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Insights on the Netherlands

Why agricultural innovation is needed

When people think about the Netherlands, they usually tend to think of cows and cheese, tulips and windmills, grass and water. For a large part, that description of the Dutch landscape is actually pretty accurate – but, the Netherlands is also much more than that. Despite being a tiny country, the Netherlands is an agricultural powerhouse and commerce hub that influences how agriculture works globally. What is agriculture in the Netherlands? How did it evolve? And where is it going?

A (stereo)typical Dutch landscape (Source: Arjan de Jong / Unsplash).

An agricultural powerhouse

‘God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands’ is a well-known saying that is telling for how the Dutch generally tend to see themselves, as well as how the rest of the world tends to see the Dutch. Indeed, through hard work and ingenuity, and mostly, through centuries of pumping, the Dutch have managed to create land from what was once water, land which the Dutch call ‘polders’.

In some way, this mentality can also be seen in the way that the Netherlands is producing agricultural goods: the country is one agricultural powerhouse. The Netherlands (41.543 square km of which 18% water) is the second largest agricultural exporter in the world (after the United States). In 2019, the total export value was € 94,5 billion – higher than ever. Even though imports are great too, the export minus import surplus stands at € 30.5 billion – also making the Netherlands the second largest net-exporter in the world after Brazil – read more in our article Insights on Brazil).

Due to the recent corona crisis and the societal lockdown, the catering industry had to shut down, and farmers got stuck with huge quantities of potatoes meant for making fries. Some farmers now ‘sell’ their potatoes to dairy farmers for the symbolic price of 1 cent per kilo, who feed them to the cows (Source: Bart Kamphuis / NOS).

Where does the money come from?

Tulips are not only a well known symbol of the Netherlands, flowers in general are an important part of the agricultural export value too. Floriculture was the highest export value of all agricultural goods in 2019, at € 9.5 billion. Following closely were meat (€ 8.8 billion), dairy and eggs (€ 8.6 billion), and vegetables (€ 7.3 billion). The export value of agriculture-related goods (e.g. agricultural machinery and fertilisers) is becoming more important, rising by 8.3% to a record level of € 9.9 billion in 2019.

Floriculture is of large economic export value in the Netherlands (Source: Alkemade / Pixabay).

The bulk of the export value, 72%, actually comes from production from within the Netherlands (domestic products), whereas 28% of the value comes from products from outside of the Netherlands (re-exports). Similar to previous years, neighbouring countries are the top destination of agricultural exports from the Netherlands in 2019 (Germany at 25%, Belgium at 11%, the United Kingdom at 9%).

Some Dutch agricultural sectors, such as horticulture, floriculture, and dairy, are internationally known sectors. Dutch companies are producing many of their commodities abroad, whilst disseminating widely the generated knowledge on these production systems.

Based on estimates, the export value of Dutch agricultural goods, divided between domestically produced and re-exported goods (Source: CBS, adapted by Ana Somaglino).

Zero hunger back in the 50’s

To understand how Dutch agriculture came to the point where it is today, one has to understand where it came from. In the book ‘De Graanrepubliek’ Frank Westerman describes the changes of Dutch agriculture in the 20th century. A decisive point in faith of the Dutch landscape began closely after the second world war. As an answer to famines that took place under foreign occupation, the vision of ‘no hunger again’ was the adagium. 

Policy-driven changes in the decades that followed induced a strive for efficiency, optimisation, food abundance, and self-sufficiency. Those led to fast industrialisation and mechanisation, farmers specialisation, increased farm size, and a decreased number of farmers. And, it worked: productivity soared.

Mansholt, socialist farmer and founding father of the European Union

Sicco Mansholt, who became the Minister of Agriculture right after the second world war (and stayed Minister for 13 years!) was a key figure in not only transforming Dutch agriculture but even European agriculture. ‘Never hunger again’ was his motto. Mansholt, from a pedigree of socialist farmers, became the first European Commissioner for agriculture of the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the European Union). 

