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A Dutch food success story

In the past, floods and famines pushed the Dutch to create large-scale infrastructural projects or to transform entire sectors. Today, again, climate change can serve as a shared formative experience that can lead the country to take initiatives to ramp up food- water and climate mitigation expertise, not only serving only its own people, but also creating a new Dutch success story that can be exported to the world.

Our observations

  • The Netherlands is well-known for its innovation and expertise in multiple domains of agriculture. The Westland region (‘the glass city’) is famous for its horticulture in glasshouses, Enkhuizen is dubbed Seed Valley, Wageningen is called ‘Food Valley’ as the nation’s agrifood ecosystem, Texel is known for its saline farming and seaweed industry, and the current ministry of agriculture envisions the Netherlands to become a leader in circular agriculture.
  • Furthermore, the Netherlands is poised to become a frontrunner in food for an urban world with its Randstad agriculture. Rotterdam’s food cluster is a model that receives attention in an increasing urbanized world and the Netherlands has a leading position in the field of urban farming systems, being specialized in indoor farming equipment and knowledge.
  • The Dutch food sector’s annual turnover is €140 billion, it accounts for 10% of all jobs and contributes nearly 10% in added value to the economy. But more than a contribution to the economy, the food innovation and expertise of the Netherlands is also a way for the country to position itself as a strong food nation in a world of increasing food insecurity and climate change.
  • We are beginning to understand the complex nexus between food security, climate change, conflict and migration. Climate change and conflict have been major contributors to food insecurity in the world. In addition, there isdirect link between food insecurity and migration. Since more than half of the global population live in food insecure countries, a small increase of food insecurity can already lead to mass displacement of peopleFood is thus increasingly becoming a matter of national security to countries around the globe.
  • The Dutch already play an important role as a food nation with its many public and private partnerships with many different countries in the field of food- and water management and climate mitigation. The so-called Dutch Diamond approach, in which government, business and knowledge institutions work together is known for this.
  • There is a dominant narrative of the Netherlands as ‘the tiny country that feeds the world’, however we wrote before that the Dutch agrofood sector is not relying on a sustainable model. Trade volume is no longer a future-proof measure of Dutch export performances and the trade agenda could be further broadened by including services, knowledge and investments.

Connecting the dots

In 1421, a massive flood at European shores of North Sea caused the dikes to break in a number of places, killing thousands of people in the Netherlands. What became known as the poldermodel was an answer to the disaster, a system based on pragmatic, unideological cooperation among all sorts of public and private parties to protect themselves against the water. In 1953, massive floods again struck the country. As a response, the government invested in an immense infrastructural project: the Delta Works. Similarly, during the Second World War, the Dutch suffered from a hunger winter that resulted in a large-scale transformation of the way the country produced food. The shared experience of the 1944-45 famine is seen as an important trigger for the revolution of agriculture that followed after the war, with the minister of agriculture, Sicco Mansholt as the key figure in initiating the revolution. The agro-food sector became capable not just in feeding the Dutch, but also millions more around the world. What was a Dutch weakness, the low-lying country next to the sea in the first case or the lack of access to food in the second, became a Dutch strength because of large-scale investments and innovation. But today the Dutch agricultural success story is increasingly being perceived as a problem.

As a leader of the first Green Revolution, which ramped up food production globally, the environment has paid a heavy toll: soil quality, air quality and biodiversity deteriorated in the Netherlands. As the effects of climate change and environmental damage caused by farming take their toll, evidence shows that the productivity gains of the first Green Revolution will begin to plateau amid accumulated environmental problems. Because of this, a second Green Revolution is needed to intensify agricultural production in a sustainable manner. Again, a common crisis or sense of urgency might ignite change in the way the Dutch grow food, such as the current climate emergency that has been called out by many Dutch cities or the nationwide nitrogen crisis.

We wrote before that there are multiple signs that point to this next shift in agriculture. Indeed, today, a second green revolution is brewing to make the Dutch agro-food sector future-proof. Over the last years, the emissions per pig or cow, the use of artificial fertilizers and the environmental impact of farms have declined. However, more is needed to turn the tide of an unsustainable agro-food model and if the Netherlands succeeds, this will again not only result in a viable agro-food sector, but also as a way to position the nation as a frontrunner of the next Green Revolution. Multiple elements combined could make the Netherlands well-positioned to do so.

First, the Netherlands is a small densely populated delta and has shown in the historical cases of the Deltawerken and the agricultural revolution that it can effectively cooperate with all the necessary parties and make the large-scale infrastructural investments to transform the way the country deals with food or water. Since the Netherlands is a small country, this is indeed an advantage to operationalize such large ideas and provide inspiration to the rest of the world. The Randstad can be regarded as one big, stable city that can be fed by the rest of the country.

Second, the Netherlands has the expertise and innovation capacity and technology needed for the next Green Revolution. For instance, in this new agricultural model, circular agriculture and precision farming will be key.

Finally, along with innovation, the Netherlands has to have an exnovation strategy. The question is whether the country will have to go through the formative experience of a next (climate or food) crisis, before it starts rebuilding systems. After the Second World War, the agro-food sector almost started from scratch, but the choices made then, still have a major influence on the current food system and the country has a large incumbent sector that makes transitions harder. Transition studies show that societal challenges, such as the economic crisis or climate change, offer an opening to reconsider systems. Although innovation is necessary, exnovation, or the destabilization of the existing system is a precondition for transitions. A case in point is the German energy transition. Nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima ignited the sentiment among German citizens to switch to other energy sources. Similarly, as plant-based protein production is hampered by the strong livestock industry, and growing consumer awareness can push the sector to make the transition. In leading the transition towards plant-based protein, the Netherlands could have a large impact on the sustainability of food production worldwide and write a new Dutch success story.

Implications

  • As we wrote before, food security has regained attention as a geopolitical risk again. Food expertise of Wageningen, seeds from Enkhuizen, etc. are geopolitical assets in a world of increasing food insecurity. Currently, food policy is conducted separately by the ministries of Agriculture and Foreign Affairs. But by thinking in terms of geopolitics, these ministries could formulate a Dutch food strategy, enabling the country to remain a food nation as well as to contribute to tackling global food challenges.
  • The Dutch livestock industry is already showing to embrace the transition to plant-based protein, multiple incumbents are rebuilding their facilities.