it can be crop wild relatives. Genetic resources form the basis for a lot of things in our day to day lives. We do research about genetic resources and use them for the development of new products: pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and in agriculture for worldwide food security.

The Nagoya Protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity arranges for the rights and duties related to these resources and the equitable sharing of the revenues of its use, such as money or knowledge.

The areas of origin of genetic resources are spread around the world, among others in the Middle-East, tropical forests, the Andes and the Horn of Africa. Researchers and breeders are searching for unknown species and develop lineages with interesting properties. In the Convention on Biological Diversity it is established that countries do have the sovereign rights over the genetic resources from their territory. This entails for example a generic obligation to file a request for permission before taking or using genetic resources from any country. The use of genetic material may generate information or profit. Regarding the distribution of these, an agreement needs to be established with the country of origin, so as to share the benefits. For example when medicines are being developed with the use of genetic resources. This was agreed by the so called Nagoya Protocol (2010).

The Netherlands is the second largest exporter of Starting Materials for food, agriculture and horticulture in the world. This position is an important pillar of the Dutch economy. For The Netherlands thus its crucial to maintain international exchange of genetic resources. The Netherlands has signed the Nagoya Protocol in June 2011 and ratified it in 2016.

Genetic resources in The Netherlands

The Centre for Genetic Resources the Netherlands (CGN) does research and maintains the genetic diversity and identity of plant and animal species of importance to agriculture, horticulture and forestry. Material from the collections is being distributed in order to stimulate the use of genetic resources for food and agriculture: ABS Focal Point Netherlands.

Staatsbosbeheer with support from the Dutch government has created a gene bank of native trees and shrubs. In this gene bank some 50 different native species have been planted. With this resource new trees and shrubs can be raised and distributed. In that way characteristic trees and shrubs can return into the Dutch landscape. The Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute maintains a world renown collection of important microorganisms. The Botanic gardens preserve the Dutch plant heritage. They are united in the ‘Hortus Botanic Guardians’ society. The plant collections are maintained by the National Plant Collection Trust Stichting Nationale Plantencollectie (SNP, in Dutch). Zoo’s (united in the Dutch Zoo Association, NVT in Dutch) are working towards the conservation of animal species diversity. For agricultural and other domesticated breeds, The Dutch Rare Breed Survival Trust (SZH in Dutch) is active. To preserve the genetic diversity of wild plants in the Netherlands ‘the Living Archive’ (in Dutch ‘Het Levend Archief was founded.

Natural Capital

The Netherlands is among the countries with an environmental-economic accounting programme. The Government is aiming to structurally mapping the Dutch Natural Capital. On that basis better decisions can be made for the good of society and the environment. Furthermore it is supporting the option to have macro-economic insights into the (positive and negative) impacts of economic activities on the quantity and quality of products and services of nature (Natural Capital Accounts). Businesses can use this information to reduce their impact on nature and optimally use the potential of natural capital for their activities. For example in agriculture (natural pest control, soil fertility), but also in health care.

Further reading:

The SEEA-EEA experimental biodiversity account for the Netherlands (Report of the first Biodiversity Account for the Netherlands according to the Environmental Economic Accounting framework).

Forests and Wood

Forests are important for wood production, recreation, water provision, soil protection and CO2 storage. Forests cover some 30% of the worlds surface area, nearly 4 billion hectares. Tropical forests of all biomes are richest in biodiversity. About 10 % of the Netherlands exists of forests. World wide the surface area of forests in the last 30 years has roughly halved. Today still way over ten million hectares of forest a year do vanish. This has grave ecological consequences. The Netherlands wants to counteract these trends by sustainable forest management practices and sustainable forest products trade.

Within the Netherlands recreation is an important function of forests. Most Dutch forests are open to the public and well accessible by foot- and bicycle paths. Forest managers on a regular basis organize excursions. Also in tropical forests there is an increase in recreational use (‘ecotourism’).

Wood not only is suitable to make furniture or paper, but also delivers biomass, being from rest-wood or specifically planted for this purpose. Forests globally store some 600 gigatons of biomass. Biomass is an important resource for sustainable energy production (provided that sustainability criteria are being applied), bioplastics and other products within the Bio-based economy.

