The Netherlands Teaches the Planet How to Grow Food in Changing Climates

There was a time when Latin America’s temperate climate seemed like the perfect environment to champion the world’s demand for food production. South America with its expansive land, warm environment that, on the whole, suffered less from rapid extremes and snowfall than say, Europe, was ideal for raising beef and growing soy, wheat rice, corn and of course, coffee.

But as we know now, climate expectations aren’t always a predictable gauge for success. Micro climates change and so does technology.

Take Brazil for example, a country known for its coffee, grain and beef production. In the recent decade, Brazil’s, grain production has been hit hard by droughts and sustained temperature increases. Recent studies that suggest that many those crops thought of as warm-weather products are incapable of being grown in temperatures that exceed 40 C/ 104 F. Declining revenues from crops like soy have highlighted the need for innovation when it comes to global warming, a challenge that may be harder to meet in warm, temperate zones that swelter during the summertime.

That’s where the Netherlands come in.

We often think of the Dutch homeland as a brisk and chilly place that would be less accommodating to an expansive agricultural industry than say, Brazil. But while the Netherlands is experiencing its own problems with rising temperatures, many of its industries have learned that technology and adaptability are key to weathering climate change.

Agriculture and food represent a large part of the country’s GDP — about 10 percent. And despite the country’s size (it’s about a third the size of New York State), it’s second only to the United States in agricultural production.

Part of that is due to the large focus on research and development. Both public and private funding ave a large say in agricultural innovation, which is nurtured by R&D facilities at Wageningen University, Top Institute Food and Nutrition and public-private partnerships.

Some of its most productive soil comes from reclaimed polders — areas where the North Sea has been literally “pushed back” with the help of dykes, pumps and canals that drained the soil dry enough to cultivate. That process of taking arable land from the North Sea actually started many centuries ago, as early at the 1200s. But in recent years, the country known for giant windmills that helped strain water from land has used those rich, fertile lands to increase its arable production of barley, potatoes, sugar beets and wheat.

And tomatoes: The Netherlands’ most surprising crop. In the past three decades the tiny country has literally championed global tomato production by using vast greenhouses and cutting-edge technology to step up production. Some 80 different species are seeded using technology invented by Incotec that ensures that the seeds aren’t damaged as they are being planted. Geothermal energy and innovative approaches when it comes to resource management and land use have helped to make the Netherlands to excel in in the ag and horticulture markets.

Of course, it’s also championed one other concept in recent years: Cross-border innovation. The Netherlands openly courts input from companies and expertise across the globe, which is why it is home to at least 12 of the world’s largest agrifood companies. More than 4,000 companies, including Unilever, Starbucks, Cargill, Mars and Danone participate in and benefit from agrifood research in the Netherlands.

That isn’t to say that the tiny Nordic country has figured out how to overcome climate change. With most of its polders below sea level, and with flat topography that has faced historic floods over the centuries, the Netherlands’ ongoing challenge is to find a way to buttress its billion-dollar industries from floods and rising sea levels. And given its ingenuity so far, it’s fair bet that the country is already addressing that challenge.

Flickr images: Danny Tax; JvL; zuc123

Food & Agriculture

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Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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