Organic is Thriving

Louise Luttikholt on herding cows, the cost of chemicals, and what it will take to transition to organic agriculture by 2030


Louise Luttikholt is the Executive Director of IFOAM — Organics International. Raised on a small family farm in the Netherlands, Louise has extensive experience in organic agriculture, fair trade, and development cooperation at a strategic, management, and regulatory level. ​From 2014 to 2018 she worked as the Director of HELVETAS Germany and Senior Advisor Sustainable Agriculture at HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation. There, she set up and grew the new organization HELVETAS Germany and has led and overseen the organization and its projects which are implemented in several countries.

This is a feature of the Presencing Institute’s Dialogues on Soil and Society, a compilation of interviews that frame agriculture as a critical area for curbing climate change and spurring societal transformation. The goal of the series is to identify promising place-based projects and systemic interventions to support sustainable, just, and reciprocal food economies.








© IFOAM | Organics International

Katrin Kaeufer: What kinds of formative experiences woke you up to the work you’re doing today?

Louise Luttikholt: I am from a farm in the east of the Netherlands. Due to the Second World War, my parents never really went to school. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they weren't intelligent. They were intelligent in their own way.

In the beginning of the 1970s, extensionists of the cooperative came to our farm and said, "You have to expand. It would be good for you and your income if  you would also have pigs for pork meat.” My father told me that he never quite understood how that could work because pigs produce a lot of manure, and he knew that he didn't have enough land to process or absorb that manure. Nonetheless, knowing that those people had studied--and he hadn’t--he thought they must be right.

And so he also started his intensive pig production along with many other farmers in the Netherlands, leaving the Netherlands with a big nitrogen problem. In the 70’s and 80’s, Blue Baby Syndrome became a problem in the Netherlands. Babies were born with blue skin, caused by the water that was polluted by nitrate. In response to this crisis, the government instructed farmers to reduce the amount of manure they were producing. Had my father followed his gut feeling, he would have never begun his pig production in the first place. I find it so interesting to see those extensionists claim to know things better than the farmers who are related directly to the land and who may have a gut feeling that this might not be the best way to go. So that was one important experience.

The main focus of our farm, however, has always been the cows. I found it fantastic as a kid to herd cows and to observe how they have a certain hierarchy. The young and wild ones go first, but they're also herded by the older ones. And then you have some lazy ones that come at the end. And, at the far end, I herd with a dog.

What I discovered was that herding cows is really subtle work. If you go one step to the left, the whole herd will go to the right because of that one step. 

And so, with very subtle movements, you can almost be part of this herd while, at the same time, standing outside of it. As a kid I already knew that I'm not different from those cows. They really see me as one of them. So, if I do something, they react. I was not standing separately from this herd. I was part of this herd, and that was such a fantastic experience. Being a farmer or being related to a farm means that you are actually interrelated to everything that lives. Informed by these experiences, I decided to study biology and philosophy, where I encountered more consciously the subject and question: 

How do human beings relate to nature? Are we part of it or outside nature?

I think that we are all interrelated. I'm interrelated with you by having this conversation. I'm also interrelated with people I don't know in other parts of the world. And my direct relation with them is that the bigger my footprint is, the smaller theirs can be because this earth is limited. 

If we have to share our natural resources, everything that I occupy is no longer available for somebody else, be it a person, creature, plant, or mineral. There is also recycling and other actions that are actively affirmative or positive. This means that I can do something that actually increases the wellbeing of other beings. For instance, by reducing the amount of meat I eat or by composting in my garden, I can also do something good. So it's very nice to see how we are interrelated and how, through our actions, we influence others. And, in turn, we are influenced again by nature. 

In agriculture, for instance, you can see that diseases have increased. One of the reasons why those diseases have increased is actually because we have reduced biodiversity. Nature does something back to us, by making it very difficult to do agriculture. 

Many of the things we see are actually indicators of something else: of how stable a natural system is, of how well we and our ancestors take care of the soil. And if we think that through, we see how our actions affect the ability of future generations to live on this earth. So, I'm not only interrelated with living beings right now, but also with those in the future. And I'm also interrelated with living beings from the past. There are many things that I get from my grandparents that are still useful now. I don't want to romanticize their way of living, I'm quite aware that they were poor, but, at the same time, they were also quite aware of the limitations of themselves, of nature and maybe that is something that we can take on again and live more sustainable today and bring into the future.








© IFOAM | Organics International

Katrin Kaeufer: What is your current work and what are you working towards?

Louise Luttikholt: Before I dive into my current work, I have to say a few words about the organic sector and how it came to be. About 50 years ago, we were the weirdos. We were the people with the long hair, the hippies, and the people who wanted to do things differently.

Very soon, those people came together to support each other, to help each other's thinking, but also to help each other in very practical ways. When those people came together, they formed an association called IFOAM Organics International where I now work. Members of our association are organizations. These can be farmers organizations, producers or processors, these can also be extensionist, universities, or people who do advocacy.

In short: all organizations that are concerned with organic agriculture and with bringing organic agriculture, or agriculture as a whole, one step further. In my daily work, I’m actually quite far from directly working the soil and the gardens. We try to enable this environmental work on a global level, for instance, by influencing the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations by showing examples of how organic agriculture works and by showing how it can actually support food and nutrition security.

