‘Living within the planetary boundaries is humanity’s greatest challenge’

Published on
September 2, 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 4: Sjoukje Heimovaara.

Sjoukje Heimovaara, the newly appointed president of WUR, became increasingly aware of the role of our food system in putting pressure on our planetary boundaries in her previous position as director of Agrotechnology and Food Sciences Group. ‘I learned that food systems have a considerable impact on the planet, which implies that this is also where solutions are to be found. At least one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions can be addressed through the food system. If we were to significantly reduce food waste and consume far fewer meat products, we could really achieve a better climate without too many sacrifices.’

‘I believe that living within the planetary boundaries is humanity’s greatest challenge. And, WUR can make, and already makes, a difference. Not just through its research on food systems, but also through our work on better land planning, better biodiversity and more sustainable behaviour.’

‘As Wageningen, we could do more to better explain and motivate how we work on the challenge of living within the boundaries of our planet. People who know WUR know that we work hard and passionately on sustainability. But those further removed from our organisation are often less aware of our commitment, according to image research. This gap must be bridged.’

Do you see crossing the planetary boundaries as an existential threat to society?

‘Yes, planetary boundaries are existential. We have a significant negative impact on the earth, but the planet will remain in existence. However, for the earth to remain inhabitable for humanity and its other inhabitants, we must act now. I believe we can, but we are currently moving too slowly. I feel that climate change will have a serious impact, but it is not too late. That is one of the most important reasons I choose to work here; I know that WUR can contribute to solving the issue.’

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.

‘Education is important, and it is okay to be very committed. Nothing is more beautiful than a passionate teacher educating young people through her convictions.’

How do you struggle to keep your work and daily life within planetary boundaries?

‘I really focus on food waste. I grocery shop once a week, and we eat based on what we have. I Incorporate leftovers in the menu, discard hardly any bread, and we eat less meat than we used to. We do not have a dryer or air conditioner. I really oppose dryers; they consume loads of energy and are unnecessary. And, I buy pre-owned clothing more often.’

‘Air travel? Yes, that is a difficult issue. I’m not too fond of long flights. In my former position at the plant breeding company, we were required to fly a lot. But I flew less than others as I don’t like it at all. Now at WUR, I fly less. But we own a holiday home in Finland, which we visited by plane this summer, as the train is not a decent alternative. So yes, there are dilemmas. I try to have as many international meetings online as I can to prevent air travel. But for interaction and networking purposes, live meetings remain necessary. So, it is a matter of navigating between online and live meetings. I hope there will be more meetings on campus now that the corona crisis is behind us. In this spirit, Hannah van Zanten, Jessica Duncan, Marten Scheffer, and I got together live to discuss the programme for the Opening of the Academic Year. Truly inspiring and will keep me going for a while.’