TEMSE, Belgium — If you want to know whether the EU’s flagship Green Deal makes sense in the real world outside offices in Brussels, you should keep your eyes on Kris Heirbaut and his farm in northern Belgium.
For Heirbaut, going green is a gamble, but he’s gone all in. Having spent two decades focusing solely on producing more milk, Heirbaut is instigating a raft of changes to bring his farm into closer alignment with nature, putting himself at the vanguard of a burgeoning green farming revolution.
Just like millions of farmers across Europe facing the same existential challenge, the 41-year-old dairy farmer hopes to pass on his farm to his children one day — but that will depend on whether he can turn a profit in his risky move to seize the European Green Deal by the horns.
“A lot of farmers are doing things because they have to, so they’re not ahead,” Heirbaut said on his 65-hectare patchwork of land in the Waasland region, just south of the Dutch border.
Heirbaut is already remodeling his farm in line with the sweeping vision of the Green Deal’s Farm to Fork strategy: weaning himself off synthetic agrichemicals, reducing the number of livestock and working to create a “circular” system where noxious gases are trapped and recycled back into production.
“Society needs us to do more than just produce food,” he said.
The EU’s goals are ambitious and many farmers worry they won’t be able to keep up with the pace of change, let alone afford it. Under Farm to Fork, the EU has sketched out bloc-wide targets to cut the risk and use of chemical pesticides by 50 percent as well as slashing fertilizer use by 20 percent, all by 2030. At the same time, the new five-year Common Agricultural Policy agreed earlier this year aims to incentivize farmers to reduce their climate and environmental footprint through subsidy schemes.
All this change is a tall order for many farmers who say they lack viable alternatives for the chemical products they’ve grown to depend on, and who are also already feeling the effects of climate change-related droughts and floods, as well as the global pandemic.
But Heirbaut says he wants to get ahead of the incoming changes, jumping onto a greener path before he is pushed.
“I think farmers are just running behind still. Maybe they should be aware of the changes, and do something about it,” he said.
First moover advantage
Heirbaut is rethinking his approach to raising livestock by reducing his dairy herd from 90 to 70 and changing their diet. This has to do with growing concerns about emissions of methane, which cows produce when they burp.
“We were under attack in a certain way because of this methane situation. That was one of the drivers for me to start changing. I want a cow that harms the environment less. And then we can be proud of our cows and of our dairy,” he said standing in one of his two barns.
Methane gas is the second-largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide, and a major report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last summer declared that countries must make “strong” and “rapid” cuts in methane emissions. Some 40 percent of human-caused methane emissions come from the agriculture sector.
To cut down on the damaging belches, Heirbaut said that three years ago, he switched the cows’ prior diet of maize and soy to a mixture of protein-rich alfalfa, clover, buckwheat, millet and other plants, which he feeds to the cows as a supplement to the grass they graze in his meadows. He said their new diet reduces the amount of methane they burp out, but that more scientific research needs to be done in this area.
There are other benefits to this new menu, Heirbaut said: Maize is extremely pesticide-dependent, meaning he no longer needs to spray the cows’ feed crops with synthetic herbicides. Heirbaut also stopped feeding the cows soy beans, which are often grown with copious amounts of pesticides on deforested land in the Americas.
“He’s clearly much more circular than most dairy farms who import concentrates from elsewhere, so that’s a good step,” said Martin van Ittersum, an agriculture professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
Heirbaut explained: “I’m looking for the best balance between plant and animal production.”
While he can’t stop cows from burping, Heirbaut can rescue the methane contained in their waste. He pointed to a round silo building around which the sickly sweet smell of manure hung in the air.
A generator heats the manure and captures the methane, which goes back into running the generator as a biogas and is also used to generate electricity on the farm. He then takes the methane-free manure — still rich in nitrogen, potassium and other nutrients — and spreads it on his fields once a year as fertilizer, thus completing the circle.
“Farming was always circular,” Heirbaut said, arguing that agriculture lost its way in the 20th century with its “crazy” model focused on productivity and intensification.
Now Heirbaut, the fourth generation in his family to have farmed this once-swampy land on the banks of the River Scheldt, wants to harvest the best of the past while giving it a modern twist.
“It’s a balance between the old methods that my grandfather used to know and actually new technologies and downstream processing that is arising now on the farm.”
But he thinks policymakers are taking their time to instigate this revolution.
“They’re a bit late,” he said, pointing out that 2020 was officially the year of the EU’s Green Deal. The new Common Agricultural Policy should have kicked off last year, but will not begin until 2023.
Van Ittersum, the professor, was nuanced about Heirbaut’s approach. He described the farmer as someone who meets many of the Green Deal’s criteria and is an “example” worth learning from. But he added it would be more truly circular to use the land directly to grow feed for humans, rather than animals.
Gambling on green
Still, getting ahead of the curve is a financial risk. In Heirbaut’s experience, going greener has not borne fruit straight away.
“For now we didn’t make any more profits than any other farmer.”
The subsidies he expects to receive for a Flemish government carbon sequestration scheme, aimed at pulling greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and storing them in the soil, won’t land in his pocket for at least a year.
The long wait farmers must endure to see any revenue from their expensive investments is a disincentive for them to go green, he said. But financial pressures are also pushing him toward risk-taking: The price he’s been getting for his milk in recent years means it’s barely worth trying to produce more and more, he said.
Van Ittersum said: “He tries to be ahead of the game but you have to be brave to take that risk.”
Heirbaut argued the key to turning a profit is to have multiple revenue streams. He sells most of his milk to a Belgian processor and the rest is used for the farm’s ice cream shop. The shop is run by his wife Ginny — whom he met on a reality TV dating show for Flemish farmers.
Heirbaut’s latest expensive gamble is to manufacture protein-rich microalgae in a gigantic laboratory that will be able to store 20,000 liters of the organisms.
The algae is used as a plant-based alternative to animal products like gelling agents in food processing but could also be rolled out as human or animal feed. The carbon dioxide produced by his methane-burning biogas reactor might one day be pumped into the algae production, creating a closed loop.
He has received some subsidies from the Flemish government for this innovative project — but the construction of the lab has already been delayed by months due to coronavirus-related delivery problems, pushing back any prospect of turning a profit soon.
“We are on that ship and we’re in the water and we just have to go on,” Heirbaut said, referring to all the changes he has started making so far. “There’s no way back.”
Many in Brussels will need to watch whether he stays afloat.
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