Sicco Mansholt in the Wieringermeer polder, 1950 (Source: Sem Presser / Maria Austria Instituut)

Largely under Mansholt’s policies, which he managed to push through with notorious perseverance, Europe became united, amongst others with the idea to ensure cooperation between neighbouring countries in the region, but also to ensure European food self-sufficiency. Mansholt was the key architect behind the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and many of his ideas still influence the CAP as it stands today, providing large amounts of European subsidies to many European farmers.

Unforeseen yet unignorable

Since Mansholt, Dutch agriculture has more or less continued along a similar path:  that of efficiency, meaning large scale, industrialised, and specialised farms. There have been great increases in productivity decreasing the need for continuous heavy physical farmwork. Like labourers, farmers could now also go on holiday, as Mansholt once envisioned.

However, there have been many unforeseen effects – environmental effects mostly – many of which are becoming increasingly visible throughout time. Interestingly, Mansholt himself, coming towards the end of his life, deeply regretted and feared much the productivity-paradigm that he himself helped to create. He saw overproduction leading to plummeting food prices, and  became strongly convinced of the need for environmental protection after the ideas proposed by the Limits to Growth report by the Club of Rome.

Indeed, the increases in production have been matched in parallel by unforeseen yet unignorable issues, many of which are of environmental nature.

Biodiversity, or biomonoversity?

At the end of 2019, this little country was home to roughly 17.4 million people, accompanied by 101.7 million chickens, 12.3 million pigs, 3.8 million cows, 0.9 million head of sheep, 0.6 million goats, and an unknown yet surely large number of plants. All of these humans, animals, and plants need space for living and for food.

Two-thirds of the total land area of the Netherlands are used for agricultural purposes. Grassland covers half of this agricultural land – by far the biggest share, whereas arable farming accounts for  a quarter. Given this extent of agricultural land throughout the Netherlands, the way in which it is managed will have great impacts on nature on and around these farmlands.

Two-thirds of the total land of the Netherlands is used for agricultural purposes, half of which is  grassland (Source: Leon Ephraïm / Unsplash).

Of course, there is also designated space for nature in the Netherlands. Nature conservation takes place mostly within particular natural areas as part of EU Natura 2000, and through the goals set under the EU Birds and Habitats Directive to which member states report the conservation status every six years.

Also, it takes place through a network of natural areas that extends beyond the acreage of Natura-2000 sites (Natuurnetwerk Nederland (NNN)). Under Natura-2000 and NNN, the share of protected nature reserves in the Netherlands is 26% of the area of land and inland waters, where another 24% of coastal- and marine areas are protected under Natura 2000.

A typical traditional Dutch landscape, including grassland, reeds, and coppiced willows (Source: Alkemade / Pixabay).

Looking beyond acreage

Despite the existence of Dutch protected areas and their relative size meeting the targets of the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD), it’s important to look beyond just acreage. When looking at the conservation status of habitat types and selected species in the Netherlands, it appears that approximately 90% of the habitat types and that 75% of the target species have a moderately to very unfavorable conservation status.

In the Netherlands, as across the EU, negative trends for habitat types and species with unfavourable conservation status are more eminent than positive trends for those habitats and species – in other words, one step forward, but two steps backward. What does this mean in reality?

For instance, due to changes in Dutch agriculture in the Netherlands since the early 20th century, characteristic breeding birds of the agricultural area have deteriorated considerably – after the 1960’s bird populations have declined by more than 70%. Under the increasing agricultural intensification of that time, changes took place in crop choice, pesticide use, mechanisation, economies of scale, land consolidation, disappearance of hedges, wooded banks and bushes on farmland. This worsened the food situation, nesting conditions, and chick survival for most of these bird species.

The black-tailed godwit, a bird typical to the Dutch pasturelands, is the national bird of the Netherlands. However, it’s population is in steep decline, likely as a result of agricultural intensification and monoculture grasslands (Source: Vincent van Zalinge / Unsplash).

