Agricultural revolution Zooming in on the Netherlands | Sunday Observer

Agricultural revolution Zooming in on the Netherlands

7 February, 2021
A farmland in the Netherlands
A farmland in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is a leader in efficient and sustainable agriculture and the second-largest exporter of agricultural goods in the world after the United States. In 2017, the Netherlands exported US $ 111 billion worth of agricultural goods, including US $ 10 billion of flowers and US $ 7.4 billion of vegetables.

The Netherlands has become an agricultural giant by showing what the future of farming could look like. Yet, by many accounts it is quite a small country with a land mass of only 41,543 km2 (Sri Lanka 65,610 Km2). The Dutch population is just over 17 million while the population of Sri-Lanka is 21 million. Overall, agricultural exports generated a whopping €94.5 billion (or 115 USD billion) for the Dutch economy in 2019. The GDP of Sri-Lanka was US $ 82 billion in 2020. Whilst the GDP of the Netherlands was US $ 834 billion in the same year.

Land use

Agricultural land covers 2.6 million hectares or roughly 42 percent of Sri Lanka’s land area. The great majority of the land used for food production is owned by some 1.65 million smallholder farmers. With average landholdings totaling less than two hectares, smallholder farmers are in charge of almost 80 percent of Sri Lanka’s annual crop production. Some 31.8 percent of the Sri-Lankan population engages in agricultural activities. In 2014, Agriculture and allied sectors, such as forestry and fisheries accounted for 18 percent of the GDP of Sri-Lanka.

On the other hand, agricultural land in the Netherlands was 53.31 percent in 2016, (which is about 1,78 million hectares). Only one-tenth of the Netherlands is forested. The agricultural sector represents 1.6 percent of the country’s GDP and employs two percent of the active population.

The country’s agricultural land is divided into grassland, arable farmland and horticultural land. Dutch agriculture is divided into three broad areas: crop production, dairy and livestock production and horticulture. The main crops are barley, corn, potatoes, sugar beets, wheat and potatoes. Besides dairy cows, the other main types of livestock are beef and veal, chicken, duck, lamb, pork and turkey. Eggs and beef are the main livestock exports. Horticulture, especially the growing of ornamental plants and flowers, is a major factor in Dutch agriculture. The Dutch export significant amounts of cut flowers and bulbs. The country is world-renowned for its tulips. Yields of the main crops and from dairy products are among the highest in the world. The agricultural sector produces high yields, which is due in part to the intensive farming of arable land. Nearly 60 percent of the production is exported, either directly or through the food industry.

Nearly two decades ago, the Dutch made a commitment to sustainable agriculture by following the approach to “produce twice as much food using half of the resources.” This led to the reduction of water dependence for key crops by about 90 percent. Dutch farmers have almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses and since 2009, Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by 60 percent.

By 2050, the earth will be home to 10 billion people, up from today’s 7.5 billion. If massive increases in agricultural yield are not achieved, matched by massive decreases in the use of water and fossil fuels, at least a billion or more people may face starvation. Feeding the planet in 2050 would require “clearing most of the world’s forests, wiping out thousands more species and releasing greenhouse gas emissions to exceed the 1.5°C and 2°C warming targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement – even if emissions from all other human activities were eliminated. Hunger could be the 21st century’s most urgent problem and solutions to which we only can find through innovativeness.

Strong agricultural sector

The strong agricultural sector in the Netherlands is a result of combination few factors: a governmental policy that supports a competitive agricultural sector, good entrepreneurial skills, support from a state-of-the-art agricultural research and education system, innovative supply and processing industries, the availability of inexpensive natural gas supporting greenhouse horticulture and floriculture as well as the production of cheap fertiliser.

There is a focus on intensive, but sustainable farming and not only does this mean efficiency, but also social responsibility. The Netherlands also places a great deal of importance on educating its agricultural workforce.

