Dutch agriculture poised for the next green revolution

Reinventing the Dutch agricultural miracle

In the post-war years, the Dutch agricultural sector embarked on a farming revolution that propelled the Netherlands to a leading place in global food production. Today, a second green revolution is brewing to make the sector future-proof.

Listen to this story as a podcast (in Dutch), or read on for the English interview.

When the Netherlands emerged from the Second World War, the memory of the 1944-45 famine still raw, its people vowed that they would never go hungry again. This feeling powered an unparalleled agricultural revolution. Over the years, land reclamation, mechanization and innovation spawned a farming sector capable of feeding not just the Dutch, but millions more around the world, with export volumes second only to the US.

Today, the global agricultural sector is running up against its ecological limits. But Carin van Huët, Director of Food & Agri at Rabobank, believes Dutch farmers, with the right support, are capable of yet another agricultural miracle.

Second green revolution underway

In the wake of the first Green Revolution, which amped up food production globally in the mid-twentieth century, the environment has paid a heavy toll. And in the Netherlands, as soil quality, air quality and biodiversity deteriorate, the Dutch agricultural miracle is increasingly being framed by public opinion as a monster.

A second green revolution, of a different kind, is needed – and it’s already underway, says Van Huët, who comes from a farming background herself. “With the whole range of stakeholders, from farmers and scientists to multinationals and the government, we’re pushing to create a sustainable, stable agricultural sector with healthy business models for agricultural entrepreneurs.”

“Dutch agriculture is an incredible success story”

- Carin van Huët, Rabobank

Rabobank serves 80 percent of all Dutch farmers. And they have every reason to be proud, Van Huët feels. ‘This tiny country is the second biggest agricultural exporter worldwide. The sector’s annual turnover is 140 billion euro. In the Netherlands, it accounts for 10 percent of all jobs and contributes nearly 10 percent in added value to our economy. Dutch agriculture is an incredible success story! A fact that’s not always recognized in broader society, unfortunately.”

Missed a turn

Indeed, the sector’s image has been tarnished by the increasing focus on its environmental performance in recent years. “In its rush to grow and innovate in the past decades, the Dutch agri sector missed a turn. Our ecosystem is out of balance,” admits Van Huët. “The awareness is there among farmers, though. They see we can’t continue in this vein, and the new green revolution, towards sustainability, is gaining traction.”

She continues: “For example, since 1970, carbon emissions have fallen by 31 percent per pig and 45 percent per cow. The use of artificial fertilizers has been halved. Our state-of-the-art farms have the lowest environmental impact in the world. But the impact of all of them together is still more than the Netherlands can handle. So we need to do more, move faster.”

“Dutch farms have the lowest environmental impact in the world”

- Carin van Huët, Rabobank

In this second green revolution, where ‘circularity’ and ‘precision farming’ are the magic words, Rabobank is playing its role with great verve. “By financing and refinancing loans, we help farmers with the necessary investments to make the transition,” Van Huët explains. “We also support them with the entrepreneurial side of the business, through masterclasses and our online platform Global Farmers, where farmers can learn and network. And we’ve developed a sustainability matrix with ambitious standards for the sector. We’re in favor of legislation setting minimum standards, but we like to set our sights higher than that.”

Coalitions and consumers

But it takes more than farmers and finance to fuel a revolution. All parties involved need to work together. As such, Rabobank takes part in a range of joint initiatives. “We’re involved in research projects to develop new business models for farmers. With provincial authorities and multinational FrieslandCampina, for example, we’ve developed a biodiversity monitor to measure farmers’ performance and progress in this area. Those with high scores are eligible for a lower interest rate on loans up to €1 million. Along similar lines, we’re also developing a Soil Health Index with a coalition including insurer a.s.r. and water company Vitens.”

“Reducing food waste can lessen the sector’s environmental footprint”

- Carin van Huët, Rabobank

Consumers are also a force to be reckoned with in this transition, and Rabobank, with its large retail client base, has considerable leverage with them. “We’re organizing dialogues with retail clients, to raise their sustainability awareness,” says Van Huët. “We inform them about the differences between sustainable and non-sustainable products. And about food waste. Throughout the supply chain – from production through storage and transport all the way to the consumer – a third of all food gets wasted. Reducing waste can contribute in a big way to the sector’s environmental footprint.”

A new success story

In some ways, the second green revolution is even more challenging than the first one, Van Huët believes. “After the war, the sector started pretty much from scratch. Today, we have a large legacy to deal with. That makes transitioning more complicated, reaching consensus harder. But I’m so proud of our farmers, what they’ve already achieved and the initiatives that we’re a part of. Together, we’re writing a new Dutch success story. All it needs is a little more push.”

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