Netherlands: Where our food will grow in the future

European magazine

Status: 09/11/2021 5:31 p.m.

The world population is growing rapidly, and the question of where the food we need will come from in the future is becoming more and more pressing. In the Netherlands, which are heavily dependent on the agricultural sector, researchers are looking for answers.

By René Bucken, ARD-Studio Brussels

When it comes to agriculture, one inevitably thinks of hard, physical work, dirty hands in the earth and heavy machines tilling the field. Long working hours, hardly a day off. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, people have a different idea of ​​agriculture. At least at Wageningen University – the Mecca of modern agricultural research.

Jouke Campen walks through a greenhouse in which everything is trimmed for efficiency: Tomatoes grow on aseptic rock wool to keep diseases away. Each plant is individually supplied with water and nutrients. Everything is fully automated, monitored by a computer.

“For example, if you grow tomatoes outdoors here in the Netherlands,” says Campen, “if you do it well, you can harvest maybe five kilos of tomatoes per square meter. If you grow them in a greenhouse like this, you can get at least 60 kilos So you need a lot less space to produce large quantities. “

What the future of nutrition could look like

Olga Chládková / René Bucken, WDR, European magazine, September 12, 2021

The world population is growing – and with it its hunger

More yield in less space – that sounds promising, especially with a view to the explosive increase in the world population. Because things are getting ever tighter on earth: According to calculations by the United Nations, the world population will be almost ten billion people in 2050. For Campen and his colleagues, modernizing agriculture is essential in order to be able to feed all people 30 years from now.

But the focus is not only on the welfare of the global community, but also on the economy of the small country, in which just 17 million people live. Nevertheless, according to Campingen, the Netherlands generate “an export value of almost 100 billion euros per year in the entire agricultural sector”. Above all, this includes services, seeds and the actual products. “If you compare that to the oil exports from Saudi Arabia, for example, that is roughly the same number. A huge figure for the Dutch economy, huge.”

Worldwide interest in modern technologies

How important this sector is for the Netherlands can be seen in Naaldwijk, around 120 kilometers away. This small coastal town between The Hague and Rotterdam has always been the center of greenhouse horticulture. The World Horti Center was opened here in 2017 – the attempt to bring people from theory and practice, agriculture and business closer together. Since then, around 1200 vocational students have been working here every day to specialize in agriculture. Over 100 well-known companies present their products – no longer just German journalists, but also delegations from China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. There is a lot of money involved.

They will be shown around by Mark Zwinkels, Director International at the World Horti Center. For example, he shows international guests greenhouses in which any climate in the world can be produced. Colorful spectral colors lead the plants to believe, even in the dead of winter, that it is summer and therefore time to grow. The whole thing combined with an extremely high expenditure of energy.

Zwinkels explains the practical benefits: “Imagine that I am a farmer and I have a supermarket from Germany as a customer. and so on. You can program this information into the climate computer, which then automatically calculates the temperature and climate in the greenhouse to achieve these production targets. ” Can be used anywhere, from the desert of Saudi Arabia to the Antarctic ice.

The climate crisis forces action

According to Zwinkels, this is necessary on the one hand because of the advancing climate crisis, which is making soils drier and environmental disasters more frequent. But our consumer behavior is also reinforcing this trend: “As consumers, we demand products all year round,” says Zwinkels. “We don’t care if it’s November or December: we want strawberries, even though strawberries are a summer product.”

This can also be one of the future forms of cultivation: “vertical farming”, in which plants are grown in multi-storey buildings. However, this is also energy-intensive.

Image: AFP

Trend term vertical farming

And so here in the Netherlands you simply create an artificial ecosystem to meet the needs of customers. Among other things through “vertical farming” – a form of cultivation that is intensely discussed in the industry. The plants grow on several levels one above the other, often in a container. They do not see daylight. Instead, a colorful mix of spectral colors supplies the plant, fully automated systems ensure the perfect conditions in terms of temperature, humidity and the like.

The renowned science magazine PNAS came to the conclusion in a study from last year: Yes, the yield of wheat from such vertical farms, with which bread could be baked for the world, could actually be several hundred times higher than cultivation in the open Field.

However, due to the high energy costs, especially for the special lamps, it is unlikely that this form of cultivation is really economically competitive at current market prices. That is why so far mainly basil or lettuce have been grown in such vertical farms. That can be cultivated quickly and thus also sold quickly. The only question is whether leafy vegetables can actually feed ten billion people in 2050.

Business is working for the World Horti Center: Many private equity companies, for example, are interested in this future market. In addition, there are financial injections from the Dutch government. However, Zwinkels also knows that many developing countries cannot afford this effort. Therefore, the Dutch technologies will have to prove that they are not only attractive objects of speculation, but also actually offer solutions for the sustainable and socially just nutrition of world hunger.

You can see these and other reports in the Europamagazin – on Sunday at 12.45 p.m. in Das Erste.

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