A new feature by National Geographic explores why the Netherlands is the world’s number two exporter of food, second just the US, which has 270 times the landmass of the small European nation.
The images, from the September issue of National Geographic Magazine, show how the Netherlands’ innovative agricultural industry aims to feed the world’s growing population, which is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, up from today’s 7.5 billion.
With innovations such as driverless tractors and quadcopter drones that measure soil chemistry, water content, and growth, it’s no surprise that the Netherlands is paving the way towards feeding the world.
The driving force behind the country’s vast agricultural output is greenhouses.
According to the National Geographic, some of these greenhouses cover more than 175 acres of land.
These high-tech output measures began almost twenty years ago, when the Netherlands made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture with the goal of producing twice as much food using half as many resources.
And farmers have been keeping up with this goal – many farmers have reduced their dependence on water by as much as 90 per cent, and they’ve reduced they’ve almost completely ended their use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses.
Livestock producers are taking heed too – since 2009, poultry farmers and livestock producers in the country have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 per cent.
The academic know-how behind the country’s agricultural progress is based at Wageningent University & Research (WUR), 50 miles from Amsterdam.
WUR is at the center of Food Valley – the Netherlands’ own version of silicon valley – in this case a cluster of agricultural tech startups.
Ernst van den Ende, managing director of WUR’s Plant Sciences Group, told National Geographic: ‘I’m not simply a college dean.
‘Half of me runs Plant Sciences, but the other half oversees nine separate business units involved in commercial contract research.’
Only that mix, ‘the science-driven in tandem with the market-driven,’ he says, ‘can meet the challenge that lies ahead.’
An example of a major player of the country’s agricultural industry is Ted Duijvestijn and his brothers Peter, Ronald, and Remco.
They have made a self-contained food system – a 36-acre greenhouse complex near the old city of Delft where plants are rooted in fibers made from basalt and chalk.
The Duijvestijn’s greenhouse produces 15 varieties of tomatoes, and they’re resource independent on every front – the farm produces nearly all of its own energy and fertilizer, as well as some of the packaging materials for the produce’s distribution and sale.
The growing environment in the greenhouse is kept at optimal all year through heat generated by geothermal aquifers that lie underneath at least half of the Netherlands.
Another agricultural innovator, the Jan Koppert, used to grow cucumbers using toxic chemical pesticides to ward off pests.
But when a doctor told him he was allergic to pesticides, he learned about how to control pesticides using other insects.
His company, Koppert Biological Systems, markets its products in 96 countries and can provide customers with products such as cotton bags containing ladybug larvae, that grow to eat aphids, or a bottle containing mites that eat spider mites on plants.
The company also uses bumblebees to help pollinate crops, and each of the company’s hives visits half a million flowers – farmers using the bees say that they saw a 20-30 per cent increase in yields.
Dutch farms also lead in seed production – seeds accounted for $1.7 billion worth of exports in 2016.
For example, Rijk Zwaan, a Dutch seed breeder, sells high-yield seed varieties in more than 25 groups of vegetables, many of which can defend themselves naturally against pests.
Heleen Bos, who runs the company’s organic accounts and international development projects, has worked in some of the world’s poorest countries including Mozambique, Nicaragua and Bangladesh, and has become aware of the threat of famine.
She admits that while they cannot immediately implement the same level of high-tech agriculture seen in the Netherlands, medium-tech solutions such as plastic greenhouses, which have tripled some crop yields compared to crops in open fields, which are more susceptible to pests and drought.
While the Netherlands faces its own famine and the end of World War II, WUR’s Rudy Rabbinge, professor emeritus of sustainable development and food security, helped devise extensive changes to transform the Dutch research institution into what he calls ‘a university for the world, and not simply for the Dutch.’
This is reflected in the institution’s student body – 45 per cent of its graduate students are recruited abroad, and WUR alumni work in agricultural ministries across Africa, Latin American and Asia.
Students at the institution, for example Leah Nandudu from Uganda, who obtained a scholarship to attend the school, wants to help change the perception of people in her country and about the crisis they face, and what they must do to address it.
Alongside WUR’s role in educating people from around the world, private Dutch firms are also helping to empower farmers outside of Europe.
For example, SoilCares, a Dutch agricultural tech firm, has been working with a family-owned bean field in Africa’s Eastern Rift Valley to explain how to use a small device that, alongside a cell phone app, analyzes soil properties and sends the results to a database in the Netherlands, returning a detailed report on what fertilizers and nutrients the crop needs.
This process, which takes less than ten minutes, costs just a few dollars and can help farmers who have never had access to soil sampling reduce their crop losses.
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