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05/06/2018 – Country Focus / The Netherlands / Food Security

Time to go Dutch

The future of global food security is beset with challenges, from the impact of climate change and intensifying pressures on natural resources to the growing number of mouths to feed, bringing the manner in which food is grown and produced under closer scrutiny than ever. With many conventional methods unable to cut the mustard in the long term, efforts to eradicate hunger while maximising sustainability must rely on innovation – and the Netherlands is taking a leading role, as Gemma Kent discovers.


A report published last year by the UN Food and Agriculture Organi-zation (FAO) warns that mankind’s future ability to feed itself is “in jeopardy”, citing the need for “major transformations in agricultural systems, rural economies and natural resource management if we are to realise the full potential of food and agriculture to ensure a secure and healthy future for all people and the entire planet.” Indeed, according to The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges, without a push to invest in and retool food systems, more than 600 million people will still be undernourished in 2030.


Historically, the demand for more food would have been met simply by the clearing of more forests or grasslands – we have already cleared an area roughly the size of South America to grow crops and another the size of Africa to raise livestock, says Dr Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota – but this has come at a heavy cost to the natural environment. “Avoiding further deforestation must be a top priority,” writes Dr Foley in National Geographic Magazine. “We can no longer afford to increase food production through agricultural expansion.”


While freezing agriculture’s footprint is clearly a prime concern, the FAO’s report also highlights worrying signs that yield growth is levelling off for major crops, with global average increases in the yields of maize, rice and wheat running at just over one per cent annually since the 1990s.


Less is more


In this pivotal moment of unprecedented threats to food security and the environment, the critical challenge is to produce more with less – less land, less resource-intensive farming, and less of a toll on the natural world – and since making a national commitment nearly 20 years ago to produce double the amount of food using half as many resources, the Netherlands has quickly become sustainable farming’s poster child. With agricultural exports of €91.7 billion in 2017, the Netherlands is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products after the US – a country more than 200 times larger by land mass – and is one of the three leading producers of fruit and vegetables, supplying roughly a quarter of the vegetables exported from Europe.


Indeed, despite being one of the world’s most densely populated countries, situated in a low-lying delta region where land is at a premium, the Netherlands has succeeded in becoming an agricultural powerhouse and the top exporter of tomatoes, potatoes and onions globally. More than half of the nation’s modest land area is used for agriculture and horticulture, including an area roughly the size of Manhattan – nearly 100 square kilometres – for under-glass growing, a field in which Dutch inventiveness is globally renowned. 


The greenhouse-rich Westland region, where 80 per cent of cultivated land is under climate-controlled glass, accounts for almost half of the Netherlands’ horticultural production, while the innovative approach taken by growers in the region ensures a low environmental impact. With a focus on concepts and technologies that facilitate energy-efficiency and adaptability to climate change, Dutch greenhouse growers collaborate with equipment suppliers to develop and test new applications, and invest in environmentally sustainable production systems that will produce energy rather than consume it.


Reinventing the tomato


Recently named the World’s Best Tomato Grower, South Holland-based Duijvestijn Tomaten grows, processes and packs around 10 million kilos of fresh tomatoes per year from its 15-hectare farm. The company’s 15 varieties of tomato plant are grown not in soil but on a rockwool substrate spun from basalt and chalk, which allows the supply of water and nutrients to be fully adapted to the needs of the plant, ensuring almost zero waste. Biological crop protection controls pests and diseases with natural pesticides and useful organisms such as predatory mites, fungi and bacteria, while old tomato vines are recycled to produce packaging crates.


As well as being one of the Netherlands’ first companies to employ geothermal energy in its greenhouses, Duijvestijn has also redesigned the greenhouse concept to achieve energy savings of up to 50 per cent compared with the conventional variety. Anti-reflective glass allows more light to enter the ‘ID Kas’ greenhouse, while plants are nourished with rainwater that is collected and used as efficiently as possible thanks to intelligent software. As a result, each kilogramme of Duijvestijn tomatoes demands less than four gallons of water, compared with the 16 gallons required by plants in open fields.


Tomatoes are also a crop of choice for Europe’s largest urban farm, De Schilde, which is based in an empty 1950s factory once belonging to telecoms giant Philips, situated in The Hague. Opened in 2016, the building features a 1,200-square-metre rooftop greenhouse where vegetables, microgreens and tomatoes are grown as part of a self-sufficient loop with a fish farm on the sixth floor. Bacteria convert waste ammonia from fish excrement into nitrates that fertilise the plants on the roof, while the plants purify the water for the fish, which are supplied to local eateries.