The Dutch government provides large investments in agriculture-food innovation, creating some of the most cutting-edge methods. Innovation as a whole has impacted the Netherlands massively over the years and has helped drive more modernised farming methods.

Dutch innovation

In 2020, the research and development expenditure of Dutch companies in the agricultural sector grew by around 19 percent (from €728 million to €864 million) allowing for a huge boost in productivity.

The way that the country has achieved this has been a relentless focus on finding innovative ways to produce higher yields with fewer inputs. While the global average yield of potatoes per acre is nine tons, many farms in the Netherlands produce over 20 tons.

Dutch horticulture relies heavily on greenhouses, allowing farmers to control growing conditions and use fewer resources, such as water and fertiliser. Using innovations on a large scale, such as hydroponic farming—growing plants without soil in nutrient-rich solutions. This approach reduces runoff, saving water and money.

New production technologies have resulted in: 28 percent increase in vegetable yields, a six percent reduction in energy use, a 29 percent reduction in fertiliser. One way that the Dutch have been able to drive up production is through their network of huge industrial greenhouses, some covering 175 acres or more.

Precision Agriculture

Precision agriculture (PA) is an approach to farm management that uses information technology (IT) to ensure that crops and soil receive exactly what they need for optimum health and productivity. The goal of PA is to ensure profitability, sustainability and protection of the environment while preserving resources.

Precision agriculture relies on specialised equipment, software and IT services. The approach includes accessing real-time data about the conditions of the crops, soil and ambient air, along with other information, such as hyper-local weather predictions, labour costs and equipment availability. Predictive analytics software uses the data to provide farmers with guidance about crop rotation, optimal planting times, harvesting times and soil management.

There are multitude of advantages of precision farming. It increases agricultural productivity, prevents soil degradation, reduces chemical application in crop production, provides for efficient use of water resources, encourages the dissemination of modern farm practices to improve quality, quantity and reduced cost of production and leads to the development of favourable attitudes towards agriculture.

By using precision agriculture techniques, you can improve your farming and solve decades-old problems. In the past, precision agriculture was limited to larger operations that could support the IT infrastructure and other technology resources required to fully implement and benefit from precision agriculture. But today, however, Mobile apps, smart sensors, GPS, data analytics, drones and cloud computing make precision agriculture possible for farming cooperatives and even small family farms-notwithstanding what type of farm you are running, crop or livestock. It does not always require a huge budget. You just need to highlight any areas where efficiency could be improved and then set out to improve it.

Wageningen University and Research

Wageningen University and Research (WUR) is widely regarded as the world’s top agricultural research institution and the hub of Food Valley (the Dutch Agro-Tech version of Silicon Valley), an extensive cluster of agricultural technology start-ups and experimental farms.

WUR is key to the Netherlands’ agricultural success. The university is also exporting its innovative approach around the globe. This is where such technologies as autonomous tractors, scanning drones, animal vaccinations, LED greenhouse lamps were designed and implemented.

It has been nicknamed “Food Valley”, in reference to its success in helping to create new companies for agri-business just as Silicon Valley did for technology businesses.

Transferable practices

In Sri Lanka, we cannot immediately implement the kind of ultrahigh-tech agriculture that you see in the Netherlands. Yet we are well into introducing medium-tech solutions that can make a huge difference. For example, the proliferation of relatively inexpensive plastic greenhouses that have tripled some crop yields compared with those of open fields, where crops are more subject to pests and drought.

Though we do have sound policies on agriculture, the flaw of the current system lays at the implementation level. Another impediment faced by the agricultural sector is the weak functioning of our agricultural research and development programs. It is obvious that due to inadequate funding, many research programs are confined to laboratories. Even though some findings are useful, they do not adequately reach the farmlands or educate rural farmers.

Agriculture is an applied science and no research is worthwhile unless it finds its way to the farmer. It is vital to settle agriculture reforms that are directed towards transforming traditional subsistence agriculture to one which maximises productivity while modernising the systems of agricultural technology.