This article appeared originally in Washington Post.
The Netherlands has used advances in vertical farming, seed technology and robotics to become a global model.
The rallying cry in the Netherlands started two decades ago, as concern mounted about its ability to feed its 17 million people: Produce twice as much food using half as many resources.
The country, which is a bit bigger than Maryland, not only accomplished this feat but also has become the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products by value behind the United States. Perhaps even more significant in the face of a warming planet: It is among the largest exporters of agricultural and food technology. The Dutch have pioneered cell-cultured meat, vertical farming, seed technology and robotics in milking and harvesting — spearheading innovations that focus on decreased water usage as well as reduced carbon and methane emissions.
The Netherlands produces 4 million cows, 13 million pigs and 104 million chickens annually and is Europe’s biggest meat exporter. But it also provides vegetables to much of Western Europe. The country has nearly 24,000 acres — almost twice the size of Manhattan — of crops growing in greenhouses. These greenhouses, with less fertilizer and water, can grow in a single acre what would take 10 acres of traditional dirt farming to achieve. Dutch farms use only a half-gallon of water to grow about a pound of tomatoes, while the global average is more than 28 gallons.
More than half of the land in the Netherlands is used for agriculture. The Dutch often say their singular focus on food production is born of the harrowing famine the country experienced during World War II. But it could be argued that the preoccupation with food began in the 17th century, when the Dutch were at the center of the global spice trade.
Their centrality in global food exploration is indisputable: Fifteen out of the top 20 largest agrifood businesses — Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Cargill and Kraft Heinz — have major research and development centers in the Netherlands.
With their limited land and a rainy climate, the Dutch have become masters of efficiency. But there are challenges: The greenhouse industry has flourished in part because of cheap energy, but Western Europe is facing soaring gas prices. And the country’s intensive animal agricultural practices are also at risk. This summer, a conservative government coalition pledged to halve nitrogen emissions by 2030, which would necessitate a dramatic reduction in the number of animals raised in the country. Farmers and ranchers have protested, and it remains to be seen how this standoff will be resolved.