‘I no longer wish to fly’

Published on
August 29, 2022

The opening of the academic year on 5 September is themed planetary boundaries. But, what are they? How can you study them, and can you use them in your day-to-day life? Today, episode 1: Hannah van Zanten, associate professor and one of the speakers during the opening.

How does Hannah van Zanten, associate professor at Farming Systems Ecology and visiting professor at Cornell University, research the planetary boundaries of our food production? She is working on a Circular Food Systems Model. ‘This model is based on the presumption that we are able to produce sufficient healthy food within the boundaries of our planet. More specifically, this means, for example, that we waste no resources and that consumers are permitted to emit no more than 500 CO2-equivalents per year each. Only thus can we stay within the boundaries of the planet.’

Hannah van Zanten about planetary boundaries:

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In her Circular Food Systems Model, Van Zanten quantifies the food systems and what food systems meet these requirements. ‘We have divided Europe into climate and soil zones. We then consider what crops could grow there through a re-design, what animals can be kept in such a zone and what food they need. Moreover, we may not increase the total area of farmland, and the CO2 rule is fixed. Then, we calculate what food systems fit within these requirements.’

Do you consider planetary boundaries a research object or an existential problem to the survival of humankind?

‘For me, it is a research topic due to my interest in the subject. I do consider it an existential issue. My passion stems from my interest in biodiversity. I worked in South Africa for a year. There, it became clear to me how food production, and hunger, can cause a massive loss in biodiversity. I increasingly realised that food production should take several environmental indicators into account while still focusing on food security. Climate effects have become increasingly apparent in recent years. Not a day goes by without news that shows we are crossing the boundaries of our planet. That realisation has dawned even more with the birth of my children.’

What are planetary boundaries?

The phrase planetary boundaries was coined in 2009 by Swedish Earth Scientist Johan Rockström. He formulated nine boundaries within which humanity must operate in order to use the earth’s natural resources sustainably. These boundaries are global warming (greenhouse effect), biodiversity loss, the closing of the nitrogen and phosphor cycles, hole in the ozone layer, acidification of the ocean, water scarcity, land use (limiting farmland), chemical pollution through toxins contained in plastics, and harmful compounds in the atmosphere. Most of these boundaries have already been crossed or have almost been crossed. The precise values of these boundaries are arbitrary. Still, they are considered a promising first step towards the safe continued existence of humanity.

‘People have different opinions on the magnitude of the problem and how it should be addressed. This calls for a step away from the issue so that we can consider what solutions may really work. I remain detached from the subject because I am not convinced that all of the solutions presented will help. My main concern is that certain technological solutions may have repercussions elsewhere within the food system. Considering the food system as a whole is essential. That is why we study what re-designing our food system requires in order to meet the planetary boundaries. These answers have yet to be found.’

How do you struggle with planetary boundaries in your personal life?

‘In various ways. I am almost vegan, although I do eat the occasional egg. I am quite minimalistic; I only buy things that I really need, and frequently second-hand. I have cut back on showering time, and we barely heat the house. This year, we took a conscious decision to stay in the Netherlands for our holiday. We go camping on a farm every year so that our children become aware of how and where our food is produced.’

‘Air travel is a difficult issue. I would prefer not to fly, but I am frequently invited to work visits and presentations abroad, which I really must attend. One would expect an increase in the online and Team conference options. Still, these options have faded fast, and I, too, see the added value of direct contact. Fortunately, the train is often a viable option, and sometimes a group of colleagues carpools to the location.’

‘And I struggle with my pets. We have a dog, a cat and a horse who must all eat. The horse eats hay from a nature reserve, so that is reasonable. But the dog and cat need kibble containing meat. In the ideal situation, the pets would eat our scraps, but we don’t eat meat, and they must have meat. So, this isn’t easy. We also try to buy sustainable toys with little plastic. We make a conscious effort to keep disposable living out of our home.’

Are you making progress?

Certainly, and I hope students will contribute to the re-design of our food systems. We are developing games to enable people to work on the re-design with us. I believe that black-and-white thinking will not take us any further, but rather that we, as a knowledge institute, must create that re-design together with others in our society.’