Peter Maes ‘Connecting horticulture to society’

Interview with Peter Maes: Chairman at EatThis and Chief Strategy Officer at Koppert 

INTERVIEW | Ton van der Scheer

Peter Maes

Peter Maes

Biological produce is currently well received by the public as well as politics. Biological crop protection therefore cannot but have the wind in its sails, can it? Peter Maes, Chief Strategy Officer at Koppert, agrees but also points towards the necessity and urgency to keep on sharing the positive story of agri- and horticulture. That is why he is chairman of EatThis.  

As a little boy Peter Maes spent his summer at his grandfather’s farm. Hot summer days in August, sun-drenched fields, grain already harvested, potatoes and beets still growing. ‘And then we went indoors and I always saw my grandfather cleaning the kitchen table, removing a white powder and many dead flies, before we sat down. That were persistent pesticides, still very prevalent in those days. At the same time however my grandfather passed on his love for nature, the beauty of it and its ingenuity. While he was actually forced, if he wanted to maintain his family and farm, to quite strongly intervene in those natural processes.’ 

Peter Maes (1965) is Chief Strategy Officer at Koppert. He started working at the company in1998. He studied industrial agriculture and got a Master in human ecology. He is president of the board of EatThis. since its creation in 2020.

It was a fine breeding ground for a Flemish country boy, and it led him to the company which introduced sustainability in the Dutch horticultural sector, already some 50 odd years ago. He’s been working with Koppert for 25 years now and is part of the company executive board since last year. His role within the company board concentrates on communication with the outside world, not only customers, but also the society at large. His role as president of horticultural network EatThis. only strengthens that role, but also his personal beliefs.

“EatThis. has very diverse members and I clearly feel that with implementing projects like Hungry Eco Cities and the In Residencies that something is happening, that we’re working towards something substantial. How that something is going to look like, we don’t know yet, because it doesn’t exist yet, it’s something that we have to discover and explore together. How food and health connect horticulture to society. But do people know us? And do we know them?”

The story of Koppert is in the sector a well-known and accepted story, right? 

 “Not always I must say. In those days, the biological solutions Koppert introduced, were at best regarded as an addition to the existing package of chemical products. It was only in the nineties that a real transition was made and biological alternatives were put center stage when it came to crop protection. Only then the horticultural sector could go forward and realize a 70 – 90% reduction in the use of chemical products. It’s logical, you first focus on the crops with the highest values per square meter. Ten years ago we acquired the company Itaforte in Brazil and we were able to implement our products in large outdoor crops such as soya, maize and sugar cane. “

The use of biological crop protection increased not only because growers felt forced to use it?

“No, not only because of the increasing pressure of rules and regulations leading to the availability of less chemical solutions, nor the resistance against existing chemical products. Crop improvement has been very important and something that has been clearly visible in floriculture. The change to integrated pest management in roses has led to longer stems, larger rosebuds, a higher turnover and more profitability. Of course, the current climatological challenges help our case. Farmers and growers regard resilient plants and soils that can withstand another dry summer much more important and necessary that say 20 or 30 years ago. At Koppert we’re not only talking about pest control anymore, we’re also talking about bio stimulants, about pollination, about the plant and its whole environment. From curative to preventative.” 

That’s a very nice story, but how do you communicate it to society and politics without being accused as an ordinary ‘lobbyist’? 

“Yes, that word sounds negative, but I think you should be allowed to explain how you can contribute to policy. And you do this, not by ‘just clarifying things once more’, but by gaining a seat at the table, by building a dialogue and a firm relationship. By getting to know each other. By taking small steps that will grow bigger over time. Once your company grows, it becomes more visible and you start playing a role in bigger networks. Networks you’ll have to build, with politics, society and other companies and sectors. Only then you can change things, like the outdated rules and regulations concerning our products, because they’re still very much focus on chemical products.” 

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Taking those steps in The Hague or better in Brussels?

 “Martin Koppert got the opportunity to present a more suitable policy regarding biological crop protection to the European Commission. You can only do this by sharing you story and sharing it again. You share it with technical officers and now we could share it with the European Commissioner itself. That is a long and never ending trajectory, because those people in Brussels work at 1.001 things at the same time and need to take many interests into account. Apparently some 25 or 30.000 lobbyists work in Brussels.”

And connecting to society?

“As a sector we are allowed to communicate our challenges and issues; our struggles in the current energy crisis and the restrictions we’re facing regarding crops and crop protection measures. At the same time, we should also invest time and energy in what we can do. When you look at the initiative ‘Greenhouse as source of energy’ (Kas als energiebron red.), which turned around the story regarding energy and horticulture, I think our sector should focus much more on health. Fresh produce is healthier and the way we produce is healthier. You can communicate this as individual company or as sector. But let’s embrace this together. I think that is exactly what is happening right now. To me, health is the muscle on which we build our future. At Koppert we focus on plant health which we extrapolate to human health and the health of our environment, of our planet.”

But that can lead to claims such as ‘greenwashing’. Because the chemical giants who say the same, still sell for 90% the same chemical products.

“Of course. However, we know where we need to go. Everybody has its own agenda and tries to maintain and extend what they have now, but in the end we all know what is needed and where we’re heading, also farmers and growers. EatThis. strives to bring together that awareness that is apparent in our sector and other sectors as well. To accelerate this and build this awareness into a larger movement, you need engagement. Not a sector that drags its heels. I think our sector should reach consensus on a clear dot on the horizon and discuss this final goal with NGO’s, politicians, artists and other representatives of society. Get together and express to others what you want to do and what you need. I really think that many things then can develop relatively fast.”

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In the Netherlands the farmer is on the map again, but he’s an angry farmer. What can we do to turn that around?

“There are many positive stories of farmers and growers who give their very best. We stimulate and support Resilience Food Stories, an international platform on which farmers and horticulturalists share their stories on how, at a certain moment in their lives and careers, made the switch to sustainable farming because they saw how they could be part of the solution. And then you notice how intrinsically motivated these people are to actually change their way of working. And what this has brought them, their company and what appreciation they receive as a result and how this creates social cohesion.”

Or are the farmers and growers moving more into the background?

“It is no accident we designate agri- and horticulture as primary and vital sectors in our society. We are prone to forget this and the pyramid sometimes seems to be upside down, with only 2% of the population working as farmer or grower. But this primary and vital sector is the basis of everything. You need to take care of it, cherish it, because otherwise those other sectors, the secondary industry and tertiary service sector will not be able to function properly.” 

This interview appeared originally in Dutch in the trade journal Groente & Fruit. This magazine provides information about horticulture for professionals. EatThis regulary writes (Dutch) columns on this website. Ed Smit wrote two articles for them as well. You can read them here and here (in Dutch).