Although the impact of agriculture on biodiversity in the Netherlands is multi-faceted, recent concerns have been specifically on the impact of nitrogen deposition on biodiversity in Nature-2000 areas. For a large part, it can be attributed to this juridical component (the fact that it concerned official natural areas that ought to be legally protected and restored) that has spurred renewed attention for biodiversity in the Netherlands. Let’s have a look.

The Nitrogen Crisis (de stikstofcrisis)

Virtually all Dutch people can confirm: 2019 has been a year filled with nitrogen – yes, nitrogen. Under months of almost continuous media-attention, even a new word has evolved to describe the situation: ‘de stikstofcrisis’, or ‘the nitrogen crisis’ (it even has its own wikipedia page).

In the Netherlands, agriculture takes by far the biggest share (46%) within the total emissions of nitrogen to the environment, mainly through emissions of a particular form of nitrogen, namely ammonia (NH3). Ammonia, originating for instance from cows’ manure, volatilises and subsequently precipitates from the atmosphere onto the land surface. 

This deposition of nitrogen increases fertilisation of soil and water (a process called eutrophication) and can also cause soil acidification. In Natura 2000 areas, ammonia deposition creates problems for particular species, and thereby threatens to reduce biodiversity. In Natura 2000 areas, 41% of nitrogen deposits leading to eutrophication stem from agriculture, virtually all ammonia.

How manure is stored, treated, and managed is of great importance for ammonia emissions (Source: Wolfgang Ehrecke / Pixabay).

It is clear that in the Netherlands, and particularly within the Natura 2000 areas, the targets for nature as set under the EU Birds and Habitats Directive, will not be met. Out of the 161 Natura 2000 areas, 130 are ‘nitrogen sensitive’, whilst the critical deposition value (that if exceeded, means the habitat is significantly damaged) is in fact exceeded in 118 Natura 2000 areas.

The importance of adhering to goals on nature is a core message of an advisory report created for the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture (‘Ministerie van Landbouw, Natuur en Voedselkwaliteit’) on how to tackle the ‘stickstofcrisis’. The report also mentions where emissions from agriculture arise exactly. 

Most nitrogen emissions from agriculture arise from dairy farming (Source: Wolfgang Ehrecke / Pixabay).

The agricultural sectors with the highest nitrogen emissions are dairy farming (53.8 million kg nitrogen per year), arable farming (15.4) and pig farming (11.4).

Within the ‘ground-bound’ livestock sector (dairy and meat cattle), most emissions come from ammonia emissions from manure in stables (24), followed by the use of (liquid) manure (25) and the use of fertiliser (9).

In the ‘non-ground-bound’ livestock sector (pigs, calves, poultry, etc.) 19 of the 21 million kg nitrogen per year comes from ammonia emissions from manure in stables.

The advisory board recommends to reduce domestic nitrogen emissions by 50% in 2030 as compared to 2019. It also mentions how this stricter nitrogen policy aimed at ammonia would have positive effects on emission reductions in the context of the climate (reduced methane emissions) and improved water quality (reduced leaching of nitrate to ground- and surface water).

To reduce nitrogen emissions from agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture has brought to life a multitude of measures, including those that aim to ensure emission reductions, specifically within the livestock sector. These include buy-out money for livestock farmers to close their businesses, as well as efforts to change cattle feed characteristics. Those will lead to reduced nitrogen emissions from the process of enteric fermentation.

Buy-out of pig farmers is one of the strategies to reduce nitrogen emissions from agriculture as proposed by the Ministry of Agriculture (Source: Wolfgang Ehrecke / Pixabay).

Applying these measures is not straightforward, and the Ministry of Agriculture is continuously managing between stakeholder groups attempting to find a way to honor (at least some of) each parties’ demands, also acknowledging the latest knowledge developments. Funnily, this is something the Dutch would call ‘polderen’ – ‘to polder’ – remember that word?