The Netherlands supports the global goal of sustainable forest management. This means: harvesting not beyond the level of regrowth, with consideration of biodiversity, working conditions, local values and a equitable sharing of revenues. There are several certification schemes for sustainable forest management (e.g. FSC, PEFC, CSA and SFI). In order to be able to establish whether wood really stems from a sustainably managed forest, the whole trade chain is being checked. This is being called ‘Chain of Custody’ (CoC). Every company in such chain receives a  CoC-certificate if it meets the criteria.

Legally produced wood is being harvested and traded according to the applicable laws and regulations of the country of origin. If the management of a forest is in accordance with national legislation, and the wood from the specific forest was logged and traded according to the regulations, it can get a certificate. Also at the receiving side of the trade chain it needs to be certified where the wood comes from. Logging which violates national laws and regulations – illegal logging – causes grave economic, societal and ecological damage. It leads to income loss, further deforestation, conflict and less control by local communities. Furthermore it undermines companies that do take their responsibilities.

The EU is an important export market to countries with large amounts of illegal deforestation. That is why the EU through the so called FLEGT-Action Plan tries to stimulate wood producing countries to combat the trade in illegal timber. The Action Plan has two components: Voluntary Partnership Agreements (FLEGT-VPA's) and the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR). FLEGT-VPA’s are trade agreements with Timber exporting countries outside the EU which help to prevent the introduction of illegal timber to the European market.

Further reading:

The EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) prohibits the introduction to the European market of illegally produced timber and wood products. Timber producers and traders since the 3th of march 2013 are obliged to certify exactly the origin of their timber. And guarantee it was logged legally, also within the Netherlands. The Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) enforces this regulation in the Netherlands. See the NVWA webpage on the EUTR (in Dutch).

In 2020 the Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality and the provinces launced a new national forest strategy until 2030 (in Dutch), whereas the Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality and the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation jointly formulated the international component of the Dutch forest stragegy until 2030 (Letter to parliament, in Dutch).

Further reading about:

Sustainable fisheries and the conservation of the marine environment

Biodiversity in the seas and oceans of the world is under great pressure of overfishing and pollution, among others. This also goes for the European seas. In the North Sea the main commercial fish stocks are on their way to recovery, but fishery remains to put a pressure on marine biodiversity.

The pressure is comprised of wasting fish stocks by throwing overboard discards, threats to endangered animals through killing them as bycatch and damage to life at the sea floor. Pressure on marine biodiversity can be relieved by more targeted fishery through fish stock management plans, innovations that are less intrusive to the sea bed and cause less bycatch and by closing specific areas for (certain types of) fishery. Internationally and within Europe ever more Marine Protected Areas are being established. These perform an important nursery functions for fish and other marine organisms.

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) of EU lays the foundation under a sustainable fishery. This means: a fishery without overharvesting and without pollution of the sea. Increasing sustainability of the fisheries contributes extensively to the other European pillars of the Dutch Nature Policy: the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive and Natura 2000. Fish and other marine animals are important for the global food security. Protection of sea areas, in particular the ‘nurseries’ of these animals is thus in the interest of people.

North Sea

The North Sea is vibrant with life but under increasing pressure of increasingly intensive use (fishery, energy production, shipping, sand extraction and recreation). Dutchmen are, also in historical perspective, tightly connected to the sea with activities such as sailing and fishery. But also sand extraction, sustainable wind power, oil and gas extraction, shipping and military exercises. On the bottom lay thousands of kilometers of cables and pipes. These activities are important to the economy, but can also come at a cost of the ecological value of the North Sea. That is why there are agreements to protect this area and to make sure that economic developments are in balance with the ecosystem. The larger mammals such as seals, porpoises and dolphins (and an occasional whale or Orca) are most prominently catching the eye. But the North Sea is as important to birds, fish, crustaceans, shellfish and molluscs. The North Sea is among others important as migration route and wintering ground for birds. Also this area is a nursery to many fish. The North Sea has a size of about 575.000 km². The Dutch part is about 58.000 km² (10% of the entire North Sea). Many agreements therefore have been reached internationally. The most important of these is the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR). The North Sea is covered by it. Fifteen parties, including the European Union are member of the OSPAR. Its goal is to protect the sea environment against pollution and other harmful activities, where necessary restore it and manage it sustainably.

