Cutting-edge tech made this tiny country a major exporter of food
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.
Dutch companies are the world’s top suppliers of seeds for ornamental plants and vegetables. There is an area in the northwest called Seed Valley, where new varieties of vegetables and flowers are in constant development. Enza Zaden is headquartered here, just north of Amsterdam.
In three generations, Enza Zaden has evolved from a family-owned seed shop into a global market leader in vegetable breeding, with more than 2,500 employees and 45 subsidiaries in 25 countries.
Jaap Mazereeuw, Enza Zaden’s managing director, said the company spends $100 million annually on research, introducing about 150 new vegetable varieties each year.
“We are very much a research company,” he said. “With climate change, we are seeing the weather becoming more extreme. We’re looking at resilient varieties, seeds for organic farms as well as varieties that are more salt tolerant for places where water quality is not good. We need to find solutions for subsistence farmers all the way up to large-scale farmers.”
The company breeds seed for all climatic zones, and for outdoor as well as indoor growing.
“We have our own indoor farm here where we develop the varieties of the future, crops that can grow quickly and be harvested quickly: lettuce, herbs, leafy crops. The genetics can be improved, as well as the whole technology — indoor farming will only become cheaper. It’s still early days for the industry,” Mazereeuw said.
More than 12 billion heads of lettuce are grown each year from Enza Zaden’s seeds, but it was a tomato in the early 1960s that really put the company on the map — and perhaps what, in turn, put the Netherlands on the map for tomatoes. The country’s greenhouses produce nearly a million tons of tomatoes a year, with exports totaling around $2 billion annually.
“There’s a new tomato virus and we recently found the resistance to that virus in our seed bank,” Mazereeuw said. The company stores its seeds in a temperature-controlled vault — called a seed bank — to preserve genetic diversity, but because seeds don’t stay viable forever, each stored variety must be grown out and those seeds, in turn, saved. It is all of vital importance, Mazereeuw said: “If we talk about food or clothes or energy or animal husbandry — everything starts with plants.”
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.
“If you were born in the city of glass you were going to work in the city of glass,” said Kees van Veen. Although it sounds like the start of a science-fiction novel, he was speaking about Westland, close to Rotterdam, where 80 percent of agricultural land is in glass greenhouses. He and friend Philip van Antwerpen bucked the odds, leaving Westland and starting Agro Care about an hour south in 1997, in an area close to the sea with lots of sun hours, winters that aren’t too cold and summers that aren’t too hot.
In 25 years, they grew to having 645 acres of tomatoes under glass and 1,500 employees. Their goal is to double that by 2030.
The company was one of the first tomato growers to supplement natural light with artificial light and has grown into one of the largest tomato producers in Europe, producing nearly 200 million pounds a year, now with growing facilities in Morocco and Tunisia as well.
The tomato plants are grown in small bags of rockwool substrate, like housing insulation, through which nutrients are introduced via water.
The company’s significant achievement is changing the reputation of Dutch tomatoes — they’ve historically been known for hard, flavorless tomatoes harvested green. In 2000, Agro Care started with lights above the tomatoes and began harvesting them on the vine fully ripe. A quarter of the tomatoes stay in the Netherlands while the rest are shipped all over Europe.
Because of intensive electricity needs, Agro Care started its own small energy company. The carbon dioxide generated is used as a nutrient for the crop, piped into the greenhouses via huge ventilators, where it is turned into oxygen by the plants. The upshot is 99 percent efficiency and much less carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
Warning: This section contains images of slaughtered animals.
The Netherlands is the biggest exporter of meat in the European Union, and in 2020, it exported 8.8 billion euros’ (about $9 billion) worth of pork, beef and poultry, primarily to Germany (beef and veal), Britain (poultry) and China (primarily pork).
Vion Food Group has 12 production locations for pigs. Four of these are in the Netherlands and eight are in Germany. The company slaughters 15 million pigs and almost 1 million cows annually — that’s more than half of all Dutch pigs and nearly 40 percent of Germany’s total swine herd. Boxtel, a town in the southern Netherlands, is home to Vion’s largest pig slaughter facility, dispatching 20,000 pigs per day. Vion uses artificial intelligence to detect and flag signs of animal cruelty and to minimize animal stress. In many U.S. slaughter facilities, crowding and high noise levels can increase animals’ fear, and animals are frequently killed via electrocution, which many experts say is less humane.
Pigs ready for slaughter are 175 days old and weigh about 265 pounds. Upon arrival by truck from regional farms, 80 pigs are herded off a platform and into the facility, and a veterinarian checks for sick or wounded animals.
Animals are led to the stunning area, where they are sedated by carbon monoxide gas. Once the animals are anesthetized, they are hung by their legs and killed swiftly via stabbing.
Blood samples are taken to verify the health of animals before the carcasses are dipped in a hot bath to remove bristles, the remainder are burned off at high temperature (which also kills bacteria). Pigs are cut in half longitudinally and then cooled from 98.6 degrees down to 44 degrees Fahrenheit.
