Cutting-edge tech made this tiny country a major exporter of food

21 November 2022

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.

Produce

Nature is brutal. There can be too much sun. Or not enough. Bugs maraud. Rain washes seeds away. “We believe we can do much better than nature,” said Eelco Ockers, chief executive of PlantLab, which develops and operates custom-built indoor farms worldwide — systems they call “plant production units.” Indoor vertical farmers trade in the free power of the sun for much more expensive electric light, but the benefit is they can much more easily control every variable to get consistent and reliable yield, Ockers said.

The three founders put together their first prototype in 2008 and launched the company in 2010, helping Dutch greenhouse and indoor farmers increase yields with LED lights even when the technology was in its infancy. They have a system whereby enough crops to supply 100,000 residents daily with nearly half a pound of fresh vegetables each can be grown in an area no larger than two football fields.

Earlier this year PlantLab received 50 million euros (about $51.6 million) in investment capital to open more production sites outside the Netherlands to grow vegetables without pesticides or herbicides on a large scale very close to its consumers. The company’s goal is to expand more broadly in the United States, Asia and Latin America in the next five years, with the aim of having 250 acres of its vertical farms worldwide in the next 10 years.

PlantLab’s research and development center in Den Bosch is the largest such center for vertical farming in the world, and it uses limited light spectrum LEDs and plastic stacked production trays, and the plants grow in vermiculite with their roots in water. “Nothing is hand-harvested, nothing is touched by human hands,” Ockers said. The water is recirculated, meaning no water is lost in the growing process. For now, the system is most effective for growing leafy greens, herbs and tomatoes, but he said cucumbers, zucchinis and all types of berries are suited to this growing system. And by limiting the time between harvest and consumption, he said, food waste is minimized and nutrient density is much higher than traditionally grown crops.


Photography and Video by Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR

Text by Laura Reiley

Nov. 21 at 6:00 am


About PlantLab

PlantLab specialises in technology for innovative indoor farming, and aims to supply the planet with a sustainable source of food for the future. The company was founded in 2010 in Den Bosch with the goal of revolutionizing the production of food for our planet. Over the past 10 years, the company has already invested €70 million in the development of technology that makes it possible to grow healthy, day fresh vegetables close to the consumer anywhere in the world without the use of chemical crop agents sustainably and environmentally friendly, while at the same time reducing water consumption to an absolute minimum. Enough crops can be grown on an area no bigger than two football fields to supply a city of 100,000 residents with 200 g of fresh vegetables every day. As the new technology can be used all year all over the world, it also makes it possible to radically rethink and restructure the logistics chain. The benefits: superior product quality, longer shelf life, less food wastage, and practically no CO2 emissions or nuisance associated with long-distance transport. PlantLab aims to make its technology accessible to everyone and therefore make fresh and sustainably grown food also accessible to everyone.

Contact us

For more information and for requesting interviews with the initiators, please contact Koolhoven & Partners

Koolhoven & Partners
+31 85 401 7175
plantlab@koolhovenenpartners.nl

You can download royalty-free images here.

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