Author profile picture

Born in Veldhoven, Merijn Luijkx grew up as the son of a dairy farmer on a farm in Brabant. When the farm had to be sacrificed to accommodate the expansion of Eindhoven Airport, his parents moved to Weert with their four sons. “I had done the HAS (agricultural college) program in Den Bosch but wasn’t interested in taking over the farm. In spite of this, my affinity for farming never left me.”

After completing a specialization in nutrition and marketing as part of his business administration degree, the economic side of farming, particularly the food industry, beckoned. “I thought, I would just go work for Campina to come up with new desserts, and then I’ll see what the market does.” He couldn’t get a foot in the door and contacted Randstad, the employment agency. They suggested he try Rabobank. “That just seemed so boring to me. I never would have applied for the job on my own; men in suits and ties who sit around doing math all day, no thank you!” This definitely didn’t turn out the way he thought, and he ended up coming full circle: Luijkx now helps entrepreneurs in the agrofood sector who want to get ahead. “This involves more communication and strategy than arithmetic. This is truly my world; it’s where I grew up and I understand these people.”

Not your average banker

The agricultural sector has been caught up in a storm in recent years, more specifically since the Stikstofuitspraak (nitrogen ruling) in 2019. “It made me more of a lobbyist than an average banker. I had to explain the environmental rules, taking into account society’s support for the sector that seemed to get blamed for everything.” Luijkx was invited to all of the roundtables to participate in the discourse. “I always have mixed feelings about it. Take the BBB party, for example. It’s great that a party has arisen that takes a stand for farmers, among others. At the same time, the question is to what extent is what they want to achieve possible within the agreements made. Sometimes people hit the brakes when things actually just need to change. I can relate to this. My father was an old-fashioned, traditional farmer who was aligned with traditional viewpoints. You can try to fight everything, but that won’t change European legislation. Besides, we also have to take care of the planet.” He is happy to fulfill the role of liaison officer.

World hunger

Merijn Luijkx: “After World War II, the agricultural sector was charged with producing so much affordable food that hunger would be eliminated. This led to economies of scale and low cost prices, and this was what the government facilitated and what society wanted. We, as bankers, financed these efforts. But this changed when all these separate laws and regulations were lumped together 30 years later. Of course we knew the environmental situation was becoming unsustainable, but no one ever really took action. And now we have reached the point where not everything can be done everywhere. Nonetheless, there is also a lot of contradiction; what is better for the environment is not necessarily better for animal welfare. Large modern stables with many animals in one location in a closed system ensure the lowest environmental impact per animal. We can reverse a lot of production but that doesn’t change the fact that there are still people starving in the world. We don’t really view it this way in Europe because we have the good fortune of living in the right place. There are so many people in this world who don’t have the luxury of wondering whether or not the chicken had a good life.”

Luijkx is convinced that customization is also needed in his sector. “Location is much more important than it used to be, but also, what kind of entrepreneur are you? Which industry are you active in? How many buildings do you have and how old are they? How much funding do you have? What do you want to achieve? This doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. In the past, every farmer always worked for himself, but these days, we are seeing more and more supply chain initiatives that involve reciprocity rather than profit maximization. In this case, it may not be necessary to switch products, but you do have to know what you are supplying and what kind of space you have.”

Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo

Luijkx has also been active at the Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo for around four years, spending time in his office there now and then. “It’s much more than just a shared business complex with all of these startups and partners. This ecosystem generates a lot of innovation. As a bank, we can help advance concrete leads with future-oriented propositions that can be a solution for the sector. We sit down with various campus residents and try to connect with entrepreneurs both on and off the campus. We are involved in the startup and scale-up program, the experience center, and help organize joint meetings focused on innovative earnings models.”

This doesn’t happen on an ad hoc basis, incidentally. Rabobank has a pronounced and carefully shaped future vision when it comes to financing the agrofood sector. “The campus is important even if it does focus almost exclusively on the plant-based sector. However, plants don’t grow without manure so there’s also a role set aside for animals. You can produce biogas from the residual flows of plant cultivation as well as animal feed. There’s no circular agriculture without livestock farming, but having said that, the campus’ focus is on precision agriculture, healthy nutrition, future-proof vegetable crops and this also falls under Rabobank’s purview. Currently, 60% of our food consists of animal protein and 40% of plant protein. We believe it should be the other way around, which is why the campus is the right place for us. Other colleagues are involved in crossovers at the Health Campus in Maastricht or the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen.”

Business Innovation Team

The Business Innovation Team was created in-house in 2018. “The reason was because we were falling a little behind compared to other provinces in the country. Banks didn’t want to run any risks and were cautious about financing. If someone came to us with a plan, they were told to get a consultant, prepare a plan, and then come back when you’ve figured it all out. Those of us here in Limburg decided that this wasn’t a good approach; you can’t innovate a sector this way when society is changing, so we created the Business Innovation Team. We help entrepreneurs who want to change. When it succeeds, it’s good for the entrepreneur, good for employment, good for a sustainable economy and also good for us as a bank.”

Luijkx can really put the knowledge of his area of expertise, food transition, to use there. Other colleagues specialize in the energy transition or sustainable housing. “We try to help people find answers to relevant social questions or technical questions if they are interested in applying an extremely new technical innovation. He cites the transition of the farm that once belonged to his father as an example; these days, it’s a therapeutic care farm. Another example is a dairy farmer who wants to switch to producing cheese. “I help them turn these ideas into a realistic plan and get the funding in place. Sometimes, these transitions are driven by regulations such as nitrogen standardization. You can have an opinion about this, but the main question is what is possible in the future? Every now and then, you have to hold a mirror up to entrepreneurs, but we also remind government agencies and others of their responsibilities. This combination of operational and political, this constant switching, gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Bank to the polluting sector

The fact that the bank takes a future vision seriously and is skillfully investing in the future of the agrofood sector confirms Merijn Luijkx’s feeling he’s in the right place. “Keeping or making the agricultural sector future-oriented but also communicating the sector’s importance for society is especially important to me. We used to pride ourselves on being the world’s second largest agriculture exporter. Aside from producing high-quality food, the added value is that this sector can store CO₂: in plants, in trees, in the ground. These days, the sector is still seen primarily as a CO₂ or ammonia emitter or polluter. And as Rabobank, we are known as the bank to the polluting sector even though we are actually helping the sector move toward a new reality. ‘Stop funding the bio-industry’ is something we hear often. I think it’s more nuanced than that. Let’s help these entrepreneurs make the shift to a new world, and what this will look like is different for everyone. It can still involve high productivity and be concentrated in one area, but it has to use the right technology and be located somewhere where this is possible. And if it isn’t possible, then we help them find an alternative, a different earnings model. It requires customization. It’s important to note that this sector doesn’t have the solution to the climate problem but it’s the greenhouse horticulture farmers in particular who will soon be keeping the power grid balanced. Livestock farmers will produce green gas as an alternative to fossil fuels. And agriculture will soon retain water when it rains and give it back to nature during droughts. All of this is in the works.”
So, now we wait for the conservationists to come and thank farmers and growers? “Mark my words; that will happen.”


This story is the result of a collaboration between Brightlands and our editorial team. Innovation Origins is an independent journalism platform that carefully chooses its partners and only cooperates with companies and institutions that share our mission: spreading the story of innovation. This way we can offer our readers valuable stories that are created according to journalistic guidelines. Want to know more about how Innovation Origins works with other companies? Click here