At their entrance to Hoeve Rosa farm, in the southern Dutch province of Limburg, a sign gives a warning that unmanned machines might zoom past. This farm is run by robots. They feed 180 cows, monitor their health, clean their stables and milk them whenever the cows choose. Fons Kersten, who runs the place, just needs to keep an eye on his phone. An app alerts him if a cow needs human attention.
After inheriting the farm, Mr Kersten in 2008 invested €500,000 ($730,000) in the machines which enabled him to double the number of cattle, increase the milk yield per cow by 10-15% and reduce wasted feed. Technology-infused farmers like Mr Kersten and his robots are changing agriculture in the Netherlands and the world.
Land and labour are expensive in northern Europe. To compete, Dutch scientists, businesses and government have always worked closely to boost productivity and develop high-value crops. As a result, tomato seeds treated by Incotec, a Dutch agribusiness, are worth—literally—twice their weight in gold. Dutch cows now produce twice as much milk as they did in 1960. The result is that the value of the country’s agricultural exports is second only to America, a country 200 times the size of the Netherlands.
Now the Dutch are seeking to sell not only their food but their expertise to foreign farmers concerned about limited resources and quality control. Mr Kersten’s robots were developed by Lely, a Dutch firm that exports to 70 countries. In February Wageningen University, located in the heart of the country’s “Food Valley”, rolled out the red carpet to welcome China’s biggest dairy company, Yili.
Plagued by infant-food scandals, which have chased consumers into the arms of foreign brands, the company chose Wageningen as its European centre for research and development.
It is not only food safety that sells. Consumers are becoming more concerned about whether farmers are adopting good environmental practices. Here, Dutch farms have had a bad reputation. A quarter of the country lies below sea-level. Reclaimed land was turned into monoculture “polders” for grazing cattle. The Netherlands has one of the lowest levels of biodiversity in Europe, alongside countries like Malta, an island made up mostly of rocks. A result of farms becoming larger and more productive in the 1970s, without tighter environmental rules, was degradation of the land. The grim practice of carpetbombing flat fields with manure and fertilizer contaminated fields and water.
Much is changing, claims Albert-Jan Maat, chair of the Dutch farmers association. His members are now going all-out for sustainable intensive agriculture. Under pressure from government and consumers, new technology and improved farming techniques are cleaning up Dutch farms. The newest stables are built so that manure is instantly removed by underground conveyor belts. At 14kg per animal, annual emissions of ammonia—a measure of how effectively farmers deal with excess dung—are now second only to Denmark and far better than the European Union average of 25kg.
The newest machines developed in Dutch laboratories rely on hovering cameras to tell them which tomato plants need a dose of pesticides, reducing use by at least 85%. Some greenhouses have solar panels and are energy producers rather than consumers: carbon-dioxide emissions have been cut by excellent insulation which means excess heat can be recycled and stored for winter by warming ground water, or turned into power for neighbouring houses; over 10% of electricity in the Netherlands is produced in this way.
The world’s population will be almost a third bigger in 2050. Estimates by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation show that carbon-dioxide emissions from agriculture could increase by another 30% by then. Traditional farming methods, as practised in most of the world, are both expensive and environmentally damaging, says Harald von Witzke from Humboldt University in Berlin. Sustainable and intensive food production, where the Dutch are in the lead, he says, “is the only way forward.”