It is a difficult assignment in a cramped country where nature and short-term economic interests appear to be at odds. Yet of course, the fundamental importance of nature is out of question when it comes to securing long-term economic development, as discussed in our article ‘What Covid-19 can teach us’.

The nitrogen crisis has in fact been a simmering problem that has existed for many decades: it is related to a large production of animal manure in the Netherlands, and diverging views on how to deal with such large amounts properly. It is one example that shows how the Dutch agricultural system has taken a certain direction in the 21st century, one that hasn’t come without consequences.

Thinking in circles

Several decades later after Mansholt’s vision, a new vision for agriculture has arrived, again from the Ministry of Agriculture. After several years of non-existence, the Ministry seems to have made a ‘comeback’, appearing to have made a strong return within the policy domain. This time, it is led by Minister Carola Schouten who has set out the vision for what’s called ‘Kringlooplandbouw’: circular agriculture.

The vision for Kringlooplandbouw outlines the pathway in which agriculture is supposed to develop in the coming decade. It takes 2030 as a year in which the Netherlands is supposed to be a ‘frontrunner’ of circular agriculture, a year in which cycles of resources (nutrients, water, etc.) are supposed to be closed at the smallest scale possible. In addition, it aims to strengthen the economic position of food procedures, to stimulate the value of food in all levels of society, and to become a global example for circular agricultural production methods.

Three additional goals of the vision for Kringlooplandbouw (Source: Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, adapted by Ana Somaglino)

Kringlooplandbouw is characterised, among other things, by:
– Improving soil health and fertility
– Increasing efficiency, limiting losses of nutrients, water, and other resources
– Limiting the use of external inputs and fostering responsible use of fertiliser, pesticides, and machinery
– Facilitating nature-inclusive agriculture

For instance, within the livestock sector, goals are to reduce the size of nutrient cycles of animal feed and to close these cycles at the lowest possible level. In addition, there is the goal to prevent losses of food, residual flows (such as manure), carbon, energy, and water as much as possible.

Lastly, Kringlooplandbouw urges livestock farmers to increasingly use feed that they have grown or bought themselves, preferably from local or regional producers, as well as residual- and by-products from the human food industry.

Kringlooplandbouw envisions a shift from a strive for continuous reduction of the cost of products to a strive for continuous reduction of the consumption of raw materials (Source: Dutch Ministry of Agriculture).

Another work of vision was recently released by the hands of researchers from Wageningen University. The researchers decided to create a map depicting a desirable yet feasible future of the Netherlands if biodiversity and climate goals were prioritised and nature-based solutions applied: The Netherlands in 2120.

The Netherlands in 2020 (left) and in 2120 (right) according to the vision of the Wageningen University professors (Source: WUR).

This vision of the Netherlands contains more space and pathways for plants and animals, greener cities, circular agriculture, rainwater capture and storage, and marine agriculture. Their report also mentions how cities are surrounded by more trees and food forests (agroforestry), which will also sequester carbon and enhance the urban living environment.

It is clear that agriculture in the Netherlands is shifting – at least, on paper. Even though it is far from easy to change systems, policies are already starting to follow behind, for instance those concerning nitrogen emissions.

Dutch cities and agriculture in 2020 (left) and in 2120 (right) according to the vision of the Wageningen University professors (Source: WUR).

The road ahead

A current challenge: Drought

Dutch agriculture will face several challenges in the years and decades to come. These include continued biodiversity loss, slim economic margins, income insecurity for farmers, and a lack of young people willing to farm. One major issue is already affecting farmers significantly and deserves special attention: Drought.

If you live in the Netherlands, you will have noticed that we have had several hot summers in a row. July 2019 shattered all heat records since the start of the measurements in 1907. In some places, maximum temperatures rose above 40 degrees Celsius, a value that was hitherto deemed impossible for the Netherlands. Very likely, the July heat wave, as well as other European heatwaves from the last two decades, can be attributed to human-induced climate change.

In the well-known Amsterdam Vondelpark, grass turned yellow and died off and soils turned dusty and hard during the 2018 drought (Source: Dingena Mol/Het Parool).