From there, animals are processed into hams, shoulders and middles, with much of the butchering done by hand. Internal organs are sold to China and for pet food, hams are often sold to Italy, and ribs may find their way to major restaurant chains in the United States.
Kipster is an egg company aimed at improving animal welfare, tackling food waste and producing certified carbon-neutral eggs. Farms incorporate natural light and fresh air, and chickens are free from cages to pursue their instincts and animal natures. And in a departure from the global practice of killing male chicks that are irrelevant in the egg-laying business, the males are kept and raised for meat.
Kipster chickens are fed entirely with food waste from supermarkets and food manufacturers, rather than with commodity grains. Thirty percent of the world’s grain production is for animal feed but “I’d rather use all arable land to produce cereals for people,” said managing director Ruud Zanders.
“We need to close the gap between what we’re doing as farmers and what people want,” which is more ethically and sustainably produced food, Zanders said.
Kipster was launched by four entrepreneurs in 2017 and now has three farms in the Netherlands as well as a farm in North Manchester, Ind., from which Kroger buys all of Kipster’s eggs. By next June there will be four farms in the United States, with each house containing 24,000 birds, and each of the facilities will be open to the public to observe the animal welfare practices.
Farms have indoor gardens with skylights, trees, tree trunks for climbing and ground for pecking (the birds are not de-beaked). With zero emissions, the farms’ energy is generated by solar panels. Zanders uses Dekalb White chickens — a calm and sociable breed. White birds and white eggs have a 5 percent lower carbon footprint than brown birds and brown eggs (brown birds are a bit bigger and eat more, and white birds and eggs reflect the sun more effectively). Adult male birds and females at the end of their productivity are used primarily for meatballs sold in Europe by the Lidl grocery chain, which also buys all of Dutch Kipster’s eggs.
The concept was developed with input from both the Dutch Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as well as Wageningen University & Research to maximize animal welfare and to ensure flexibility and scalability. With an easy-to-assemble modular construction, Zanders said, the Kipster model is replicable and suitable for urban agriculture.
In 2021, Dutch agricultural exports set a record, reaching 105 billion euros (about $108.4 billion), according to Wageningen Economic Research and Statistics Netherlands. This growth was attributable to higher prices and increased volume. Since 1995, the volume of Dutch crop and animal agricultural production has grown by 20 percent without significantly increasing natural gas consumption and with reduced fertilizer use.
Of last year’s exports, 12 billion euros (about $12.4 billion) were in ornamental horticulture (flowers, plants, bulbs and tree nursery products), but the next most profitable agricultural category was fruits and vegetables, followed by meat and dairy. A quarter of total agricultural exports went to Germany and the three next largest markets were Belgium, France and Britain, with onions and tomatoes topping the list of exports.
The rising export dominance is partly attributable to research and development financial resources, which have tripled in the past three decades, focusing on increasing yield while decreasing energy, water and input dependence (the country’s greenhouses have nearly eliminated the use of pesticides).
Because of its geographic centrality, the Netherlands, especially via the Rotterdam port, has also become one of the world’s major “re-exporters,” making it commercial and logistical trade hub for many goods sold into the euro zone from countries like the United States and China (since Brexit, re-exported business to Britain has declined somewhat). A fifth of all fresh fruit and vegetables imported into Europe come via a Dutch port.
Schiphol Airport, near Amsterdam, is the main international airport in the Netherlands and the busiest airport in Europe in terms of aircraft movement. Last year it processed a record 1.66 million tons of cargo, although the war in Ukraine has meant a passenger and cargo slowdown for 2022, because of Western sanctions.
The airport is in the process of constructing a new terminal building, which will have a fully automated system for storage and retrieval, with 12 stacker cranes and space to store 2,500 pallets. Slated to be operational by 2024, it will deploy automated guided vehicles to increase the efficiency of cargo movement, as well as “smart gates,” which will automatically record the volume and weight of all incoming shipments through 3D scans.
Albert Heijn is the largest Dutch supermarket chain, accounting for 35 percent of the nation’s sales. Partnering with Vanderlande in 2018, the grocery chain debuted a fully automated regional distribution center for nonperishable products in Zaandam, which obviates the need for human oversight and manual lifting from the arrival of product into the facility to its loading onto trucks for distribution to individual stores. Using artificial intelligence, optimal stacking and grouping of products to be delivered together, the system minimizes truck trips and, thus, fuel use. The facility, equipped with 11,000 solar panels, is among the assets that has enabled the grocery chain to lower its carbon dioxide emissions by 92 percent. For the company’s remaining energy needs, it purchases 100 percent Dutch wind energy and has installed 310,000 LED lights, resulting in a 50 percent energy savings.
For more information, a film about food production in the Netherlands can be seen here: vpro.nl/foodforthought [vpro.nl]