Collaboration offers opportunities for clean water and sustainable agriculture

Let the agricultural and water sectors collaborate on precision agriculture, targeted monitoring and circular technology

Agriculture and horticulture produce large-scale emissions of (artificial) fertilisers, plant protection products and veterinary pharmaceuticals, which hinder the achievement of the water quality objectives. In an impact study, KWR, together with the drinking water companies and representatives of the agricultural sector, identified the key knowledge and innovation issues that the agricultural and water sectors need to tackle jointly to contribute to cleaner water and sustainable agriculture. The solutions relate, for instance, to making use of developments in precision agriculture through targeted monitoring, circular technologies, improved soil management, and smart water-quality policy at an area level.

Agriculture and water quality

How can we best tackle agricultural and horticultural emissions, like (artificial) fertilisers, plant protection products and veterinary pharmaceuticals? On 19 February, about 50 people gathered at KWR for the final symposium of the impact study, ‘Agricultural development and water quality’, including representatives of knowledge organisations, drinking water companies, waterboards and the agricultural sector. They discussed the results of previous interviews with eleven experts from within and outside the water sector, and, on this basis, proceeded to develop the themes in different sessions. Hans Mommaas, Director-General of PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, presented his broad vision of the future and increased sustainability of Dutch agriculture. Carel de Vries, project leader of Vruchtbare Kringlopen Achterhoek en Liemers, spoke of the opportunities for sustainable operational management in stockbreeding on the basis of practical experiences in this project. This was followed by two interactive sessions in smaller groups.

Opportunities and threats

The first step in the interactive group sessions involved identifying the key opportunities for and threats to sustainable agriculture with regard to water quality, and formulating the relevant knowledge and innovation issues. The collaborations, actions and decisions needed to take advantage of the opportunities and remove the threats were also identified. The results have since been worked on by the researchers, who have come up with conclusions offering the prospect of a good, collaborative approach.

Precision agriculture and big data

Precision agriculture, detailed monitoring and big data present chances for example to precisely apply the right dose of (artificial) fertiliser, plant protection product and veterinary pharmaceutical, at the right time and at the right location. Detailed monitoring of this sort can considerably improve agricultural yields as well as water quality. With the extensive monitoring data that then become available, one can also switch from a generic control to an assessment of the environmental performance of individual farmers. Huge opportunities are therefore offered by the development and application of a solid monitoring and control system, in which the water and agricultural sectors collaborate in a tailored manner.

Tailoring and individual guidance

By making smart use of this development, the water sector can contribute constructively to better water quality. It is important that farmers receive support in the form of independent, individual guidance, in other words, through a tailored approach. The water sector can do this by working closely with the farmer’s accountant, contract workers and product clients. These ‘suppliers and advisors’ know what is going on and what the farmer’s interest considerations are, and how he/she might be stimulated to move towards efficient, sustainable operational management. In this regard, the assessment of the environmental performance of individual farmers is essential for knowledge, insight and sustainable operational management. In this manner, existing sustainability initiatives, such as Boerenvoordrinkwater (Farmers for Drinking Water), Duurzaam Schoon Grondwater (Sustainable Clean Groundwater) and Schoon Water voor Brabant (Clean Water for Brabant), can be effectively scaled up. An important task is to achieve an area-specific optimisation between water quality, water quantity, biodiversity and agricultural interests, which would include chain agreements with farmers, the water sector and product clients. The development of a sustainability label for agricultural production processes could offer opportunities for farmers to improve water quality at a fair price.

Keynote speaker Hans Mommaas.


Keynote speakers Hans Mommaas and Carel de Vries explain their vision for the achievement of good water quality with sustainable agriculture.