How the Dutch took the lead in food tech and sustainability

The tiny country of the Netherlands has become a leader in developing technology for sustainable farming. Not only is it becoming a major exporter of food in Europe, it’s also a model for other nations in how to minimize waste and water use, said Laura Reiley, who reports on the business of food for The Washington Post.

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Reiley about Dutch advances in vertical farming and raising crops and livestock with reduced carbon dioxide emissions. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Rysdal: OK, so this is a food story. Yes. But really, it’s a technology story. It’s a crazy technology of food story.

Laura Reiley: Absolutely, kind of a shock-and-awe visual smorgasbord.

Rysdal: Well, tell me how you came upon this story, because we should say up front, you know a little bit about food. I mean, you’ve been a professional chef, you’ve, you know, got awards and all that jazz. And here you’re now reporting on it. What got you into this story?

Reiley: Well, I was riding the coattails of this fabulous Dutch photographer, Kadir van Lohuizen, but he was looking at how this very tiny European country is the second largest exporter of agricultural products by value in the world behind the US So, you know, they ‘re doing an awful lot of raising animal and vegetable production and seed production on very little land.

Rysdal: Yeah, we should be clear here, it’s across the gamut of ag, right? It is livestock, it is ornamental vegetables and seeds, as you say. It’s, I mean, it’s everything that they’re doing. And they’re doing it on, not to be pejorative here, a relative postage-size stamp of land.

Reiley: Yeah, you know, half of the land in the country is devoted to ag. But an interesting thing is about 24,000 acres — so about double the size of Manhattan — is under glass, and it’s greenhouses. I mean, if you’ve ever flown over the northern part of the country, not that far from Amsterdam, it looks like something out of “Blade Runner,” you know, it’s just these, like, incredible vistas of sparkling glass . So a lot of what they’re doing is what we call now indoor vertical — there’s a bunch of different terms for that. A lot of what they’re doing is also developing the technology that can be exported to other places. And what’s great about that is that it can make the farms close to where the people live, and in parts of the world where there isn’t arable land.

Rysdal: Yeah. And big multinationals are going over there to learn how to do it.

Reiley: Absolutely. I mean, I think that there’s an awful lot of interest right now in upping our game in terms of technology, a lot of VC money and food tech right now. But some of what the Netherlands is doing is more kind of old-school, regenerative ag, or, you know, minimizing waste and water use. So it’s very kind of climate friendly, high-tech ag.

Rysdal: Say more about that, right? Because among the other things that they are doing is they’re doing all of this production without increasing natural gas use, without increasing CO2, reducing fertilizer, using all of this stuff that, you know, is going to be key as we try to deal with a warming planet.

Reiley: Sure. So they’re huge producers of onions and tomatoes, and they can produce a pound of tomatoes requiring only half a gallon of water. And the average globally is 28 gallons. So, you’re seeing a real discrepancy —

Rysdal: Say that again, because that’s wild.

Reiley: Yes, so on average over the world is 28 gallons of water to produce a pound of tomatoes. In the Netherlands, it’s a half gallon, so none of that water is wasted. And the irony is that, you know, a generation ago, they had a terrible reputation. They were just these hard bullet balls that no one wanted to eat. And so they’ve really kind of changed their reputation. And not just on the vegetable side, but also on animal ag. So, chickens, beef pigs, they’re huge exporters, now the biggest European exporter, and a lot of those ribs come to kind of middling chain restaurants in the United States. So you’ve probably — I’m not going to name names, but you’ve probably eaten some of them unknownst to you.

Rysdal: Look, I mean, you got to use a whole animal, right? Let me ask you this: You have certainly driven up and down California’s Central Valley, right? And seen all the agriculture there, huh?

Reiley: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

Rysdal: All right. So, how long do you think it’s going to be given Big Ag in the United States and how entrenched it is — and I say that not pejoratively, right? There are many pejorative things you can say about it. But it’s a fact that we have large industrial-scale agriculture in this country. How long do you think it’s going to be, or will it ever be that American agriculture becomes even close to what Dutch agriculture is, do you think?

Reiley: I think it’s imperative. We’ve had a lot of failures of some of these big indoor kinds of high-profile indoor vertical farms. And some of that is just because the startup costs are so prohibitive, but once we kind of, you know, amortize those initial costs, there’s a lot of reasons to think that it will be much more efficient. And also as LED light bulb technology improves, it will get less expensive to farm that way and of course require a lot less water.

Rysdal: Yeah, the light in some of those shots, some of the pictures in this article were kind of wild. All right, you are a woman who knows your way around food. You’re a trained chef, you’ve been doing this for a very long time. I have to believe that you tasted some of this produce over in —

Reiley: Well, I certainly have. Yeah, I think that for leafy greens and for herbs, I taste a difference. The big kind of fighting has always been about nutritional density. Certainly dirt farmers have a little bit of stink eye about whether this stuff is quite as good for you. We need some people without skin in the game to do some more of this testing, but certainly for leafy greens and for herbs and those kinds of things, growing it right adjacent to where people consume it is a lot smarter than trucking it 3,000 miles.

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