The Netherlands (some will call them Holland) is by many accounts quite a small country.
With a land mass of only 41,543 km2, it is approximately the size of Maryland. And the total Dutch population of just over 17 million people is smaller than some of the world’s current largest cities.
And yet, this country is the world’s second largest exporter of food.
According to government sources, in 2017 the Netherlands exported almost $92 billion worth of agricultural produce, second only to the USA.
This means that they export more food than any other European country, including much larger neighbours like Germany, France and Italy.
Check out the video above to see just how successful they have been.
The way that the country has achieved this has been a relentless focus on finding innovative ways to produce higher yields with fewer inputs.
According to a review in National Geographic, this has led to some of the most effective farming methods in the world:
- While the global average yield of potatoes per acre is approx 9 tons, many farms in the Netherlands produce more than 20 tons.
- Water usage for many crops using Dutch methods is 90% lower.
- Usage of chemical pesticides in their large greenhouses has been almost eliminated.
- 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent.
- Between 2003–2014, new production technologies have resulted in:
- 28% increase in vegetable yields
- 6% reduction in energy used
- 29% reduction in fertilizer required
One way that the Dutch have been able to drive up efficiencies of production is through their network of huge industrial greenhouses, some covering 175 acres or more.
These greenhouses can not only keep the plants warmer than they would be if exposed to the temperate climate outside (extending the growing seasons), they can also be used to carefully measure and control the growing environment, such as by measuring soil moisture content and optimally watering the plants which need it.
Large Dutch industrial greenhouses lead the innovation charge. Copyright Wikimedia
In fact, these greenhouses are so effective that the Netherlands are the world’s top exporter of what is traditionally a fruit requiring a much warmer climate: the Tomato.
The Dutch are also at the cutting edge of innovation in all aspects of agri-business, pushing the envelope in designing and experimenting with the new technologies to feed the world.
And much of this work comes from their research-driven hub of agricultural knowledge, Wageningen University & Research (WUR), located 50 miles southeast of Amsterdam.
It serves not only as a research university where people from across the world come to learn and develop new technologies to improve crop production methods, but also as a way to foster an entrepreneurial environment by spouting numerous startups.
This is where such technologies as autonomous tractors, scanning drones, animal vaccinations, LED greenhouse lamps were designed and implemented.
In fact, it has been nicknamed “Food Valley”, in reference to its success in helping to create new companies for agri-business just as Silicon Valley did for technology businesses.
Wageningen is to agriculture as Stamford University was to Silicon Valley.
For some Dutch researchers, their concern for the threat of world hunger stems in part from a historical national trauma: The Netherlands was the last Western country to suffer a serious famine, when between 10,000 to 20,000 people died in German-occupied lands during the final year of World War II.
Ernst van den Ende, managing director of WUR’s Plant Sciences Group, sums it up in the National Geographic article like this:
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, can meet the challenge that lies ahead.
The planet will need to produce more food in the next four decades than all farmers in history have harvested over the past 8,000 years.
One suggestion he has for the next wave of feeding a growing population: Insects like grasshoppers.
But not for us humans to eat.
Instead, to be grown as feed for livestock.
One hectare of land yields one metric ton of soy protein annually, a common livestock feed.
That same hectare can produce 150 tons of insect protein annually.
They are also looking at ways to improve the sustainability of agriculture in addition to productivity, such as by looking back at how rice fields in Bali used fish and ducks to fertilise the plants.
So by developing a world-class university and supporting ecosystem to bring their developments into the market and into farmers’ hands, this tiny country might just point the way for how we will feed the world in the future.