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How the Netherlands Fuels a Global Agricultural Powerhouse

Here's how Wageningen University in the Netherlands fuels an under-the-radar global agricultural powerhouse.

At first glance, the U.S. and the Netherlands seem as mismatched as ketchup topping on applesauce. The U.S. is vast in size; the Netherlands is 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.

“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.

So how do the Dutch do it?

WUR, located 50 miles southeast of Amsterdam, has helped to key the country’s agricultural success.

WUR has a huge footprint, says van den Ende. It has about 12,000 students with a faculty and staff of approximately 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 evidenced by Unilever’s building of a global foods innovation center in Wageningen. van den Ende notes that goals at WUR revolve around the following:  

  • More production per square meter
  • Less inputs
  • Bettering factors like health food and food safety

“Technology and sustainability are linked,” says van den Ende.

One project WUR scientists are leading is how to improve photosynthesis.

“If we want to double yields in the next 35 years, we need to crack this big question,” says Eric Schranz, a WUR professor of biosystematics.

He notes there are only so many current techniques (like fertilizer application) that can be done 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 during World War II, where scores of physicists cooperated on a large project.

Bananas

Think you have shelled out the big bucks to spray your corn with a fungicide treatment? Try bananas. They’re often sprayed 50 to 70 times during their growing season with fungicides, says Gert Kema, who works on banana disease research at Wageningen.

Yet, 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 Kama.

Quinoa

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 vital for human nutrition.  


“Most quinoa is produced in South America, where it is 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.

Farmers in states like Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota are battling saline and sodic soils. In some cases, the surface salt levels mimic a light dusting of snow. Could quinoa be grown there and help those soils and farmers?

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, Climate Change

Climate change is a challenge that WUR plant pathologists like Geert Kessel face in working with potato disease. He notes that the goal of providing food to the 10.5 billion people who will reside on Earth by 2100 will need to be done under 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 levels and temperatures rise,” Kessel says.

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

The Dutch have farmland with organic matter levels that would make your eyes pop out of their sockets. Frits van Everet, who works with precision agriculture at Wageningen University, makes precision maps for potato production.

“Here, the organic matter 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.

So why are organic matter levels that high? In many cases, a livestock history has teamed with plush soils to create these lofty levels.

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