Forward Thinking: Responsible Interaction with Nature

Interview with Peter van Bodegom

Nature is not to be underestimated. Society has a great impact on nature, and simultaneously a great dependency on it. Our natural resources shouldn't just be the occupation of NGOs, rather, the government must take responsibility for conscious and sustainable interaction.


    Using the Circular Economy as a framework, our research will continue to strive to find new potential business models that side by side achieve high environmental quality and are economically viable." Peter van Bodegom, professor and head of the Department of Environmental Biology within the Institute of Environmental Sciences of Leiden University, shares his thoughts on joining LDE Centre for Sustainability as a board member and scientific chair of the Greenport Hub. The Greenport Hub is the research programme focused on horticulture, with research themes focusing on attaining food security and sustainable advancement.  

With years of experience in the field of ecology,  he is passionate about answering important scientific questions on the impacts of human society of ecosystem functioning and biodiversity and vice versa.

A Wholesome Approach

The interaction and dependency on nature is key to human survival, and yet, there is a lack of appreciation and understanding of our natural resources. We only have our planet, yet our needs far exceed it. With a finite supply, there is a great need for a better understanding of the various aspects of responsible management of planetary reserves.

A wholesome approach must be taken to thoroughly comprehend this interaction between man and nature. Recently, a lot of attention has been given to the topics of sustainability and proper management of natural resources. However, it is an issue that goes beyond the fancies of NGOs and activists or policymakers at global forums like the United Nations.
Van Bodegom argues that sustainability is the responsibility of everyone. To enable all-around participation, a sound strategy for governance should be created by bridging the knowledge of scientific experts, politicians and businesses.


Towards a Circular Economy

The current economic model which is focused on unending growth is consuming resources as well as producing waste with severe environmental impacts. This economic model, despite its aim for growth, faces limitations due to the same utilisation of resources and its essential scarcity.  

Currently, the most widely used unit for quantification is in purely financial terms, with the ultimate target of achieving profit. Financial quantification leaves out the impact of externalities and other essential values. If one changes the basic approach towards accounting for impacts on natural capital and ecosystem services, there is greater potential to move to a circular economy.

For example, in order to achieve global carbon emission targets, we should not only look at emissions and emission reductions but also at ways to maintain or repair carbon storage in the system itself. Biological resources can be represented by the carbon captured, which will add a different perspective to the value of these resources, and encompass further value. When promoting spatial planning, carbon emission targets can be set such that the net emission is neutral. This would incentivise spatial planners to optimise natural spaces within their intention and strategy, thus immediately incorporating sustainable solutions.

You can’t just go to a circular economy just with technological innovations alone, he explains.  In a circular economy, the aim is to design out waste and pollution and regenerate materials for sustainable use. While technology plays a very important part in the optimisation of the use of materials and development, it is not the complete solution. Inclusive approaches are key, notes van Bodegom.
This implies considering e.g. water storage to avoid soil subsidence or improving water quality for nature conservation and getting paid for this as part of an agricultural business. We need to be open-minded towards finding optimal solutions for sustainability and while we might not yet know what those solutions will look like, in collaboration between scientists, policymakers and other stakeholders we may bridge the gap.

    If one changes the basic approach towards accounting for impacts on natural capital and ecosystem services, there is greater potential to move to a circular economy."

Greenport Hub: Visions and Ambitions

The Dutch horticulture sector is an international market leader. The Netherlands holds dominant global market shares in the export of flowers, bulbs and propagation material. Optimising systems of production to become more sustainable and circular within this field poses various challenges. These research challenges are tackled by the Greenport Hub, where we have the ambition to find out how nature-based solutions can optimise systems to create alternative business models that produce a sustainable export product.

The Greenport Hub is working with regional producers to create joint projects for sustainable production and use of resources. There are two predominant modes of production.
In a greenhouse, there is a closed system and here solutions are primarily technology driven. Within this system, all factors can be controlled - such as heat, water and pest control. In closed systems, it is relatively easy to study interactions and cycles.
The second principal system of production is in croplands, which cover a large area of the Dutch landscape. This is an open system, and due to this, controlling the various factors produces diverse other challenges with a more widespread impact that are less easily controlled.
It is, however, encouraging to note that different parties are becoming increasingly aware of the need to safely and sustainably use these landscapes, for instance in the bulb industry.


The increasing awareness for a sustainable model is shown in new national visions. These are potential grounds for interesting research, such as the preservation of natural landscapes.
An example of this is the establishment of the national park Hollands Duin. It illustrates that nature is more than just a resource, and is part of cultural and national heritage, which gives the park further importance. The national park is surrounded by bulb fields and this shows the need to integrate these fields to its surroundings. These agricultural fields aren’t just to be measured by their profitability, but also on their environmental impact.

Various questions arise and provide an exciting potential for research that we can tackle at the Greenport Hub. We can study how the establishment of this national park can be used to improve the environmental quality of the region. Smaller research projects could take on questions like how we can use biological coatings to prevent pests, the importance of soil biodiversity for bulk productivity and understanding the organic market. This research is important to support the transition towards increased sustainability.

   Agricultural fields aren't just to be measured by their profitability, but also on their environmental impact."

Given our current economic model, it is, of course, important to consider economic viability, and so further ambitions for the Greenport Hub include developing new and alternative business models that are economically practical and feasible. The future is an open book, and here we can explore greater potentials for the Netherlands.
Here it can be considered whether it is sustainable to continue exporting bulbs, or whether it would make more sense to export technology that can help to produce more efficiently and responsibly.

With all this in mind, it is exciting to work with the Greenport hub to do research supporting sustainable processes that ensure both environmental and biological quality side by side.