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UG alumnus Volkert Engelsman, No. 1 in the Duurzame 100

26 October 2017
Volkert Engelsman, Photo Alex van Erp
Volkert Engelsman, Photo Alex van Erp

At his company, Eosta, alumnus of the Faculty of Economics and Business Volkert Engelsman successfully combines sustainable ideals and commercial reality. The European distributor of organic and fair-trade fruit and vegetables helps producers switch to organic farming, is committed to healthy soil and provides consumers with in-depth information about the sustainability of its products.

From his office, Volkert Engelsman (58), who graduated from the UG’s Faculty of Economics and Business in 1984, has a view across the A12 where there is a continuous stream of cars and lorries. He turns in his chair and looks out of the window. ‘There goes one now.’ He points to a passing Eurotrailer, a type of lorry that his company uses to transport the organically grown tropical fruit that it imports from overseas and distributes throughout Europe.

From the port of Rotterdam they make their way to an industrial estate just outside Waddinx­veen, where Eosta is headquartered, including a 30,000-m 2 warehouse. ‘Around 300 people work at the warehouse in logistics, shipping and packaging’, he explains. ‘Because stocking supermarket shelves with 20 tonnes of pineapples which have just arrived in a shipping container isn’t that simple. Supermarkets want 40 boxes, all sorted into small packages, labelled and stickered. That’s where we come in. We ship, receive, unload, redistribute, repackage, and label perishable goods and ship them all over Europe. But it’s also important that we help producers all over the world switch to or­ganic farming processes.’

Volkert Engelsman with producer in Senegal
Volkert Engelsman with producer in Senegal

Swimming against the tide

Anyone who has met Volkert Engelsman will tell you, he’s a remarkable man. A provocateur, a commercially strategic idealist who swims against the tide. Someone who likes to add an element of roughness to his sometimes spiritual arguments by peppering his speech with a few choice swear words.

After graduating from a Steiner School, he went on to study Economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam. The programme, however, was far too one-sided and uninspiring for him. As soon as he heard that Maarten van Gils from the Social Economic Council (SER - Sociaal Economische Raad) had set up a brand-new Faculty of Economics and Business, he made the move to Groningen. Gils really impressed him. ‘I can’t remember the rest. You get fed a lot of crap, which obviously you have to put up with to get your degree. In some respects, academic study is more of a vehicle that propels you towards a whole host of other things that really excite you and actually teach you something.’

After graduating from the University of Groningen he joined Cargill, an international agro-industrial group. Engelsman never planned on staying at this company for long, which he later described as ‘Monsanto’s evil twin’, but he gained a lot of useful experience: he learned a lot about entrepreneurship, got to know the food industry inside out, and met many organic farmers in the southern hemisphere who claimed that there wasn’t a market for their products. That was the moment Eosta was born; he decided it was his mission to help those farmers.

Save Our Soils

Last year marked Eosta’s 25th anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, Engelsman organized a conference in the Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics) in Amsterdam. ‘The event wasn’t about us – that would have been really boring. Instead, in keeping with our Save Our Soils campaign – in which 200 NGOs and celeb­rities, such as Julia Roberts, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu took part – we decided to use the occasion to throw soil fertility into the spotlight.

First the need-to-know facts about soil: every single minute, we are losing 30 football fields’ worth of fertile agricultural land, all over the world. That’s twelve million hectares a year. We’re destroying that land with so-called ‘professional’ intensive farming methods. That’s fact number one. The second important fact is that it’s often said that “organic farming can’t feed the world because the harvest yield is 10, 15% less per hectare. So we have to use intensive methods.” That’s complete bullshit. It’s true that organic farming yields a little less but the rest is utter rubbish; organic farming is infinitely sustainable. Intensive farming methods might generate bigger harvests, but that’s it after a few years; the soil is exhausted, the water storage capacity is completely ruined, your crops are more susceptible to disease and you’ve contributed 40% to the global greenhouse gas problem.’ That’s because the fertilizers used release nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, and organic soil absorbs more CO2.

‘Organic’ mainstream

The conventional agricultural system is imploding, says Engelsman. ‘Most average joes don’t realise that. But that doesn’t matter. Trend-setting minorities have always been the catalysts behind change. We need to do things differently, and that requires initiative and leadership. All over the world, “organic” has a strong foothold in student cities. Guess why that is? Students have no purchasing power, but they do have brains. Demand for organic products is growing by about 15% a year, and it has been doing so for the past 25 years: faster than any IT sector or the Chinese economy. In countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and many German states, “organic” is already the mainstream, achieving 30, 40, 50, 60% of the market share. The fact that the market share of organic products in the Netherlands is only 4% says more about this country than the potential of organic farming.’

One way to get the consumer thinking is true cost account ­ing: As part of its Nature & More scheme, Eosta provides shelf information labels for mangoes, bananas and pineapples, which state the production costs for both organic fruit and the mainstream counterpart. This includes externalities, i.e. additional costs such as environmental damage. This calculation method is also used by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as well as accountants such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG.

‘Lots of groups are working on the same topic: how do we make sure that we don’t pass on environmental damage to future generations just so that a few short-term-thinking shareholders can benefit? You do that by making correct calculations. So how expensive is meat, then?

Soy and corn monocultures

If you include the 15,000 litres of water that you need to produce 1 kilo of beef, as well as the costs of global warm­ing due to all the soy and corn mono­cultures that are created due to the use of fertilizer – something to which my previous employer, Cargill, is making a significant contribution – then beef isn’t 9 but 90 times more expensive.’

Volkert Engelsman is inspired by anthro­posophy and the associated biodynamic way of farming, which takes into account the impact of planets on the soil and crops. Many of Eosta’s suppliers also seem to be operating in a similar way. But as we touch upon this issue, he suddenly turns defensive – and later, we find out why. ‘We don’t shout that from the rooftops because we very quickly get pigeonholed as “philosophical” and get labelled as such. That’s not good for business. That’s why we need to have accurate calculations. “Where ecology meets economy”, that’s our company’s slogan. You could also say “where spirituality meets business”, or “where sustain­able ideals meet commercial reality”. In society, you al­ways have two types of people at opposite ends of the spectrum: either you are a new ager, an anthro­posophist or a Zen Buddhist and definitely not commercial. Or you are commercial and aren’t interested in all that hippy stuff. I’ve always found both positions boring. Only when you combine the two do things really get interesting. Then you can start to cause waves. You need both worlds.’

Eosta

Volkert Engelsman is director and co-founder of Eosta, Europe’s largest distributor of organic and fair-trade certified products. Among other things, the company specializes in the development of sustainable agricultural projects in the tropics and the southern hemisphere. Eosta also devotes a lot of attention to healthy soil. The company is a trendsetter in making sustainability more transparent on the shop floor. As part of its own ‘Trace & Tell’ scheme, Nature & More, all products carry a QR code which provides consumers with information about the producer and their sustainability score. Eosta has received several awards and was the first company to obtain IPCC-certified carbon credits on organic farming practices and offer climate-neutral products on the European food market.

Last modified:24 November 2017 3.58 p.m.

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