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How a University Helps Key an Agricultural Powerhouse
At first glance, the U.S. and the Netherlands have as much in common as ketchup topping on applesauce. The U.S. is vast in size, the Netherlands tiny, with 1,300 inhabitants per square mile. The U.S. has huge swaths of farmland growing corn, soybeans, and wheat. The Netherlands? Not so much. Instead, it has huge greenhouses — some covering up to 175 acres — growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
One commonality exists, though: Both nations are agricultural powerhouses.
The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest exporter of food as measured by value, second only to the U.S. That’s amazing, considering the U.S. has 270 times the landmass of the Netherlands.
This was detailed in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic with a story titled “This Tiny Country Feeds the World” http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/09/holland-agriculture-s...
The Dutch have also done it under a sustainable agriculture approach of “twice as much food using half as many resources” launched nearly two decades ago, the National Geographic article points out. In some cases, farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by up to 90%. Pesticides for plant production in greenhouses have nearly been eliminated. Meanwhile, Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut antibiotic use by up to 60% since 2009.
So How Do the Dutch Do it?
“Even a lot of people in the Netherlands don’t realize that agriculture is that strong,” says Ernst van den Ende, managing director of Wageningen University & Research (WUR) Plant Sciences Group.
Wageningen, located 50 miles southeast of Amsterdam, has helped to key the country’s agricultural success. I visited WUR last month as part of Bayer CropScience’s Future of Farming Dialog in Germany.
WUR has a huge footprint, says van den Ende. It has around 12,000 students with a faculty and staff around 6,000. It has 25 branch locations across the Netherlands, China, Africa, and the Middle East, with 458 projects in 90 countries. Agricultural start-ups and global companies flock there, as is evidenced by Unilever’s building of a global foods innovation center in Wageningen.
Van den Ende notes that goals at WUR revolve around:
1. More production per square meter.
2. Less inputs.
3. Bettering factors like health food and food safety.
“Technology and sustainability are linked together,” says van den Ende.
One of the projects WUR scientists are leading is how to improve photosynthesis.
“If we want to double yields in next 35 years, we need to crack this big question,” says Eric Schranz, a WUR professor of biosystematics.
He notes there’s only so much current techniques like fertilizer application can do when it comes to boosting yields.
“Global yields are going up, but not fast enough to provide the yield boost we need,” he says.
He notes a photosynthesis project like this one has never been done by a large community of scientists. He’s hoping it will be akin to the Manhattan Project, where scores of physicists cooperated on a large project.
Think you have to shell out the big bucks to spray your corn with a fungicide treatment? Try bananas.
They’re sprayed 50 to 70 times during their growing season with fungicides, says Gert Kema, who works on banana disease research at Wageningen.
And that may not be enough.
Cavendish bananas — originally developed in the 1950s to fend off disease — are now being threatened by a new strain of Panama disease. This fungal malady is threatening to wipe out Cavendish bananas, the predominant variety exported around the world.
Wageningen researchers are working on ways to manage this disease.
“We are on a high state of alert,” says Kema.
Quinoa seeds might seem like something you find in the hippie section of your local grocery store. That section is likely worth visiting, though, because quinoa seeds are packed with essential amino acids.
“Most quinoa is produced in South America, where they are tolerant to abiotic stressors (like drought),” says Gerard van der Linden, a WUR scientist.
One interesting point is that quinoa can tolerate salty ground. Quinoa can produce three times as much crop on salty soils as can wheat, says van der Linden.
It made me think about farmers battling saline and sodic soils in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Could quinoa be grown there?
Van der Linden says quinoa could have potential for North America, but it is sensitive to mildew. Thus, high humidity could hurt it. Still, it is grown in pockets in Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and California.
Potatoes and Climate Change
One thing I noticed while in Germany and the Netherlands is that the discussion of climate change doesn’t produce an artery-popping tiff akin to the Looney Tunes cartoon character Yosemite Sam. Instead, climate change is intermixed matter-of-factly with terms like photosynthesis and herbicide resistance. That’s true not only with scientists, but in the general population as well.
Climate change is a challenge that WUR plant pathologists like Geert Kessel face in working with potato disease. He notes the goal of providing food to 10.5 billion people who will reside on Earth by 2100 will need to be done under the pressure from society to reduce chemical inputs and also climate change.
Surprisingly, potatoes positively respond to climate change. “Potato production goes up when (atmospheric) carbon dioxide and temperature rises.”
The bad news is that the weather extremes brought about by climate change increase, too.
“When it is wet, it is difficult to control potato late blight (in potatoes),” says Kessel. (Potato late blight is the infamous fungal disease that caused the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.)
“Now, we can spray fungicides, but if we cannot enter a wet field, we cannot spray,” he says. “So, we are trying to introduce host resistance as a first layer of defense.”
Host resistance includes multiple genes, in case resistance develops to just one gene. The long-term goal is to have resistance as the first line of defense, with subsequent fungicide applications to supplement resistance when it begins to wear down, he says.
Eye-Popping Organic Matter Levels
Sometimes, there are things that just make your eyes widen when you’re out of your bubble. Frits van Everet, who works with precision agriculture at Wageningen, was talking about making precision maps for potato production.
“Here, the organic levels are 12.9% to 13.3%. So in those cases, we don’t have to apply a lot of nitrogen due to mineralization if conditions are wet enough to support and generate mineralization,” he says.
Later on, I asked WUR scientists if that organic matter level was right. Yes, they assured me, there are areas where a livestock history has teamed with plush soils to create organic matter levels that high. Coming from the Midwest, where organic matter levels of 5% to 6% are nirvana, that was an eye-opener.
University for the World
Granted, agricultural intensification in such a tiny country presents agronomic and environmental challenges. So far, though, it seems that resources like WUR are helping the Dutch sort their way through this.
The National Geographic story points out that the Netherlands was the last Western nation to suffer a serious famine, when 10,000 to 20,000 people died in German-occupied lands during the final year of World War II. Memories of that has likely spurred WUR scientists to develop agriculture not only in the Netherlands but also worldwide.
The story quotes WUR’s Rudy Rabbinge, professor emeritus of sustainable development and food security. He helped devise extensive changes in the faculty, student body, and curriculum that transformed the institution into what he calls “a university for the world, and not simply for the Dutch.”