- How the Netherlands became an agricultural giant
- Small family farms are at the forefront of the movement
- Safe and efficient solutions for crop health and molecular breeding of seeds
- The drawbacks of a tech-dominated approach
There are approximately 7.5 billion people in the world right now, and this number is expected to increase to 10 billion by the end of 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and it may well prove to be the biggest challenge our society will face in the 21st century. According to the United Nations, there were more than 815 million undernourished people in the world in 2016. “We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN”, warns Stephen O’Brien, UN’s emergency relief coordinator. To prevent starvation on a massive scale, we’ll not only have to significantly increase our agricultural yields, but also greatly reduce the consumption of water and fossil fuels. According to a report from the World Wildlife Foundation, “Humanity must now produce more food in the next four decades than we have in the last 8,000 years of agriculture combined”. How can we achieve that? The Dutch may have the solutions.
How the Netherlands became an agricultural giant
The Netherlands is a rather small country, about 270 times smaller than the United States. Yet, despite its tiny size, it’s the second largest exporter of food in the world by dollar value, right after the US. It’s also the world’s leading producer (by yield) of tomatoes, cucumbers, chillies, and green peppers, and among the top 5 producers of pears, potatoes, carrots, and onions. How did such a tiny country become an agricultural giant? The answer lies in innovative agricultural technologies.
In 2000, the Netherlands made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture. Since then, Dutch farmers have managed to reduce their water consumption by 90 per cent and the use of antibiotics in poultry and livestock production by 60 per cent. Furthermore, they’ve almost completely eliminated the use of pesticides on plants in greenhouses, all thanks to some very impressive technology.
The main driving force behind these developments is the research conducted at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), one of the leading agricultural research institutions in the world. Located at the heart of the Food Valley, which may be best described as the agricultural industry’s version of Silicon Valley, WUR has initiated over a thousand projects in more than 140 countries worldwide, including China, India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Brazil, and Argentina. All of these projects share one common goal: to develop new technologies that will allow us to feed the world’s growing population.
Small family farms are at the forefront of the movement
The Netherlands uses more than 50 per cent of its landmass for agriculture and horticulture. And a significant portion of that land is covered by massive greenhouses, which give farmers more control over growing conditions and allow them to reduce the use of water and fertilisers. One of those greenhouse complexes is owned by the Duijvestijn brothers. Located near the city of Delft, the 145,000-square-metre farm produces 15 different varieties of tomatoes. It’s also almost entirely self-sufficient, producing its own energy and fertiliser, as well as some of the packaging materials it needs for the distribution and sale of its crops. Geothermal aquifers that lie below the surface are used to generate heat that keeps the temperature of the growing environment optimal throughout the year, while rainwater is the farm’s only irrigation source. The crops are protected by Phytoseiulus persimilis, a predatory mite that attacks destructive pests without harming the tomatoes.
Another example is Jacob van den Borne, who owns a farm near the Netherlands-Belgium border. One of the pioneers of a technique called precision farming, van den Borne uses driverless tractors, drones, humidity sensors, weather stations and soil moisture probes and scanners. With this tech, he collects information about soil chemistry, water content, nutrients, and the condition of each individual plant, allowing him to significantly improve the yield and quality of his crops. The results have been impressive. While the global average yield of potatoes stands at approximately 2,200 tons per square kilometre, van den Borne’s farm produces nearly 5,000.
Safe and efficient solutions for crop health and molecular breeding of seeds
The Duijvestijn brothers aren’t the only ones who are using pests’ natural enemies instead of toxic chemicals to protect their crops. Koppert Biological Systems, for instance, is one of the world’s leading biological pest and disease control companies, offering a wide range of safe and natural solutions designed to improve crop health, resilience, and yield. These include ladybug larvae that target various species of aphids, predatory mites that search for spider mites and suck them dry, or nematodes that destroy fly larvae. The company also sells hives of bumblebees used for the pollination of a wide variety of indoor crops. Not only is this solution cheaper than any form of artificial pollination, but it also allows farmers to increase their yields and fruit weight by 20 to 30 per cent.
Dutch companies exported nearly $1.7 billion worth of seeds in 2016, making the country one of the leaders in this sector. However, with so much controversy surrounding GMOs and rather strict EU rules governing their production, Dutch companies are increasingly turning to molecular breeding. These non-GMO crops are easier to market, plus molecular breeding is also much cheaper. For instance, the development of a new GMO seed variety requires 12-14 years of research and a hundred million dollars. But the cost of molecular breeding is usually between $100,000 and a million dollars, yielding profit within 5-10 years.
Rijk Zwaan is a breeder who sells high-yield seeds for 25 different vegetable groups, including a $0.50 greenhouse tomato seed that can produce as much as 70 kilograms of tomatoes. Zwaan also runs a breeding program in Tanzania, with additional collaborative projects in Kenya, Peru, and Guatemala also in the works. All of the seeds produced in the Tanzania program are regularly sent back to the Netherlands to check their purity, germination rates, and resistance to pests and diseases.
The drawbacks of a tech-dominated approach
The biggest problem is that some of these solutions are simply not applicable to developing countries - where they’re needed the most - at least not yet. “Of course, we can’t immediately implement the kind of ultrahigh-tech agriculture over there that you see in the Netherlands”, says Heleen Bos, the organic accounts and international development projects manager at Rijk Zwaan. “But we are well into introducing medium-tech solutions that can make a huge difference”. For example, plastic greenhouses are relatively cheap but allow farmers to triple their yields compared to open fields. Another frequently heard complaint is that this kind of food isn’t very flavourful. “The taste is not always good,” explains Leo Marcelis, a professor of horticulture at Wageningen University and Research. “It's more the choice of the grower. Many growers go for more kilograms because then the net profit is higher.”
The approach adopted by the Netherlands may not be suitable for everyone, but it does provide an excellent example of how technology can help us increase our food production and reduce the consumption of resources. The Dutch are certainly taking huge steps in the right direction.