InspiringTalks – Biodiversity – Interview with Geert Van Aelst

InspiringTalks – Biodiversity – Interview with Geert Van Aelst, Head of Sustainability at Südzucker – Division Sugar


Yesterday was the International Day for Biological Diversity. At the occasion, we had a very interesting discussion with Geert Van Aelst, Head of Sustainability at Südzucker – (Division Sugar) about this major challenge. He shared with us his vision of the topic and explained us how the Division sugar of Sudzuecker is engaged for Biodiversity protection.

Südzucker is Europe’s number one producer of a wide range of beet sugar products and specialties, with 15 sugar factories, extending from France in the west via Belgium, Germany, through to Poland and Moldova in the East.

In 2021, AFYREN and Südzucker reached a long-term agreement on the supply of sugar beet co-products as feedstock for AFYREN NEOXY, AFYREN’s first industrial plant.


Yesterday was the International Day for Biological Diversity. Why is this topic of particular interest for Südzucker?

There are different reasons that are closely interconnected: Intensive agriculture is one of the activities responsible for biodiversity loss, besides a.o. use of plant protection products, urbanization and global warming The ‘Red List of Threatened Species’, providing insight into the type of insects that are endangered, extremely rare or already extinct, is in this perspective a relevant source of information. So, we too have a responsibility and that’s why we must take care of fostering biodiversity.

The second reason is that biodiversity is a topic of growing concern among our stakeholders.
We conduct on a regular basis research to better understand customer and consumer needs, and biodiversity is clearly becoming more relevant and important.

The third reason is one with a more legislative background The Green Deal and Farm to Fork will result in a push for an agro-ecological transition, Farmers are requested to reserve a certain percentage of their total arable land to biodiversity protection, and we’re committed to help them in this transition.


What are you doing for the protection of the biodiversity?

‘Developing Biodiversity’ is one of our 4 sustainability impact areas for the Division Sugar, besides ‘sustainably grown’, ‘emission cut 2030’ and ‘conscious consumption’.

But we started working in a formalized way on biodiversity already in 2014,

with a program based on flower strips. We have been giving flower seeds for free to the German farmers, so that they could sow them next to their beetfields; contributing this wayto support the development of biodiversity. We have now more than 2.000 flower strips, with a growing population of farmers participating t. In 2018we started studying the impact of these flower strips on biodiversity presence of insects and pollinators, birds and small animals and this compared to beet fields or buffer strips), together with the research institute IFAB (Institut für Agrarökologie und Biodiversität). This pioneering ecological research is helping to develop a proper strategy around flower strips management and increasing the biodiversity effectiveness.

The program started in 2014 in a structured way in Germany and is extended now to France & Belgium


Have you set some concrete targets on biodiversity protection?

Our concrete targets are:

-to increase the number of flowers strips this year to 2,200 from 1,800.  Each flower strip must be at least 1000 square meters.

-to convince farmers to engage on 2-year flower strips — and ideally, to keep them permanently. Currently, they usually last just one year: after the harvest in September, the flowers are normally destroyed. But thanks to our research, we know that the impact on the presence of insects and pollinators is bigger in case flower strips remain intact over winter.

-to have 5 factories by 2025 conducting a scientific program to develop biodiversity around decantation ponds. These ponds are used for wastewater purification. As you may know, 75% of the beet consists of water. This water is extracted from the beet and used for beet transport and cleaning. To remove dirt from this water, it’s cleaned via different decantation ponds. Some inactive ponds are a valuable habitat for birds & insects.

We’ve currently two factories that have set up a cooperation with a local environmental organization, to ensure maintenance of these ponds but also to create better circumstances for biodiversity and track different species that are present and see how they develop.


Have you got examples of some of the ways you support farmers in the development of agricultural good practices?

We are working on a biodiversity standard with IFAB. This institute described seven good practices as well as their impact on the biodiversity: five measures related to the crop and two structural measures.  Each measure has a certain weight depending on its impact on the biodiversity.

Besides the 2-year flowerstrips, measures are also focusing on e.g. ensuring cereal cultivation where the soil is covered with a mixture of flowers.

Important to note is that measures are audited to check the progress the farms have made after 18 months.  We also intend to commercialize the standard to our customers and the profit made with this standard will go back to the farmer to finance the different measures. It is a way for the whole value chain to support the farmers’ transition and overall sustainability.

Another concrete example of our actions to support farmers is the role of our so-called research farms. We have 2 research farms (one in Germany and one in France) where we work on different aspects of better beet farming: crop rotation & cultivation systems, optimizing of fertilization, fostering biodiversity, digitalization and plant protection from using chemicals to mechanical weeding to the use of robots for weeding.

We’re also a member of SAI (Sustainable Agriculture Initiative). They developed a benchmark for agricultural sustainability (FSA). This standard is used by Red Cert 2 to audit our farmers in Südzucker 4 countries on a yearly basis. And we’re pretty proud that the beet growing is accorded FSA gold equivalent level; the highest level reachable.


How do the farmers react to these initiatives?

Südzucker works in a close partnership with farmers, and they of course welcome all support.  

But it is really important to take a long-term approach, and be aware of all the challenges and increasing legal constraints that farmers have to face; still with the goal to ensure qualitative and food-safe natural ingredients. Dialog is therefore key to create mutual trust

In every country where we are cultivating and growing beets, we have a team of agronomists who manage the relationships with the farmers. Their role is also to listen to them and collect information about their needs and concerns.


How do you see the role of the whole supply chain on this topic? Why is it in Sudzücker’s interest to work with a start-up like AFYREN?

We all have a role in the agro ecological transition: not only Südzucker or the farmers but also our customers and  consumers, including retail.  When we talk about sustainability in general, we must first explain our strategy in order to discuss how it could fit in the sustainability plans of our customers. What value will the customer get out of it? We must co-create more and improve the value chain interaction.

On top of the commercial relationship we must be open about sustainability, about initiatives,  how can we improve it together so that it is meaningful for us, the farmers but that it has a meaning for you as customer as well.

That’s also how I see my role. Ito bring parties together: on one hand farming – what can we learn from them? What can we get from it? But on the other hand as well, the customer as a key stakeholder.

AFYREN is using our biomass coproducts as renewable raw materials. These natural resources are key and biodiversity protection is of course an important for both of us. I am convinced that we can and will do a lot and it is a pleasure to have such dialog with our customers who share the same willingness to make things move forward.


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