The Netherlands is a tiny country on engineered land that’s become an agricultural giant. The story of how it achieved this unlikely feat could become a model for other countries — including ours — looking to modernize, create efficiencies, and streamline ag production.
The Dutch are a nation deeply conscious of their natural limitations. They inhabit a territory roughly the size of Maryland. As the name of their country implies, much of their land falls below sea level. The founding of the country was a miracle of science: pumping out water from swampland, holding it back with networks of dikes and polders.
Technical ingenuity as a way to deal with these constraints has formed part of the Dutch DNA. So it’s unsurprising that they should be on the vanguard of smart, sustainable agriculture.
But the most recent innovations took a stroke of national resolve. About two or three decades ago, the Netherlands rallied behind the slogan, “Twice as much food, half the resources.”
This was a significant pledge. Much recent innovation in agriculture has presented itself as either improvement in productivity or in efficiency and sustainability. Targeting both seemed like an exercise in having your cake and eating it, too. Nice sentiment, but hard to achieve in practice.
It was an ambitious goal that may have appeared impossible at times, but the Dutch remained committed to their vision. They have a lot to show for themselves.
The Netherlands has inched up to the number two spot in agricultural exports, trailing only the United States, which boasts 270 times its landmass. It’s done this while reducing its water inputs 90%, its antibiotics use 60%, and chemical pesticides nearly entirely.
And the Dutch aren’t done yet.
How did they accomplish all this–and do it sustainably?
Much of these gains in productivity and sustainability can be traced to innovation. And the epicenter of Dutch innovation is Wageningen University and Research, or WUR for short. In a deliberate allusion to California’s Silicon Valley, the Dutch refer to the WUR and its ample network of laboratories and research sites as Food Valley.
No wonder. Just as computer programmers and entrepreneurs flock to Stanford University as a brain trust for technological advance, so food scientists and ag tech firms are flocking to WUR as a mecca for sustainable food production.
WUR became a hub of innovation by promoting the latest developments in ag tech. It’s advanced smart farming techniques, drone monitoring, and renewable energy sourcing. It’s also examined everything from soil health in drought-exposed regions of Africa to pioneering the use of insect harvesting as a more sustainable and efficient source of protein.
Because the Netherlands lacks the vast expanses of unbroken fields and pastures, it’s had to find ways to make its fragmented landscape work. Part of the solution to that problem has been the development of greenhouse growing, where environmental conditions can be optimized for sustainable production.
All this presents an exciting preview of what smart, sustainable agriculture in countries like the US could look like. If we were to commit ourselves to the Dutch goals of doubled productivity with half the input, the results might be even more impressive. Given our land, creativity, and ambition, that’s not too much to expect.