We also make sure that our members themselves can lobby and do advocacy so that they can make sure that organic agriculture can thrive in their environment. One reason that agriculture has gained more attention is the realization that it is a really big influencer when it comes to climate change. A big chunk of climate gases is produced by agriculture. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, emissions from global livestock alone account for 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. So, agriculture actually has a negative influence right now on the climate. At the same time, we can also see that if we change agriculture, we can also affect the climate positively. If we look at the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the majority of them actually link to agriculture. So if we do agriculture well, we can contribute to all of those Sustainable Development Goals. The beauty of the Sustainable Development Goals is that they all need to be in balance. We cannot focus on only one to the detriment of others. We have to look at them in common. And so, if you look, in a holistic way, to agriculture, you can actually see how it can contribute to all of those Sustainable Development Goals. This is basically what we try to do with our work.

I often feel inspired by the work that our members do. For instance in India, we saw several villages come together around cooperatives in which women have a strong say on the food production. These communities lived a simple but healthy and good life. The success factor for me is that their children then also chose to be active in agriculture. So, for me that is a source of inspiration. But a totally different source of inspiration would be when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations decided to set up a program on scaling up agroecology. And you must know that the policy processes in such UN organizations are heavy. Coming to such a conclusion is a great success and means that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations actually sees the benefit of organic and agroecological agriculture.

Katrin Kaeufer: These are such positive stories. What is systematically working against what you’re trying to bring into the world?

Louise Luttikholt: It appears to me that we are mixing up our economy with our society. Even through the coronavirus, this is becoming more and more visible.  We live in an economy in which we have been taught to believe in eternal growth. But our earth system doesn't work like that. The current economic production system produces similar ways of thinking in agriculture, meaning the belief in continuous growth.

Still, I'm so hopeful when I see the young people going on the street for the Fridays for Future or when I see protests against the burning of the Amazon. 

To go back to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we can distinguish between SDGs related to our natural environment from those related to our societal environment from goals related to economics. The natural environment serves the others by creating a place for us to live. And economics need to be flipped around as to service a purposeful and meaningful life. So once we flip that around, logically, agriculture and other parts of the society will be flipped around too and turn out to be the basis of our very existence.








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Zoë Ackerman: What kinds of myths and mindsets need to be composted in order for the organic movement to flourish?

Louise Luttikholt: There is indeed a misconception out there that organic agriculture would be very expensive in terms of production and also expensive for people purchasing the food. But if we think of chemical agriculture, it is very expensive. We not only pay when we buy our food, but we also have to pay indirectly when we need to clean up water, we have to pay one way or the other for our reduced biodiversity, we also have to pay, as a society, for all health costs that emerge as a result of the amount of chemicals used.

We might also pay with a sort of frustration or dissatisfaction because we are no longer related to the earth, which is a psychological cost. So I've already counted four different types of costs that I have when I buy chemically produced food. If I produce my food in an organic way, we may as well say that the costs are inherently in the product, because there are no other costs that are sent off to other parts of our society. In that sense, I don't think that organic is too expensive. Of course, there's a question of production, but I also think that this question should be put in perspective.

On a global level, we currently throw away at least one third of our food. In the so-called Global North, half of the food is being thrown away just on the household level. That is crazy. So, I buy something to eventually throw it away, to not use it. If I think about this fact and then about the suggestion that organic agriculture would not produce enough, I think we have to look differently on how we consume. Another part of our consumption is the amount of meat that we consume. And I would not say that everybody needs to be a vegan person, but if everybody were to reduce their meat consumption by a quarter or a third, we would also have a big, big impact on what we can do with the grains that we harvest and use for animal feed and on animal welfare. So, there are several sides to this when we talk about the amounts of production or the question of expense. And I think we should look at that in an honest and holistic way.

Zoë Ackerman: What needs to shift in global subsidy systems in order for the real cost of food to be calculated?

Louise Luttikholt: It really depends on where we are in the world. In the Global South, for instance, we see the governments giving subsidies on fertilizers. If a government is concerned about providing enough food for  people in their country, then they want the farmers to grow specific kinds of staple foods. And I think we should take that concern seriously. Of course, they want to make sure that the people have enough to eat. But, by subsidizing these fertilizers, they have also subsidized a part of climate change that only the production of these fertilizers causes, not to speak of the pollution in the water caused by this. So there might also be other ways to make sure that each and every one of us has enough to eat, because that's a sincere concern that governments and families have. And I think we should take that seriously.

However, if we look at subsidies in the Global North, we see an overproduction that is then being exported to other parts of the world which creates undue competition with local production. Looking at our global food system, we see a lack in the closure of some of the cycles there. We know for instance, that soy is being produced in the Amazonas to feed it to cows in the US or in Europe. But the manure of those cows stays in the US and Europe. Much of this is caused by subsidies.

