The Netherlands is one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural and food products. Yet it has less than half the land area of the island of Ireland and is bereft of almost every resource long thought to be necessary for large-scale agriculture. How did it become the world’s number two exporter of food as measured by value, second only to the United States, which has 270 times its landmass?
Before we look at the answer, here are a few statistics:
- Together with the USA and Spain, the Netherlands is one of the world’s three leading producers of vegetables and fruit.
- The Netherlands’ agri-food exports are nearly seven times Ireland’s agri-food exports on less than half (40%) of Ireland’s agricultural land.
- The Netherlands supplies a quarter of the vegetables that are exported from Europe.
- It is the number 1 exporter in the world for live trees, plants, bulbs, roots and cut flowers, with 44% share of the worldwide trade in flowers and floricultural products.
- It is the world’s number 3 exporter in plant-based food products.
- In 2014 the Netherlands was the world’s second largest exporter (in value) of fresh vegetables, exporting vegetables with a market value of €7 billion.
- Nearly 50% of the agricultural exports from the Netherlands are plant based.
- The Dutch tillage sector produces mostly cereals (wheat in particular), feed crops (such as fodder maize) and potatoes. The horticultural sector focuses on vegetables and flower bulbs.
“God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands”
To try to get to the bottom of the Dutch success, it is worthwhile considering their history. 50% of Dutch land is barely a metre above sea level, and nearly 17% is below sea level. The territory is mostly flat, and for most of its history the Netherlands was prone to flooding. Most of the areas below sea level, known as polders, are the result of land reclamation that began in the 16th century.
In 1953 a dam and barriers were built as part of the North Sea Protection Works. This vast engineering feat is now considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Further protective dikes and works including dams, sluices, locks, levees and storm surge barriers were subsequently built. By 1961 about half of the country consisted of land that had been reclaimed from the sea.
With so much effort having gone into land reclamation, and also being quite a densely populated country, Dutch land is at premium. Farms in the Netherlands are (and by necessity have to be) some of the most intensive, sustainable, and efficient in the world. More than half the nation’s land area is used for agriculture and horticulture. 60% of the land area of the Netherlands is used for plant based agriculture with large fruit, vegetable and ornamental flower sectors.
Doing more with less:
Since the 1950s farming in the Netherlands followed a model of increased intensification on larger farms with increasing inputs of fertilisers, pesticides and energy. This had a very negative impact on biodiversity, GHG emissions, air and water pollution, etc. Then, around two decades ago, the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry “Twice as much food using half as many resources”, and since then they have been moving in a more sustainable direction. Local farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90% and almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants grown in greenhouses.
Before farmers or growers use crop protection products such as fertilisers and pesticides, they must try alternative measures such as growing particular types of crop, or non-chemical crop protection. Plant protection agents must be used only if these fail, and their use requires proof of competence.
Support for organic farmers:
To make organic farms more competitive with regular agriculture, the government signed covenants with supermarkets, the Dutch Confederation of Agriculture and Horticulture (LTO) and other parties for the joint promotion of organic products and a wider selection in the shops. These efforts were intended to increase the sale of organic products.
Dutch expertise under glass is well known. Nowhere else in the world are plants cultivated on such a large scale, and with such a relatively low impact on the environment. The Netherlands has 9,300 ha of high-tech greenhouses. While these require substantial energy inputs they can still provide ideal growing conditions for a range of more temperature sensitive crops. A staggering 80% of cultivated land is under greenhouse glass, with some greenhouse complexes covering 175 acres.
At optimal growing conditions, each acre in the greenhouse yields as much lettuce as 10 acres outdoors. ‘Doing more with less’ is illustrated in the efficiency of used cultivation space. Per square mile, the Dutch are able to produce 144,352 tons of harvested tomatoes, for example, leaving other countries far behind.
Crops can grow around the clock and in every kind of weather in these climate-controlled conditions, allowing farmers to closely control growing conditions and use fewer resources like water and fertilizer.
The current generation of greenhouses already generates approximately 10% of Holland’s power needs by using combined heat and power (CHP). The government stimulates the development of new, sustainable technology through ‘The greenhouse as a source of energy’ programme.
The Dutch government aims to drastically reduce energy and gas consumption in the greenhouse sector. From 2020 all new greenhouses must be climate-neutral and produce net zero carbon dioxide (CO2).
Smart Farming, Research and innovation:
The Dutch are very forward-looking, and this is reflected in the world renowned research and innovation infrastructure of the Netherlands, with Wageningen University at its centre. The university is at the centre of Food Valley, a large cluster of agricultural technology start-ups and experimental farms. Five of the top 26 global agri-food companies have R&D facilities here.
Technological innovations developed here include intelligent greenhouses that can float on water, robot fruit pickers, innovative energy-saving lighting, water and waste recycling, and greenhouses that generate more energy than they consume and feed power to the grid.
The Dutch have also developed the idea of ‘precision farming’. This refers to the monitoring of crops (via drones, etc.) to provide detailed readings on soil chemistry, water content, nutrients, and growth.
Leo Marcelis, horticulture professor at Wageningen University, says vertical farms are the way forward. In the future, we’ll have vertical farms that will go as high as tall buildings that will only use artificial light, with units built on top of each other as high as you like, with only artificial light and where farming will be completely independent of the climate and completely reliable”, says Marcelis.
An example to the rest of the world:
The success of the Dutch model of horticulture shows that there is no obstacle to the growing of plants. Anything can be achieved as long as the will to do so exists. When farmers say they cannot switch from animal farming to plant-based because of the poor quality of their soil – just point them to the Dutch model. The day when greenhouses replace slaughterhouses may yet be in sight. As people turn gradually towards a plant-based diet the Netherlands shows that growing plants can be achieved pretty much anywhere – in any location or condition.