Precise potato farming


Outside its sprawling greenhouses the Netherlands is also a prominent potato grower and processor, with intense co-operation throughout the production chain helping to ensure some of the highest crop yields in the world. In fact, at his third-generation potato farm near the Belgian border, Jacob van den Borne regularly achieves average yields of 40 tons per hectare – more than twice the global average. 


The not-so-secret ingredient to Mr van den Borne’s success lies in a bevy of cutting-edge equipment and technology that has earned him the nickname ‘the pope of precision farming’. The farm relies on various sensors to collect huge amounts of data relating to soil parameters like chemistry, water content and nutrients, as well as using satellite imagery, mounted crop sensors, drones, driverless tractors and yield monitoring systems, while the farm also has its own weather stations for monitoring local conditions. “I am a case, I prove that this technology works,” says Mr van den Borne, “and now I have to convince all the other farmers to use this technology so that it becomes cheaper. Then, we can take the next step and make new technologies that are even better than what we have today.”


The Dutch government recently announced a US$1.5 million investment to support the development of precision agriculture, which builds upon how drones help farmers map their land, identify pest invasions and detect crop stress. Using sensors, satellites will record soil quality, humidity, temperate and atmospheric pressure to analyse changes in crops and water quality, and the data collected will help farmers monitor crops closely, resulting in greater efficiency and sustainability.


Grounds for growth


As well as having some of the most intensive, sustainable and efficient farms in the world, the Netherlands is a breeding ground for seed innovation. More than a third of all global trade in vegetable seeds originates in the Netherlands, accounting for US$1.7bn worth of exports in 2016, yet most Dutch seed development tends to shy away from the expensive, heavily regulated GMO arena – focusing instead on molecular breeding. Molecular genetics R&D firm KeyGene provides technologies for accelerated crop improvement based on the discovery of high-impact plant traits, and was one of the first companies to embark on high-throughput automated and robotised phenotyping, currently a major bottleneck in plant breeding. 


Rijk Zwaan, another of the industry’s standout players, develops high-yield seeds across more than 25 groups of vegetables, including varieties with desirable traits such as long shelf life, uniform size, and even the ability to defend themselves naturally against major pests. Also focusing on bringing sustainable added value to a broad range of vegetable seeds is INCOTEC, which is known for having pioneered a pelleting system that coats seeds in a protective layer, making it easy for mechanical seeders to disperse them.


Meanwhile Dutch companies such as HZPC, Bejo and KWS are investing heavily in the development of potato seeds as a more efficient alternative to seed potatoes – the propagation material for the cultivation of consumption and starch potato crops, and a field in which the Netherlands commands over 60 per cent of the global market. The hybrid breeding technology was initially developed by another Dutch firm, Solynta, which recently secured €16 million in financing to continue its potato breeding activities and address the billion-dollar challenges within the potato supply chain.


A matter of survival


Such innovation in the Dutch agri-food ecosystem is chiefly a product of ongoing collaboration between academics and entrepreneurs, which has been driving the development of high-level knowledge and techniques in the sector for decades. Moreover, the Netherlands is today ranked number two in Europe for private R&D investment in agri-food, while a dozen of the world’s top 40 food and drinks companies have Dutch-based strategic R&D or production centres – including Danone, Kraft Heinz, Unilever and Nestlé.


A shining example of Dutch agri-food collaboration is Food Valley, one of the largest food-oriented communities in the world, which brings more than 1,500 international agri-food companies together with 20 research institutes, experimental farms and start-ups. The nucleus of Food Valley is the 100-year-old Wageningen University & Research (WUR), which was recently named the number one agricultural university in the world for the third year in a row, according to The National Taiwan Ranking of over 300 universities on scientific and research excellence.


In addition to the world-class research it conducts from the Netherlands, based on themes ranging from Smart Farming and conscientious animal husbandry to food waste and biological control, WUR co-ordinates thousands of projects in more than 140 countries across the globe – particularly in regions where food insecurity is already a major challenge. In Indonesia, for example, WUR is pioneering the use of bioslurry-grown duckweed as a protein-rich animal feed, while in Ethiopia the university is using Dutch expertise in potato farming to improve seed-tuber quality and analyse the economic consequences of such enhancements.


Certainly, for developing countries, the work carried out by WUR and other Food Valley inhabitants has the potential not only to enhance yields and productivity for farmers, but also to save lives. And with Ernst van den Ende, MD of WUR’s Plant Sciences Group, predicting that we must produce “more food in the next four decades than all farmers in history have harvested over the past 8,000 years”, such innovations will surely be critical on a global scale in the years to come.

Latest issue – Vol 1/23
– Health & Nutrition focus
– Gulfood 2023 Special
– Next level legume – The rise of the chickpea
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