Rotterdam is Europe’s biggest port. The World Port Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Photo by Robert Jaarsma, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

“This tiny little country feeds the world” is the title of an article in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic.Fascinating and highly recommended.

Reader beware, though! “Feeding the world” in popular speech means producing enough agricultural products to feed the world’s population.  That’s not what the Dutch are doing. Not so! Not so at all!

The Netherlands is the world’s number two exporter of food by value*

What the Dutch are doing is securing their position as the world’s number two exporter of food by value.  Which is no small achievement for such a small country.

Part of food export value comes from potatoes, and high value fruit and vegetables. The author,  journalist Frank Viviano, describes the highly intensive, high-tech, low input ways in which the Dutch produce these, as well as their high-tech dairying.

The rest of the value comes from exporting processed food. The Netherlands is home to 3 of the world’s top 25 food processing companies,.

To support the farm animals, to supply the processing industry, and to feed the population, the Netherlands has to import the basic materials, many of them relatively low value: meat, wheat, corn, oil seeds, animal feed, etc.

In short, the Netherlands is not even feeding itself, in the popular sense, let alone the world.

Netherlands food policy flies in the face of many principles of the food movement

Reliance on imports to supply carbohydrates, fats, and protein; acres and acres of greenhouses covering the land; animals not “pastured but confined”; food security achieved through economic exchange with other countries, not by local crops; huge food processing industries for national and international markets; all these features of Dutch food policy are at odds with many cherished beliefs of the food movement.  This really is agribusiness.

Now that does not worry me, because I am all for modern food and agriculture, our best option especially as we solve some of its problems. If if worries you, though, it’s something to ponder.

Netherlands food policy goes back centuries

Dutch policy is not new but goes back to the seventeenth century.  The country even then was densely populated, needing lots of bread to feed the population while being short on land and on sunlight for ripening wheat and other grains.

The Dutch abandoned the idea of being self-sufficient in grain. They played to local strengths: dairying that benefitted from the grass made abundant by lots of rain; market gardening of high value vegetables, and fishing the vast herring shoals in the North Sea. They developed cutting edge processing industries, particularly pickled herring [a new source of protein for northern Europe], High quality hard cheese, and sugar refining. They exported these products across Europe. And to ensure the basic “element of substantiality” in the diet, they imported wheat and other grains for their bread from Central and Eastern Europe. In the nineteenth century, they were leaders in the margarine business, which eventually turned into Unilever.  If you’re interested in this history, I’ve written it up at more length in my Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (2013), chapter 6.

And now there’s Wageningen University too

This is now the world’s best center for agricultural training and research.  By promoting agricultural research, by creating links around the globe, the Netherlands has become a major hub of a global network of agricultural and food scientists. This is not just outreach; it’s a huge resource for the country.

All worth thinking about.


*The following two paragraphs by Chris Lyddon in World-Grain on December 7, 2016 are helpful.

““Dutch agriculture is highly intensive and export focused,” [a report on the Dutch food market for US exporters] said. “Total agricultural exports for 2015 are estimated at $78.3 billion, making the Netherlands the second largest exporter of food and agriculture. The temperate climate, fertile soils, and educated labor force make the Netherlands a highly productive agricultural producer. However, the large and sophisticated food processing industry accounts for a significant portion of exports. The Netherlands is a small country geographically, but with the Port of Rotterdam and the confluence of four major rivers, the E.U. traders and importers are here.”

Due to its large and sophisticated food processing industry, the Netherlands increasingly depends on stable supplies of bulk and intermediate products (e.g. grains, meat, seafood, nuts, fresh produce, specialty products, etc.) from other E.U. member states and third countries, the report said.”  Source: Focus on the Netherlands | World Grain by Chris Lyddon, December 7, 2016.


Although agricultural productivity and safety was not my primary focus, so pleased to have lots of informed commentary on Twitter on these aspects of the National Geographic piece.

From Andrew McGuire, Washington State University Extension.  “The 20 tons of potatoes is high but not that high. Farmers here in Washington State average  over 30 and 40 is not that uncommon.”

Go to his Twitter feed, @agronomistag for further comments on water and energy.  Thanks Andy.

Also @pdiff1 Bill Price, Director of  Statistical Programs, College of Agriculture, University of Idaho. “Curious about the claim of pathogen free greenhouse systems.”

Thanks to you and other experts.

On the farmers themselves

From Nick Trachet, Journalist and author of the column Culinair Ontdekt for the Belgian magazine, Bruzz. “One of the reverse of this medal is the condition of farmers. The answer to falling prices of agricultural produce in Holland was cutting costs through upscaling. Greenhouses, dairy farms, pig and chicken farms have been growing and growing in size. The prices further fell accordingly. As a consequence, almost all farmers are virtually bankrupt and kept alive by the banks because there’s no alternative left andfear of collapse of the whole system. Money is mostly made by distributors.
The whole thing looks great, but under the surface, there’s panic.”

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