Even as a child, Jan Willem Erisman wanted to make things better. As a professor Environmental sustainability, he is therefore also very active outside the university. He is known as the nitrogen professor: in the media all the way to the House of Representatives, he explains the nitrogen problem. Recently, he joined the European Soil Mission Board to help address increasing soil problems. Five questions to this inspired scientist.
Why are you so active alongside your scientific work and joining this Soil Mission Board?
‘Even in primary school, I had the urge to make things better in the world. I wanted to become an inventor to help people with an eye for environmental quality. I could also have become a politician or policy-maker, but I think: it starts with content, factuality. I have always worked in knowledge institutions, but eventually I realised it was time to do more than just develop knowledge. I may have been trained as an atmospheric scientist, but throughout my career I have seen that the basis of life is a healthy soil.’
Why exactly did the EU make soil one of its five policy priorities?
‘The importance of healthy soil is underestimated. It takes nature hundreds of years to make one square centimetre of fertile soil, and we can break it down in a day. We don’t realise enough that we need to take care of it; it is the foundation of our lives. As much as 60-70 per cent of European soils are not healthy. The problems range from erosion, declining fertility and encroaching desert, to over tiling and polluted soil in cities.’
How will this soil committee make a difference?
‘Besides scientists, it includes farmers, for example. We want to select a hundred projects in which scientists get to work concretely with farmers, businesses and other parties who influence soil quality. This is done in so-called living labs, outdoor laboratories in their own environment. In this way, they work together on solutions for the soil, but also on preconditions such as earning models. After all, a farmer cannot take good care of the soil as long as he is stuck in a system where only high and cheap production is central.’
You are enthusiastic about living labs?
‘Living labs are a good method to accelerate change. This is because you not only investigate barriers and solutions, but also implement them immediately, and in the process you learn what works or doesn’t work. That acceleration is badly needed, because major social changes are essential to stop environmental problems and climate change, and that is going too slowly. I became involved in projects in which, for example, I help launch nature-inclusive agriculture together with dairy farmers on Schiermonnikoog and in the Vrouwe Vennepolder (Polderlab). And with the Herenboeren we provide sustainable local food supply.’
‘I have very good experiences with living labs in the search for sustainable and profitable agriculture. Always, scientists from various disciplines work together with farmers, administrators and other stakeholders who have to deal with top-down goals and preconditions in their own environment, such as soil improvement or nitrogen reduction.’
What does the Dutch government do with the results of research in living labs?
‘Unfortunately, the government does not monitor what happens in living labs. That is exactly what the European Union does want to do. There will be platforms for exchange between member states, and the EU wants to use solutions from living labs to ensure that 70% of soils are managed sustainably by 2030. In parallel, the European Commission is working on a soil law. Through such a law, soil must be given a voice in every industry and government decision.’
The European Soil Mission Board
The EU has formulated five policy priorities: besides healthy soil, they are climate adaptation, cancer control, water quality and climate-neutral cities. The 15-member Soil Mission Board exists since 2018 and aims to find adequate solutions to major soil problems. Former agriculture minister Cees Veerman is chairman. Jan Willem Erisman has just joined for a four-year term. He will help select research projects and is committed to increasing public, industry and government attention to soil.’
Text: Rianne Lindhout