Why you should care
The U.S. is still the world’s biggest agricultural exporter. But in second place is the little country that could.
Welcome to the Port of Rotterdam, the very definition of bustling. It’s Europe’s busiest seaport, taking in more than twice as much daily cargo as the next biggest European port, Antwerp, Belgium. From here, Dutch producers ship ornamental flowers (some stereotypes are true!) and an increasing amount of baby milk powder to China. Fruit unloaded here will be driven and ferried around the EU.
A lot of food is unloaded here from incoming ships — an estimated 120 containers of agricultural products come into the port every day. But it’s not all bound for Dutch tables. In fact …
The Netherlands is the second-largest agricultural exporter in the world after the United States, which has 221 times more agricultural area than the Netherlands.
While the Netherlands has been a major food exporter for many years, its production continues to rise — it increased 7 percent between 2016 and 2017, and 25 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, though it rose just 0.2 percent between 2017 and 2018. The U.S., meanwhile, increased its agricultural exports 4 percent year on year in the first 10 months of 2018 … though its agricultural exports in October 2018 alone were the lowest for any October since 2011, according to USDA data. The Netherlands saw $104.6 billion in agricultural exports in 2017, compared to the U.S.’s $140.5 billion.
The Netherlands put an emphasis on agricultural production in the post-World War II era, following the Hongerwinter of 1944, when famine killed an estimated 22,000 people. Now the country comes first on Oxfam’s Global Food Index, indicating that its citizens, who are now the world’s tallest on average, get enough to eat and have access to healthy food. But with an increased emphasis on sustainability — and skepticism of efficiency above all else — Dutch farming has seen major strides in problem areas like antibiotic use in livestock, which saw its use in veterinary medicine decrease by a third between 1999 and 2015.
More than that, the Netherlands is making great strides when it comes to the food of the future — technology that isn’t likely to stay in the Netherlands but could instead help the world feed itself. “The Dutch have the most productive, efficient and innovative food production system in the world, forced by lack of space,” explains His Royal Highness Constantijn Van Oranje, brother of Dutch King Willem-Alexander and a special envoy for Dutch business accelerator StartupDelta. “Our next challenge is to make this sector a global agritech exporter and leader in building fully circular sustainable food supply chains.”
And they’re doing just that. For example: Raising livestock takes an enormous amount of arable land and clean water, but Dutch startup Mosa Meat raised $8.5 million last year to develop a process that grows meat in a lab using animal cells rather than butchering in a traditional way. Five years ago, they created a hamburger — one that they estimate cost $330,000 to produce. Now they say the individual patties, which are expected to be on the market in 2021, should cost less than $10 each. “The taste of in-vitro meat … ” explains founder Mark Post, a Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University, “ … is exactly the same as ordinary meat.” If it catches on, it could drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, 15 percent of which are produced by animal agriculture.
And from meat to potatoes: Last month, Dutch potato breeding company Solynta announced that it has instituted a hybrid breeding program for the crop that will allow it to swiftly select for favorable traits. Solynta’s aim is to make potato growing seed-based — potatoes are currently grown from seed tubers — which they say will allow a 25-gram bag of seeds to do the work now being done by 2,500-kilo shipments of tubers. The Netherlands is the world’s biggest exporter of potatoes, but Solynta’s seeds, which they say are resistant to blight, could make potato production scalable in times of famine, as well as reducing the amount of time it takes to breed new varieties by 60 percent.
Even the Port of Rotterdam itself is getting in on the food innovation action.