The Netherlands is a small, densely populated country, with more than 1,300 inhabitants per square mile. It’s bereft of almost every resource long thought to be necessary for large-scale agriculture. Yet it’s the globe’s number two exporter of food as measured by value, second only to the United States, which has 270 times its landmass.
Banks of what appear to be gargantuan mirrors stretch across the countryside, glinting when the sun shines and glowing with eerie interior light when night falls. They are Holland’s extraordinary greenhouse complexes, some of them covering 175 acres.
These climate-controlled farms enable a country located a scant thousand miles from the Arctic Circle to be a global leader in exports of a fair-weather fruit: the tomato. The Dutch are also the world’s top exporter of potatoes and onions and the second largest exporter of vegetables overall in terms of value. More than a third of all global trade in vegetable seeds originates in the Netherlands.
With demand for chicken increasing, Dutch firms are developing technology to maximize poultry production while ensuring humane conditions. This high-tech broiler house holds up to 150,000 birds, from hatching to harvesting.
The soaring cost of grain to feed animals? “Feed them grasshoppers instead,” he says. One hectare of land yields one metric ton of soy protein, a common livestock feed, a year. The same amount of land can produce 150 tons of insect protein.
The conversation rushes on to the use of LED lighting to permit 24-hour cultivation in precisely climate-controlled greenhouses. It then detours to a misconception that sustainable agriculture means minimal human intervention in nature.
“Look at the island of Bali!” he exclaims. For at least a thousand years, its farmers have raised ducks and fish within the same flooded paddies where rice is cultivated. It’s an entirely self-contained food system, irrigated by intricate canal systems along mountain terraces sculpted by human hands.
“There’s your model of sustainability,” van den Ende says.