The conversation: “Sustainability has no end point, it’s a continuous process”

15 February 2021

Nick Major in conversation with José Aalders, employee Total Feed Support Pigs & Poultry

In her daily work at Total Feed Support in Heijen (NL), José Aalders is co-responsible for the planning of dozens of shipments of liquid residual products which go mainly to pig farms every day. The residual flows originate from the food industry and are recycled as animal feed. “I’m a small part of a whole circular system”, José observes. But the farmer’s daughter does much more. She was one of the initiators of the internal sustainability network for ForFarmers employees. Nick Major had a conversation with her.

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Nick Major in the UK talking to José Aalders in the Netherlands

Food and agri continue to attract

Nick: “I’ll start with my standard first question: What does sustainability mean for you?”
José: “It’s a tricky concept. You almost don’t really know where to begin when you want to make more sustainable choices. But it won’t surprise you that, as a farmer’s daughter, I’m particularly interested in the food and agri sector: more sustainable food production and more conscious consumer choices.”
Nick: “So that’s been instilled into you?”
José: “Well no, actually after high school I got a bit fed up with the farm and went to study Leisure Management. But food and agriculture are in my blood and I had to come back to it. In a previous job, I did many projects on the cutting edge of farmer-citizen-food. And for the municipality of Berg & Dal, where I live, I organised inspiration sessions with local entrepreneurs to brainstorm about regional products. I really liked the contacts with farmers anyway.”

Are there limits to growth?

Nick: “I detect many activities with a link to sustainability that are already here! Do you remember when the penny really dropped?”
José: “The moment when I consciously thought ‘sustainability is important to me’ was in 2015, during a theatre performance about Sicco Mansholt, a former Minister of Agriculture of the Netherlands. The performance took place in a barn on a farm. Most Dutch people know the story: ‘never again hunger’ was the guiding principle in Mansholt’s post-war agricultural policy. In the performance, on the eve of his retirement, he looks back on the consequences - the butter mountain, the milk lake, damage to nature and the environment - and distances himself from his own policy. From then on, I increasingly asked myself: are there limits to growth and can I be satisfied with enough?”
Nick: “How does that manifest itself in your daily life?”
José: “It’s often in the little things. Separating waste, of course, and I try to use less plastic. Nowadays, you can buy ‘shampoo bars’, shampoo in solid form, like a bar of soap, which saves a lot of plastic bottles. But I also try to make people aware and to start a conversation, about wasting food for example. You can’t do everything at once, but I believe that in making small changes you can make a big difference.”

It started with a cup of coffee

Nick: “Within ForFarmers, you were one of those involved in the start-up of the internal ambassador network for sustainability. How did that come about?”
José: “I wanted to do something with sustainability at work and I called Anouk, our sustainability manager at the time, and arranged to have a cup of coffee together. After the conversation with her, I came home full of energy and great ideas. We set to work immediately on one of these ideas: setting up a sustainability network within ForFarmers. A platform for sharing knowledge and to bring together initiatives from across the entire organisation. We quickly gathered together quite a large group and now we are 44 ambassadors from four countries.”
Nick: “I like the way this idea came about on the shop floor, as it were. Since Anouk’s departure, I’ve taken this up with you. That must have taken some getting used to for you.”
José: “Haha, yes, all of a sudden everything has to be in English, that makes the communication a little less easy. But in doing so we prevent things from becoming a ‘Dutch party’. And, of course, it’s great that you as Director Corporate Affairs and I from Total Feed Support are working together on a project while the rest of the time we work on very different things.”

Diversity is the strength of the network

Afbeelding: Framework_Going_Circular_Boundaries_FC_EN

Nick: “What would you like to accomplish with the network?”
José: “Sustainability has no end point, it’s a continuous process in which we all have a part to play. I hope to speed up this process a bit and perhaps give it some direction. In the agricultural sector, it’s often a question of intensive versus extensive. This discussion ignores the diversity in the industry and suggests that there is one solution. But when you start to immerse yourself in each other’s points of view, a different picture emerges with new connections and opportunities for change. It’s great that we can make new connections with this network of ambassadors. You don’t have to be a specialist, it’s often the people who know less about the subject that come up with refreshing ideas. The strength of the network also lies in the diversity of the group. This can only help to reinforce each other. Many people within ForFarmers are already working on sustainability; I hope we can inspire each other and use this network to drive change and also that our sustainability strategy Going Circular really comes to life.”

Nick: “There are already a number of great things in the pipeline, such as an inspiration session with Arthur van Och, our Supply Chain Director. I look forward to that. But a bit more about Going Circular; how do you think ForFarmers is doing in terms of sustainability?”
José: “I think it’s great that ForFarmers has chosen to play a leading role in it, shoulder to shoulder with our customers. In the year 2021, it is impossible to develop a vision about food that is embraced by everyone. Everyone has an opinion about it and makes choices: organic, regional, vegetarian or cheap produce. The strategy indicates the direction we want to take, but the dialogue remains the most important thing. That way we can really make a difference. And, of course, we are already doing a great deal. A nice recent example is the refurbished bulk trailer.”

Food with a story

Nick: “Do you also talk about sustainability with your immediate colleagues?”
José: “Corona does make it a little harder to start a conversation about it. But, of course, I do share interesting articles and documentaries. Besides: food connects, everyone enjoys good food. I like food with a story, such as regional produce or something that is prepared traditionally. A good restaurant, an inspiring chef, a cool place to have lunch, I love to share them. And the great thing is: without farmers, those chefs have nothing to rock with. That completes the circle again!”

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José on her parents' dairy farm