Opinion

Produce And Agriculture Just Part Of Dutch DNA

28 November 2018

nic_jooste

The saying goes‭: ‬‘God made man‭, ‬the Dutch made Holland‭.‬’‭ ‬Over centuries‭, ‬almost half of the country was reclaimed from the sea by using clever solutions‭ (‬such as the beautiful windmills that can be seen all over the country‭) ‬to pump away water‭, ‬delivering to the Dutch fertile land on which farms could thrive‭. ‬

Today‭, ‬Dutch agriculture and horticulture is one of the icons of the modern world‭. ‬The figures are staggering‭. ‬In 2017‭, ‬Dutch exports of agricultural goods amounted to nearly‭ ‬€100‭ ‬billion‭ (‬including agriculture-related goods‭). ‬Companies such as Duijvestein Tomatoes‭, ‬Koppert Biological Systems and Rijk Zwaan Seeds dominate the world of agricultural innovation‭. ‬The Netherlands is the world’s No‭. ‬2‭ ‬exporter of food as measured by value‭, ‬second only to the United States‭. ‬Yet‭, ‬at 270‭ ‬times smaller than the United States‭, ‬the Netherlands can only be classified as extremely tiny‭. ‬From the outside‭, ‬it seems as if the country has no resources that‭ ‬are necessary for large-scale agriculture‭. ‬What is the secret of the Dutch’s success‭?‬

The fact is the Netherlands has agriculture‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬and agricultural trade‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬in its DNA‭. ‬No matter where in the world of fresh produce‭ ‬you go‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬or who you speak to‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬the Dutch feature somewhere in the supply chain‭.‬‭ ‬

This tiny‭, ‬flat northern European country has been one of the world’s leading trading nations for centuries‭. ‬Professor Jan de Vries calls the economic history of the Netherlands from 1500‭ ‬to 1800‭ ‬the world’s first‭ ‬‘modern’‭ ‬economy‭. ‬Already in the early 1500s‭, ‬the country created a true crossroads of trade connections for itself between east and west‭, ‬north and south‭. ‬The urban economies along these trade routes stimulated rural communities to become involved in all kinds of‭ ‬agrarian activities‭. ‬Since then‭, ‬highly sophisticated and productive Dutch agribusiness complexes have been the result‭. ‬

But there is more to it than meets the eye‭, ‬especially in terms of innovation‭. ‬Around the mid 1600s‭, ‬the Dutch saw the world was‭ ‬in need of products from far away‭. ‬Instead of doing what everybody else was doing‭ (‬building ships that could be converted to warships in case of war‭), ‬the Dutch created a new-style merchant ship known as the‭ ‬‘fluyt’‭ (‬the flute‭). ‬It was brilliant in its simplicity‭. ‬Designed to carry twice the cargo and able to be handled by a smaller crew‭, ‬it‭ ‬was one of the first examples of the Dutch lowering supply chain costs in order to be more competitive‭. ‬

But the Dutch immediately saw more opportunities‭. ‬The economic boom of the 1700s had led to an explosive growth in investments available for industries related to trade‭. ‬Inventor Cornelis Corneliszoon designed the wind-driven sawmill‭, ‬which significantly increased productivity in ship building‭. ‬This lowered the cost of transportation for Dutch merchants even further‭. ‬In addition to‭ ‬such productivity-enhancing investments‭, ‬they also started harnessing wind power and using heat energy from peat as an industrial fuel‭. ‬These factors relating to cost-saving and productivity gave the Dutch major competitive advantage‭. ‬By 1670‭, ‬the Dutch shipped 568,000‭ ‬tons per year‭ ‬‮—‬about half the European total‭. ‬With this solid edge‭, ‬the Dutch merchants fanned out across the globe‭, ‬sourcing new products and supplying new markets‭. ‬The Dutch became the world champion in trading‭.‬

The Dutch went even further in their early thinking‭. ‬As one of the earliest known investors in human capital‭, ‬the Dutch managed‭ ‬to raise labor productivity above the levels prevailing in other European countries‭. ‬In the mid-17th century‭, ‬the agricultural sector‭, ‬employing less than 40‭ ‬percent of the labor force‭, ‬could already be a net food exporter‭. ‬Nominal wages were the highest in Europe‭. ‬In the open economy of the time‭, ‬the Dutch realized that growth could only be sustained by focusing on productivity‭.  ‬

Today‭, ‬productivity and innovation are part and parcel of the DNA of the Dutch‭. ‬The country understands that it needs to build on its long food history in order to remain competitive‭. ‬In addition‭, ‬the Dutch are committed to play a significant role in feeding the world‭. ‬Ernst van den Ende‭, ‬managing director of the Wageningen University’s Plant Sciences Group‭, ‬says the following‭: ‬‘Put in bluntly apocalyptic terms‭, ‬the planet must produce more food in the next four decades than all farmers in history have harvested over the past 8,000‭ ‬years‭.‬’‭ ‬

From this perspective‭, ‬the Dutch food‭, ‬agriculture and horticulture sector has become highly innovative‭, ‬with value added all along the food chain‭. ‬Continuous adoption of innovation has permitted the Dutch to reach high levels of productivity‭, ‬particularly‭ ‬at farm level‭. ‬The Dutch government continues to stimulate improvements in technologies and know-how in order for farmers to pursue sustainable productivity growth‭. ‬In addition‭, ‬the Dutch system of agricultural innovation is focused on generating the new‭ ‬ideas that are needed to face future challenges‭, ‬including those linked to climate change‭.‬

At every turn in the Netherlands‭, ‬the future of sustainable agriculture is taking shape‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬not only in the boardrooms of big corporations but also on thousands of modest family farms‭. ‬

Nic Jooste is the director of marketing and CSR at Cool Fresh International‭, ‬a Rotterdam-based global marketing organization for‭ ‬fresh produce‭.  ‬

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