If we internalize all the external costs, and if we penalized those actions that do not contribute to the common good; those actions that actually pollute our water, then you have a sort of inverse subsidy system. You could even use the amount that you get together with the penalization for investing in things that are contributing to the common good. There's a small example of that in Europe, actually. The government of Italy instituted a tax on chemical pesticides. They then take the money that they gain with that tax and they put into research for organic agriculture and biopesticides. These kinds of things exist in a small way, but we could also do that in a big way. And with that we can steer how we would like to see a healthy production and a healthy environment to come about.








© IFOAM | Organics International

Zoë Ackerman: What positive examples are happening locally that could be replicated on a global scale? 

Louise Luttikholt: There are some examples of local governments taking initiative. And the beauty of local governments is that they can, most of the time, operate quite independently of the bigger agricultural bills that are there. An example would be a government in the South of the Philippines, on an Island called Mindanao. This island has been in the news in the past years because of their civil war. If you look at it only on the surface, it appears to be a civil war between people with a Catholic background and people with a Muslim background. But if you look a little bit deeper, you see that it was actually about access to the land. And it turned out that the people with the Catholic background, who have been living on the lowlands of that island, were able to do agriculture quite well, whereas the Muslim people were living on the hills and in the mountains, meaning that they had to produce food in more severe circumstances. When the mayor realized that the whole civil war was not necessarily about religion but rather about access to land, he invited those people who, in the past, were called the rebels to help on the farms, giving them access to land on the condition that they give up their weapons. This program is called From Arms to Farms. Imagine these guys who actually gave up fighting and now produce food. One requirement was that they produce food organically. And so now this whole municipality is organic, meaning that the children in the school get organic food, the hospitals also serve organic meals, the market is delivered with organic food, and, in this way, the municipality actually was able to end the civil war. It's fantastic to think that organic agriculture can contribute to peace.

This is, of course, an extreme example, but we also have other, similar municipalities. The city of Quito in Ecuador has come up with a municipal green plan where they allow people to have access to everything that is green in order to produce food. Again, the condition is that they do this in an organic way. This program has been going on for a couple of years now. The people who have access to this program are mostly the poorer citizens of the city, who now have access to good food. It’s also a way for a community to come together because producing food is the most basic thing that we can do together. These are nice examples, and we see similar things in  San Francisco and in a municipality in Senegal. So, these things really happen all over the world.

Zoë Ackerman: Given the COVID crisis, what opportunities are you seeing in support for local production?

Louise Luttikholt: I am a little bit cautious of calling our current situation a crisis. I think many people live their daily life one way or the other in a modus of crisis. There are many people who don't know whether they will eat tomorrow or who are concerned that if somebody in the family gets ill, that they cannot pay for a hospital.

But I'm not sure whether that exactly is the crisis. The current situation shows us the weaknesses in our own systems, but it also shows us the opportunities. And what we see here in Germany is that people are beginning to value food more. With all of our restaurants closed, people are forced to cook for themselves. And what we see people doing, is making healthy choices because this virus, of course, is connected with illness. So people want to make sure that their resilience is increasing. Over the last weeks and months, we have seen an increase in the sales of organic products, which is, of course, very positive. And we also know that if we want these changes to stay, people should live them for a certain while. In that sense, and now this sounds very mean, I would almost hope that this so-called crisis takes a little bit longer so that people can internalize the realization that they can cook for themselves, that they can make healthy food choices even by using simple ingredients and that they can also relate back to the land and to the farmers from where they buy the food. Of course, we all want this pandemic to go away and we also wish that the people that are currently ill get healthy again. But health also takes the form of a mental state and of community values, and of being connected to the place where you live. All of this contributes to health. And I think that organic agriculture offers this. In that sense, it has a broader contribution to health than only the direct food that we eat.








© IFOAM | Organics International

Zoë Ackerman: What do you think is possible in the next 10 years? 

Louise Luttikholt: There are a couple of things that make me very hopeful. Our first and foremost effort is to be inclusive. If we want everybody to be organic then that means that the director of Bayer, just to mention someone, also should be organic in the future. It doesn't help if I undermine or speak badly of some of the things that they do. Rather, I should see how there are already little steps that this company is making in the direction of sustainability. Or let's take a big food corporation like Unilever, Danone or Nestle. We can say a lot about them and also we can pinpoint to the moments where they don't contribute to the common good.

Already, we have seen the European Commission launched a 'From Farm to Fork' strategy and proclaimed a goal of 25 percent organic in the EU in 2030! If we want to see half of the food production in Europe turn organic in 2030, then we actually need to make sure that they feel invited to participate and contribute to the common good. 

It is really, really interesting to see that we are getting some new, very unexpected friends. For example, the companies behind the insurance companies, so called ‘re-insurance companies’. They make this kind of calculation to see the cost of degraded land, the cost of suffering from more climate change impact, and the cost of dwindling biodiversity. They actually put these facts into figures and make forecasts for future productions and monetary benefits. It's interesting to see that they come to the same conclusion as some of the scientists when talking about true cost accounting. And these companies, although they are working behind the scenes, have a big influence in the direction of our economies. It's really interesting to see their way of thinking and calculating risks as well as the cost of covering those risks in relation to land use and to the way we treat the earth. So these are actually allies that we should talk to and should work with.