By embracing sustainable farming, tiny Netherlands has become an agricultural powerhouse

 
A sea of greenhouses covers much of the Netherlands' Westland region, which accounts for more than half of all horticultural production in the nation. Photo by National Geographic.

A sea of greenhouses covers much of the Netherlands' Westland region, which accounts for more than half of all horticultural production in the nation. Photo by National Geographic.

In a 36 acre greenhouse near Delft, a revolution is taking place. There the Duijvestihns family is growing fifteen tomato varieties without using any soil. Instead their tomatoes take root in fibers spun from basalt and chalk, part of why they rely on so little water. Underground geothermal aquifers allow them to maintain optimal temperatures through every season, helping support year-round production. They provide all their own energy and use no chemical pesticides.

Like other Dutch farmers, the Duijvestihns began several years ago to rely on the discoveries made by applied research projects. In 2000, “Twice as much food using half as many resources,” became the country's rallying cry. It enabled the Netherlands––though densely populated and extremely small--to lead efforts in sustainable agriculture around the globe. The pledge encouraged entrepreneurs to join the fight, and farmers and academics to collaborate more freely. 

In the last 15 years, it has paid off big time. The Netherlands has become the world’s leading exporter of potatoes and onions, and the second largest exporter of vegetables overall, as measured by value. Farmers have drastically reduced their dependence on water, pesticides, and antibiotics. Many are on the path to total resource independence. 

In 2015, the Duijvestihns’ were named the most innovative tomato growers in the world. One Duijvestihns explains the importance of his partnerships. At Wageningen University & Research (WUR), he says, “People from all over Holland get together to discuss different perspectives and common goals... No one knows all the answers on their own.”

So what do Holland's tactics mean for countries like the United States, which use an enormous amount of water, chemicals, and energy to grow their food?

“That question is always raised here,” says Martin Scholten, who directs WUR's Animal Sciences Group. “It’s part of every conversation.” 

Read more: National Geographic’s This Tiny Country Feeds the World from the September 2017 Issue