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In conversation with… Marijke Everts

Sustainability is on the social agenda more than ever. There is much discussion about climate objectives and the contribution that the business community has to make. That affects the VanDrie Group's strategy, of course. We talked to Marijke Everts (Director Corporate Affairs) to see which role and actions the VanDrie Group is taking.

What does sustainability mean to the VanDrie Group?

Everts: “We have a duty of care and that is something we feel as a family business too. That means that we are actively working to reduce our climate impact. As chain coordinator, we are driving the transition to a more sustainable sector. While on the one hand, we achieve this by focusing our production chain on obtaining the maximum value from the calf, by making our products more sustainable, by using alternative raw materials and by making optimal use of residual waste flows and residual heat in the food system, all of which are enabling us to fulfil the ambitions for a circular agricultural system, we also achieve this by applying smart technologies and developing innovative solutions that reduce emissions in every link of our production, which is enabling us to contribute to the national climate objectives. We are convinced that we can make great steps toward improving the animal protein chain through innovation, including with regard to its impact on the climate and the environment.

 We can also see that we will need every link in the future. If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. That’s what they say, isn’t it? That is why we are investing in partnerships with knowledge partners and stakeholders in order to make the chain more sustainable. In this way, we are ensuring that the work carried out in every link of our chain is increasingly efficient, the impact on the environment and the surroundings is reduced and waste is prevented.”

It has been in the news a lot recently: Friends of the Earth Netherlands won a case against Royal Dutch Shell. The Hague District Court recently ruled that Shell has to reduce CO2 emissions faster. In February 2021, Friends of the Earth Netherlands published a report in which, among other things, it blames the VanDrie Group for the fact that Dutch climate objectives will probably not be reached. What can the VanDrie Group expect?

Everts: We have set out in our strategy that we want to reduce our CO2 emissions by 49 percent by 2030 compared to 1990, in accordance with the climate agreement. We see that adjustments are probably necessary. Europe has tightened its ambitions and we don’t know what is happening with the formation of the new Dutch government. We are able to act quickly and will do so in the coming period. I think it’s important, however, to add something in order to put things in a proper perspective.”

Do tell...

Everts: “Discussions must be well-substantiated. When talking about our emissions, the report published by Friends of the Earth Netherlands is based on old figures. In fact, on the basis of an environmental analysis carried out on the veal sector in 2019 and 2020 by Blonk Consultants, the CO2 impact of the VanDrie Group in the Netherlands is more than 50% less than claimed in the report. This consultancy indicated to Friends of the Earth Netherlands in advance that figures from this environmental analysis were more recent and more precise than those that were ultimately used. Unfortunately, that information was not acted upon.”

Nevertheless, the VanDrie Group is being called to account as a polluter.

Everts: “I understand very well that as a large company, we are being critically monitored. Logically, size means more impact, of course, and ultimately more responsibility. That’s why we are taking active measures by means of innovation and investments to reduce and prevent negative effects of our production. We want to meet the standards that are expected of us and are in keeping with our social position and responsibility. We realise that we must set a good example and act ethically. That also means that we absolutely want to achieve our goals in terms of climate and environment.”

Is reducing CO2 emissions the most notable one then?

Everts: “We need to push ahead to reduce emissions. I’m not only talking about carbon dioxide (CO2), but also, for example, about ammonia (NH3) – the compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. Ammonia is released from manure. In spite of a spectacular fall in ammonia emissions from agriculture in the past 30 years, it still must be reduced further.

 A considerable number of innovations are currently being tested, such as new stall systems. These low-emission stall systems, which devote attention to animal health and welfare, will hopefully soon become the new standard. It is estimated that with new stall systems, a minimum reduction in ammonia emissions in veal farming of at least 60 percent can be achieved compared to 2019. This is promising, but has unfortunately not yet become standard practice.”

 What challenges do you envisage?

Everts: “We are facing dilemmas with the implementation of our strategy and the steps that we are taking to achieve our ambitions. Difficult choices, whereby development in one area can mean stagnation in the other. Or in which unforeseen circumstances have an effect on developments.”

That is still a little bit vague. Can you make that more specific?

Everts: “Of course! New stall systems in a calf husbandry are expected to achieve significant reductions in ammonia. That transition will require major investments, from both us and from veal farmers. At present, however, there are few recognised stall systems that already deliver substantial emission reductions. At the same time, the sector is having to contend with tight legal frameworks and limited financial support. In addition, the effects of the coronavirus crisis in the sector are clearly tangible, as a result of which financial resources are limited. Without investment opportunities, there can be no innovations. Without innovations, there will not be any significant improvement in sustainability. How do we ensure that we can continue to make the sector more sustainable in spite of these challenges?”

Have you already got an answer to that question yourself?

Everts: “We are committed to gradually removing the barriers that are hindering that necessary transition. We are doing this by means of several routes, in which collaboration and dialogue with stakeholders are essential in order to find solutions and generate support.

With national and regional governments, we are emphasising the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and setting up schemes that veal farmers can use for large-scale investments. In addition, we always ask for clear frameworks that take the long-term perspective into account. There’s nothing wrong with setting challenging targets. However, if you want to get everyone on board with a transition without too much social upheaval, clarity and calm are important. I hope that the formation of the new Dutch government will restore confidence in the agricultural sector and provide support along the route towards improvement through innovation.”