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 trailbrazing 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 minimize gas, electricity, and water usage along with greenhouse gas emissions while maximizing 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.

With 80 percent of its cultivated land under glass, the Westland region is the greenhouse capital of the Netherlands. Most Dutch farms are still family based and stay competitive by employing automated climate-control systems and energy-efficient LED lighting to extend growing seasons year-round.
Frans Philipsen tends to the sows in the gestation barn at the Van Asten farm in the southern province of Limburg. The colored markings on their backs indicate their status after pregnancy scans. The farm strives to breed more than 600,000 pigs for market a year with the lowest CO2 footprint possible, using a circular economy approach. The pigs are fed a mix of byproducts from the human food industry such as potatoes and beer as well as grain grown on the farm fertilized by pig manure. Manure is also added to grain byproducts that fuel the farm’s biogas energy plant, which produces electricity through fermentation.
At Wageningen University & Research almost half the graduate students hail from abroad, from more than one hundred nations. Dêêdi Sogbohossou, a doctoral student from Benin, is developing a breeding program for the spider plant, a leafy vegetable widespread in tropical areas of the world. It’s a nutritious but overlooked and underutilized crop, and Sogbohossou hopes to identify traits that can be bred to increase its nutritional value and yield to promote food security. The leaves and shoots are usually blanched and added to tomato, groundnut, or coconut milk sauces that are eaten with starchy porridge made from cassava, millet or corn flour.
A harvester from Poland moved to the Netherlands for a full-time job with tomato grower Jami, a company that experimented with ways to meet demand for the vegetable in the winter. It settled on a lighting system that mixes HID (high-intensity discharge) lights above the crop with LEDs in between crop rows, the latter resulting in more efficient light and nutrient absorption. Now tomatoes at the bottom of plants are of equal quality to those at the top—and the greenhouse is no longer dependent on natural light or heating units.
Two-week-old butter lettuces grow under the glow of LED lights in Siberia B.V.’s massive 22-acre greenhouse. Looking to meet increased demand for fresh produce in the winter, the growers installed an LED system, developed with Philips Lighting, that emits much less heat than fluorescent lighting. Less radiant heat reduces the need to vent hot air and stems the loss of carbon dioxide necessary for plant growth. The result is shorter growing cycles producing millions of heads of lettuce every year.
Designed to blur the line between indoors and outdoors, the Lumen Building at Wageningen University & Research, widely regarded as the world’s top agricultural research institution, houses offices and laboratories that embody its environmental science teachings. Two garden courtyards, constructed from greenhouse materials, help regulate the interior climate by providing warmth in winter and cooling in summer as well as humidifying the air. Rainwater is collected to water the courtyards and flush toilets. The building was constructed with a standard budget to demonstrate that sustainable building techniques and materials could be used without higher-than-normal investment.
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