The latest iPhone. A bigger flat screen, with an even sharper picture. “Ultra-fast-fashion” with 52 collections in a year, made to be worn for short time. As a consumer, it is sometimes hard to resist temptation. And eager buying is good for the economy. But we also increasingly run up against the limits of our consumerism. Where are those limits? And what is the result of all that consuming? In this series, we let people look at this from their specific point of view.
Episode 3: the perspective of Wouter Veer, impact entrepreneur and founder of Lenteland.
Ten years ago, Wouter Veer was an entrepreneur in the temp industry. And not without success. The company he had built up had become big enough for him to retire after it was sold. But something also began to gnaw at him. He decided to embark on a new path, in which everything is geared toward accelerating the sustainable transition through entrepreneurship. Initially, this manifested as the establishment of ifund Foundation, a fund aimed at investing in that acceleration. A little later, this was followed by the establishment of BlueCity, an incubator for circular start-ups in the old Tropicana in Rotterdam. In 2021, Lenteland was founded. With Lenteland, Veer wants to set up a hundred regenerative agriculture-based farms in ten years. Supported by local communities that become owners of the farm, including land and buildings. The foundation describes the thinking behind Lenteland as: Fair for farmers, healthy for us, good for nature.
Why did you decide in 2015 to part ways with your business and take this new path?
“For a lot of reasons. I had started the original company while I was in college, and after 15 years there came a point where I asked myself, is this what I want to keep doing for the rest of my life? The answer was no. I had since learned that I can be an entrepreneur and that I love helping others do that too. I also love making sense of the world. And when I look at our financial system and our food system, I see a lot of problems. As far as the financial system is concerned, I was faced with an uncomfortable fact myself, because I realized that I had more money than I need. It made me wonder more about where that inequality comes from and I felt an obligation to do something useful with that money, my time and my energy. Lenteland is my voice of protest against those systems.”
What do you think is wrong with our food system?
“In today’s conventional, chemical agriculture, it takes ten calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. That takes a lot of fossil fuel. Natural gas is needed to produce fertilizer, and oil is needed for the big machines used to plow and for transportation - like the big shipments of cattle feed from South America to the Netherlands. All chemical pesticides are oil-based. We have been able to achieve this enormous agricultural production capacity in the Netherlands only because we had an abundance of fossil fuels. With this method of agriculture, we export bizarre amounts of food, import incredible amounts of nutrients and are left with the mess. The cost of cleaning it up is not borne by the consumer, but ultimately it is borne by society. As are all the subsidies on fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels. All those factors combined mean that the cauliflower you buy at the supermarket is actually far too cheap. If the producer had to bear all the actual costs of cultivation and transportation, the price would be much higher.”
How can it be done better?
“We need to move toward a new system. Making current agriculture sustainable is all about reducing negative impact. But it is still negative impact, in the form of declining biodiversity, pollution of ground and surface water, et cetera. Regenerative agriculture - as we pursue it - does not use heavy machinery, fertilizers or pesticides. The idea is that you let nature do its work as much as possible, with healthy soil as a basis. That results in more biodiversity instead of less, and actually traps carbon emissions instead of causing emissions. In addition, there is an important social gain: a regenerative farm establishes a relationship with its environment. At a Lenteland farm you can buy a harvest share for a few hundred euros, which will give you a portion of the harvest each week. That way the farmer is assured of a decent income. So it is better for the farmer, and better for nature. And to continue this way of farming in the long term, it is crucial for a regenerative farm to be economically viable.”
But if that cauliflower becomes so much more expensive, not everyone will be able to afford it anymore. How do you solve that problem?
“This is an important point. We have no illusion of being able to solve all the problems in the world, including inequality. But we do feel obligated to do something about it, which is why many Lenteland farms use a system of solidarity payment. The way that works is that the client decides what they will pay for a vegetable package, based on their income. When you do this, you provide several options. For example, you say: it takes 550 euros a year to make a vegetable package, but actually that’s just enough to pay the farmer a minimum wage. If you pay 700 euros, a decent wage can be paid, and at 800 euros someone who is less well-off can become a customer. Practice has shown that this kind of system works. In addition, we need to move toward a situation where a larger portion of our income goes to food. There was a time when we spent 30 percent of our income on food. We don’t have to go back to that time. But it would already make a difference if we increased the 6 to 7 percent we spend now to 10 percent.”