The environmental objectives and plans until 2020 are laid out in the Marine Strategy for the Dutch part of the North Sea 2012-2020, part 1, elaboration of the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive (in Dutch). The main goal is the accomplishment of a healthy marine ecosystem. Starting point for the use of the North Sea is: reasoning from what the ecosystem can handle. The current intensive use or the North Sea has flattened the quality of in particular life at the sea bed. Especially by diminishing the harmful effects it is expected that variation and quality will return. With this also the nursery function for fish species is better guaranteed. Through synergies with functions such as sand extraction and wind power restoration activities are ongoing aiming at the reintroduction of shell banks in one of the protected areas of the North Sea.

Further reading:

Nature-inclusive agriculture

Biodiversity is of prime relevance to agriculture because of:

  • The genetic variation of plants and animal species which is important for breeding in agriculture.
  • The ability of Farmers and horticulturists to employ natural organisms to protect their crops from pest organisms such ad fungi or weeds.
  • A healthy soil life (worms, bacteria, fungi) which provides a natural soil fertility, thus lowering the need for fertilizer application.

Within the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union biodiversity is being addressed by stimulating sustainable agricultural production and better facilitation of agroecological practices. This is done by maximal conservation of soil biodiversity, create space for biodiversity within the cultivation plan, stimulating biodiversity in the (wet or dry) surroundings of agricultural fields and by making deliberate use of ecosystem services, maintain these services and  where possible using them to strengthen biodiversity.

Farmers in the Netherlands who manage their lands in a nature-friendly way can get a compensation for this. The subsidy for this is called ‘Subsidy Nature and Landscape (SNL), module Agricultural Nature management’ (For agreements that were closed before the first of January 2016) or ‘Subsidy Agricultural Nature and Landscape management (ANLb)’ (since that date).

Further reading about these subsidy schemes (in Dutch):

Wild plants and animals living in agricultural areas enrichen the landscape. If these animals in the Netherlands cause damage, the managers of the specific lands can call upon the so called ‘Fauna damage compensation’. Further reading (in Dutch):

Pesticides when used inappropriately can have a negative impact on biodiversity. The risks and effects of the use of plant protection products on biodiversity can be limited by stimulating non-chemical methods and the use of basic substances and low-risk products. The agricultural sector contributes by drawing up action plans for integrated pest management. Also the sector stimulates technical measures to prevent the drift of substances when these are applied by spraying.

Further reading:

Restoration of degraded ecosystems

Many areas in the world have lost their original biodiversity due to overexploitation and are no longer suitable for agriculture or husbandry. Restoration of these degraded ecosystems is an explicit goal of the EU biodiversity strategy. Based on research of among others the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) we know where these areas are situated. In cooperation with the private sector and fund managers options are being explored for the ecological restoration of such areas. Due to restoration of natural values these areas can again deliver their ecosystem services in future and also can be used again for food production. The Netherlands-based organization Commonland is implementing a number of pilot projects in South Africa, Spain and The Netherlands in cooperation with business partners and nature conservation organizations.

Biodiversity and food production in balance

Global population and economic growth result in a growing demand for agricultural land and water for the production of food and as such puts a huge pressure on biodiversity. The challenge is to produce enough food while conserving biodiversity, or example by using existing farmland more intensively instead of cultivating me lands at the expense of nature. Within food production areas a certain level of interweaving with biodiversity again is relevant for the maintenance of functional agrobiodiversity, necessary for successful food production.

To this end the Ministry of Agriculture, nature and Food quality of the Nederlands supported the ‘FAO Biodiversity Mainstreaming Platform’.

The Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs played an initiating role in setting up IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative. This organization applies a combination of convening, co-financing and learning and innovating in order to realize sustainable trade in global value chains.

Early 2024 the Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food quality and Minister for Nature and Nitrogen jointly sent a letter to Parliament (in Dutch) on sustainable food systems and the international commitments of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality in the context of the 2030 sustainable development goals (SDG’s). Conservation and recovery of biodiversity worldwide is one of the three interlinked targets which are described in this letter (The other two being: Long term perspective for the agriculture-, fisheries- and horticulture sectors and Global food security and reaching the climate goals).