Step Inside The Silicon Valley Of Agriculture

A powerhouse of innovation, this tiny country embodies the future of farming.

How did the Netherlands, a country better known for its tulips, become a leading tomato producer and the top exporter of onions and potatoes? With more than half its land area used for agriculture, the nation is a pioneer in greenhouse horticulture. Dutch farmers are trailblazing innovative methods that result in producing more food with fewer resources—methods that are increasingly relevant as climate change and more dramatic cycles of drought and flooding wreak havoc on traditional farming, coupled with a global population on target to reach 10 billion by 2050.

The Dutch landscape is home to swaths of greenhouses that minimise gas, electricity, and water usage along with greenhouse gas emissions while maximising the use of sunlight and recycling nutrients. Further innovation comes in the form of the buildings themselves—construction materials, lighting, and heating and cooling systems.

But not every strategy is necessarily high-tech. Some tap the power of nature. To reduce the use of pesticides, many growers have turned to what’s known as “biocontrol” to protect their crops, using insects, mites, and microscopic worms to feed on damaging pests.

State-of-the-art technology also fuels the business of getting produce and flowers to market. Round-the-clock packaging plants and highly-automated cargo terminals at the port of Rotterdam help maintain the country’s rank as the number two global exporter of food products (by value) behind the United States.

Now the country has added knowledge and technology to its extensive list of exports. The government, universities, research institutes, and private growers and breeders are involved in food systems projects around the world. This export of knowledge also happens on Dutch soil—at university campuses where thousands of international students earn degrees to help address food security issues in their home countries.

This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.

Lead Image: Canals and ditches crisscross the village of Noordeinde, which sits on a polder—land reclaimed from a lake, drained by windmills in the 17th century—creating the quintessentially Dutch landscape. The tiny country of the Netherlands, much of which sits below sea level, has famously taken on the sea to secure and increase its landmass. Now it aims to take on feeding the world through innovations in food technology, from soil and seed to harvest and distribution. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCA LOCATELLI, INSTITUTE FOR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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