Quantcast

The Netherlands Can Feed the World. Here’s Why It Shouldn’t

Popular
iStock

By Olga Mecking, Commentary

Recently, National Geographic published an article called This Tiny Country Feeds the World, where the author extolled the innovations of a small European country that has managed to become a global powerhouse in agriculture and technology—the Netherlands. Now the second biggest exporter in value of agricultural products after the U.S., the country has managed to cut down carbon emissions and its use of fertilizer and pesticides while implementing cutting-edge technology and increasing yields.


The article opens with a vivid description of a farm close to the Belgian border where a farmer is overseeing drones from the cabin of his state-of-the-art harvester. He is the symbol of the new Dutch approach to food production: "Twice as much food using half as many resources."

The author blithely points out what we already know: There will be 9 billion people living on Earth by 2050 and the demand for food will increase accordingly.

On the surface, it sounds impressive: A tiny, densely populated country has developed the capacity to feed the world, a feat worthy of admiration. And yet this raises other, more critical questions: Is the Netherlands' technology-dependent, high-capital model actually appropriate for other countries? Is it even necessary? And what gets lost when we focus solely on increasing food efficiency?

You may not hear many Dutch people complaining about their own food, but for everyone else, it lacks quality and taste. This is best symbolized by the tomato. A German once told me, "Dutch tomatoes are best for playing tennis with." And yet the Netherlands is the third biggest exporter of tomatoes in the European Union. The given reason is always economics; the Dutch were paid the lowest price per kilo out of all EU countries.

While some good tomatoes are produced for both export and for domestic consumption, "the taste is not always good," explained Leo Marcelis, a professor of horticulture at Wageningen University and Research. "It's more the choice of the grower. Many growers go for more kilograms because then the net profit is higher."

But the problem isn't with Dutch production, but rather with Dutch choice. "The originality or creativity of the food culture—you won't find it here," said Pinar Coskun, a sociologist at Sustainable Food Lab, an Erasmus University of Rotterdam project aimed at encouraging more varied, sustainable, and plant-based diets. A country can become an agricultural powerhouse without having a rich food culture, but the focus on price, efficiency and practicality has undermined how the Dutch both consume and produce their food.

"For the Netherlands, it doesn't matter what you are importing or exporting, whether it's raw materials, or food ingredients. It has more to do with economy, distribution, logistics than getting into food culture. So that's also a little bit of rational thinking," explained Coskun.

Dutch food has a reputation for being bland, uninspired and boring, which is astounding given the country's rich history of seafaring and trading. But the Dutch were once adventurous eaters, experimenting with new ingredients and mixing them up in novel ways. Cookbooks such as De Verstandige Kok (or The Reasonable Chef), which was published in 1669, are proof that the Dutch had taken great interest in what was on their plates. They experimented with spices such as saffron and others. A recipe featured roasted goose with turmeric and quince paste cookies. Many people grew fruits and vegetables in their own gardens.

But in the 19th century, when the Dutch Golden Age of exploration and colonization was over, the Netherlands lost many of its territories to England, and frugality became fashionable. At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, girls were sent to special housekeeping schools, where they learned to cook simply, cheaply and quickly. Experimenting with tastes, ingredients and cooking methods was seen as frivolous, therefore was frowned upon. As a result, Dutch culinary culture lost much of its early adventurousness and became known for the bland and mashed concoctions we find today.

But this is, yet again, changing. Among others, a new collective of chefs called Dutch Cuisine is devoted to raising the profile of Dutch food in the nation and around the world.

It's underexposed, said Marjan Pijnenburg, one of Dutch Cuisine's founders, but she disagrees with the notion that the Netherlands lacks a food culture. "We have fantastic food, traditions, and products," she said. "That is something we can be proud of."

