Bulb cultivation can be sustainable, but: ‘Do we want to pay more?’ and ‘Best chances are (still) prohibited’

Perhaps genetic modification is best for sustainable lily and bulb cultivation. “Then you have a great opportunity to limit the environmental impact and even minimize it to zero,” says Janny Peltjes, director of the agricultural organization HLB.

With that company she has done research into bulb cultivation. She has looked at how various diseases and pests can be combated in a less environmentally harmful way. “We would like to start working with genetic modification.” But it’s not allowed. It is prohibited by European regulations.

A very simple explanation of what it is: Genetic modification makes the lilies and bulbs stronger, so that they carry fewer diseases. This in turn means that fewer pesticides are needed. Conclusion: better for the environment.

But we are not there yet. The research is therefore not aimed at this. Well in other ways. “There is certainly an opportunity to minimize the environmental impact.”

Lily and bulb growers in the municipality of Westerveld participated in several trials in 2021 and 2022. The aim is for lily and bulb cultivation in the municipality of Westerveld to be twice as good for the environment in 2025 as in 2019.

What makes cultivation especially bad for the environment are the pesticides. The bulbs can be affected by leaf fungi and viruses. In 2019, almost half of all pesticides were used against leaf fungi, one third was for viruses. There is a lot to be gained, especially against leaf fungi.

This has improved by up to twenty percent in the tests. The intention is to save by 70% by 2030. Differences can be seen in the trials. For example, 2021 was a wet year, while last year it was dry. “Fungi prefer wet periods,” says Peltjes. Due to the wetter weather conditions, the savings in 2021 were therefore higher than in 2022.

Viruses are spread by lice. A small number of lice is enough to spread a virus. To prevent aphids from entering the soil of growers in a natural way, experiments have been carried out with field edges and flower strips. The flowers attract natural predators of the louse.

“It’s nice to look at and it can certainly be used to increase biodiversity, but not to reduce virus spread,” she concludes. Other tests are also not so successful. “We have not yet found a good method to keep viruses out of crops.”

That’s because of weeds. That attracts lice. But so far the least that can be gained from sustainable bulb cultivation is to keep weeds out. “There are resources that seem to look good, but legislation does not yet make that possible.”

Incidentally, there is something else to consider to make bulb cultivation more sustainable. That’s the consumer. “We can make policy with our mouths, but we also have to be willing to pay for it. It has to be paid for. The penny has to fall with the consumer.” That is why this year there will be further efforts to raise awareness for sustainable bulb cultivation.

Nevertheless, more than half of Dutch bulb cultivation goes abroad, mainly to the United States and China.