Farmers are currently facing strong spring and summer droughts. Rainfall shortages (the difference between rainfall and evapotranspiration) have been extreme in the months of May and June 2020, currently standing at a 166 mm deficiency (June 24th 2020). After some erratic rains in previous weeks, the situation has stabilised, but the drought has not yet ended, concludes the commission tasked with monitoring drought in the Netherlands in their latest report (June 24th 2020). There is still a ‘threatening water shortage’, with the lack of rainfall being significant, and with further rainfall shortages and high temperatures projected for the coming two weeks.

Especially in the Eastern and Southern Netherlands the effects of the drought are particularly noticeable, as no water can be supplied in these areas, meaning reduced crop yields in agriculture and damage to nature are possible. In the coming period, the water demand from agriculture will increase as crops are growing, yet the vital question is if that water will be available. 

During droughts, Dutch farmers have to rely on irrigation, increasingly from groundwater sources, in order to meet their water demand (Source: Alkemade / Pixabay).

Increasing temperature extremes seem to be part of a bigger trend over the last century. The number of summer days (days with a maximum temperature above 25 degrees Celsius or above)  has risen from an average of 9 days in 1907 to an average of 25 days in 2019. The last two years have been above average dry years. Whether summer droughts will be the new norm is uncertain, despite some initial evidence that does point in that direction.

An opportunity for agroforestry and regenerative farming

The vision of Kringlooplandbouw aims to address issues such as high nitrogen emissions from agriculture as well as drought.

Within the vision, agroforestry is also mentioned as a nature-inclusive agricultural technology that is aligned with the principles of Kringlooplandbouw. Recently, the Ministry of Agriculture commissioned a Masterplan Agroforestry (2020) to discover the possibilities of scaling agroforestry in the Netherlands. 

Ploughing in between 14 year old walnut trees, Domaine de Restinclières, Montpellier, France (Source: AGFORWARD Project).

In the Masterplan, the Louis Bolk Institute identifies three interesting possibilities for scaling agroforestry in the Netherlands: integrating trees and cows, trees and free-range chickens, and trees and annuals. Out of these three options Louis Bolk sees the livestock-tree integration as most straightforward.

It might also be possible that agroforestry and other related regenerative practices will soon become eligible for funds from the transition fund towards circular agriculture that the Ministry of Agriculture is currently developing – but we’ll have to await the details of this fund for now.

Wageningen University and Research (WUR) is also researching agroforestry applications in the Netherlands. In a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) in which amongst others the Ministry of Agriculture and a consortium of arable farmers are partaking, Wageningen Plant Research is executing and researching agroforestry.

Agroforestry experiments on the Agroecology and Technology Lab in Lelystad (Source: WUR)

On the Agroecology & Technology Fieldlab in Lelystad, monitoring, testing, and improving of agroforestry systems is part of the range of experiments undertaken. It aims at creating nature-inclusive and regenerative forms of agriculture based on ecological processes and smart technologies. Research and knowledge on temperate climate agroforestry will be increasingly available, including how viable business models can take hold.

A pear tree in the Netherlands (Source: Alkemade / Pixabay).

Vision matters

If there’s one thing we can learn from these insights in the Netherlands is that vision matters. Under Mansholt and the 50’s zeitgeist, agriculture in the Netherlands changed deeply and quickly. Now, agriculture appears to be at a crossroads again, with several issues and challenges in full swing, and a new vision for agriculture, Kringlooplandbouw, to serve as a roadmap.

Under Kringlooplandbouw, a strive for continuous reduction of the consumption of raw materials, closing of nutrient cycles will be on the forefront of the agricultural agenda for the next decade.

Regenerative Agroforestry and associated practices can contribute to a reduced need of external inputs, can help close nutrient and water cycles, and can lead to increased and diversified production.

The momentum for change within agriculture is great – through cooperation between business, science, the government, farmers, and society, we will work towards nature-inclusive Dutch agriculture.


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