The Netherlands is a small country with a high population density. Around a quarter of the country lies below sea level. Thousands of miles of levees are needed to protect these areas from floods.
And it is precisely there where the solution for one of the major tasks of mankind. In any case, some farmers and agronomists in the country believe it. They say that the world can learn to feed approximately 9,600 million people who will inhabit the Earth in 2050, according to their form of cultivation.
This self-confidence is no coincidence. The Netherlands are not only known for their colorful tulips and wooden shoes, but also for its export of vegetables. In fact, the country is the second largest exporter in the world of agri-food products after the United States.
The producers of fruit and vegetables billed around 6,000 million euros a year. Here grow onions and potatoes, but also some typical vegetables of southern Europe, such as tomatoes, peppers and chilies, which are among best-selling foods.
In the Dutch agricultural region of Westland, farmers grow tomatoes in bags rather than on Earth.
The culture is mainly done in greenhouses. The technology that supports them is called “precision farming”, the most advanced in the world, according to the Dutch agricultural industry.
An old technology modernized modern greenhouse farming took off in the country after the second world war as a reaction to one of the latest experiences of famine in Europe. Up to 20,000 people died in the Dutch “winter of hunger”, during the last months of the German occupation.
Today, the most advanced part of the technology of greenhouses in the country is located in the southern region of Westland, where 80 percent of the cultivated land is filled with glass-covered greenhouses.
Find Duijvestijn tomatoes, a growing company where the plants bend under the weight of the fruit red, yellow, green and purple. In these areas, extremely controlled, requires visitors the use of a toilet one piece suit.
“Ultimately, plant will reach between 13 and 14 meters in height and will produce about 33 clusters of tomatoes,” said Ad van Adrichem, CEO of Duijvestijn Tomatoes.
Instead of using pesticides, Duijvestijn Tomatoes releases natural predators to deal with pests.
It is important to get that height in an area where land is as precious as insufficient. Holland, despite being a small country, has one of the highest population densities in the world. The Westland greenhouses thus reach a performance of 70 kilograms of tomatoes per square metre of acreage.
That is almost ten times more than the performance medium from other countries such as Spain or Morocco, where vegetables are grown in the open field. In addition, the Dutch method does not employ virtually no pesticides and uses eight times less water than growing outdoors.
The secret to the success of alternative approaches is Dutch tomatoes are not grown on land, but in small bags of wool, a fibrous material that can also be used for insulation and soundproofing.
“Provides much more control,” says van Adrichem. “Therefore we can better control the amount of nutrients that plants need and water”, clarifies.
Also, the greenhouses are equipped with all technical needs. For example, tomatoes Duijvestijn has invested in a ceiling and double glazing that stores more heat and, at the same time, let enough light so that the lower leaves of the plants receive sufficient sunlight.
Constant warm temperature comes from two geothermal wells. The CO2 required for the plants to grow is carefully driven from a nearby oil refinery. If the Sun is not shining, the LED lighting provides artificial daylight, which also shines at night.
Technology goes even further: if it doesn’t rain, irrigation is ensured by the water that is stored in an underground layer of sand, for use during the dry months. Where emerging pests, the company does not use pesticides, but insects that eat pests. They even have hives of bees for pollination.
However, some environmentalists are skeptical to the new technology, as for example, Herman van Bekkem, leader of Greenpeace Netherlands.
Professor Leo Marsalis at a unit of light of the experimental greenhouse of the WUR which allows plants to grow even without sunlight.
“We see promising examples of farmers who do everything they can to reduce pesticides,” he admits in an interview with DW. “But if the figures, as the statistics of pollution of water in the Netherlands, there is no other region most contaminated by pesticides that the area of the greenhouses,” says Bekkem.
For many years, Westland water managers have complained of the high quantities of pesticides in surface waters.
“That’s not our thing”, defended van Adrichem. “We are working with a closed water circuit. I.e., plants receive the exact amount of water they need and, as tomatoes are not planted in the soil, the water is non-spillable”, explains.
A vertical future Leo Marcelis, Professor of horticulture at the Wageningen University & Research (WUR), the Dutch food industry research center, also sees the future in cultivation in buildings, or greenhouses.
“In the future, we will have vertical farms that will reach as high as skyscrapers and which will work with artificial light,” said Marcelis.
Stackable units be built one on top of another, as high as you want, using artificial light, and where agriculture will be completely independent of the climate and will offer reliable performance.
Students from around the world investigating the future of agriculture in the WUR.
Half of the WUR students are foreigners, and when they complete their studies many will take their knowledge and experiences to Asia and Africa. According to Ernst van den Ende, there would be many possible applications for the techniques developed at the University.
Van den Ende directs the Department of plant sciences of the WUR. As an example, he cites a project being carried out in Africa. The goal is to optimize the interaction of grains with a bacteria capable of fixing nitrogen from the air, which is an essential nutrient for plants.
“If we optimize this symbiosis, we may increase the harvest without using fertilizers,” explains the researcher.
For him, the investigation of the WUR tries to avoid that people goes hungry, as did the generation of their grandparents in the Netherlands. “My grandmother had to travel 80 kilometers to get a sack of Brussels sprouts”, explains.
Now, van den Ende believes that technology that are developed from the Dutch will allow to feed the world in the coming years.