There are some benefits to a simple approach to food. For one, while the country's high-tech food industry grows the same crops year-round (for example, tomatoes), the Dutch diet relies heavily on seasonal produce from small, local, family-owned farms. Some dishes, such as stamppot (mashed potatoes with leafy green vegetables and smoked sausage) or snert (also known as erwtensoep, green split pea soup), are only eaten in wintertime. There is a growing interest in rediscovering long-forgotten fruits and vegetables, such as Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips or medlars, now sold in many health food stores. Weekly farmers markets, which offer a wide variety of fresh produce, have a long tradition in the Netherlands. And, for food purists who love knowing exactly what they are eating, the Dutch minimalistic approach seems perfect because most dishes don't require a miles-long list of ingredients.

Moreover, the culture is slowly and steadily changing, following the global trend toward healthier food. In 2014, the Netherlands topped the list of countries with the most available, healthy, nutritious and affordable food. The Dutch also increasingly buy organic food, especially when it comes to staples like eggs, milk and fish. However, not all trends are positive. The Dutch still consume large amounts of sugar and fat. The time used for food preparation and shopping has decreased in recent years, with a trend toward ready-made or take-out dishes. But the shift toward healthier and tastier cuisine can't be dismissed.

The world definitely has a lot to learn from Dutch innovations in farming, especially when it comes to reducing the use of water, pesticides and carbon emissions. But before we get overly excited about the Netherlands, let's remember that the Dutch have their own lessons to learn. In Coskun's words, "before we feed the world, we should feed ourselves."

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter


georgeclerk / E+ / Getty Images

By Jennifer Molidor

One million species are at risk of extinction from human activity, warns a recent study by scientists with the United Nations. We need to cut greenhouse gas pollution across all sectors to avoid catastrophic climate change — and we need to do it fast, said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This research should serve as a rallying cry for polluting industries to make major changes now. Yet the agriculture industry continues to lag behind.

Read More Show Less
Edwin Remsburg / VW Pics / Getty Images

Botswana, home to one third of Africa's elephants, announced Wednesday that it was lifting its ban on the hunting of the large mammals.

"The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism wishes to inform the public that following extensive consultations with all stakeholders, the Government of Botswana has taken a decision to lift the hunting suspension," the government announced in a press release shared on social media.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Pxhere

By Richard Denison

Readers of this blog know how concerned EDF is over the Trump EPA's approval of many dozens of new chemicals based on its mere "expectation" that workers across supply chains will always employ personal protective equipment (PPE) just because it is recommended in the manufacturer's non-binding safety data sheet (SDS).

Read More Show Less
De Molen windmill and nuclear power plant cooling tower in Doel, Belgium. Trougnouf / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Grant Smith

From 2009 to 2012, Gregory Jaczko was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which approves nuclear power plant designs and sets safety standards for plants. But he now says that nuclear power is too dangerous and expensive — and not part of the answer to the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less
A lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Brett Walton / Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton

When Greg Wetherbee sat in front of the microscope recently, he was looking for fragments of metals or coal, particles that might indicate the source of airborne nitrogen pollution in Rocky Mountain National Park. What caught his eye, though, were the plastics.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Gabriele Holtermann Gorden / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

In a big victory for animals, Prada has announced that it's ending its use of fur! It joins Coach, Jean Paul Gaultier, Giorgio Armani, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, Michael Kors, Donna Karan and many others PETA has pushed toward a ban.

This is a victory more than a decade in the making. PETA and our international affiliates have crashed Prada's catwalks with anti-fur signs, held eye-catching demonstrations all around the world, and sent the company loads of information about the fur industry. In 2018, actor and animal rights advocate Pamela Anderson sent a letter on PETA's behalf urging Miuccia Prada to commit to leaving fur out of all future collections, and the iconic designer has finally listened.

Read More Show Less
Amer Ghazzal / Barcroft Media / Getty Images

If people in three European countries want to fight the climate crisis, they need to chill out more.

That's the conclusion of a new study from think tank Autonomy, which found that Germany, the UK and Sweden all needed to drastically reduce their workweeks to fight climate change.

"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."

The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.

The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.

The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.

"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."

Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.

"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."

Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.

"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice held a press conference after the annual shareholder meeting on May 22. Amazon Employees for Climate Justice

Amazon shareholders voted down an employee-backed resolution calling for more aggressive action on climate change at their annual meeting Wednesday, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Read More Show Less