Cabbage Plantations

Lessons That Could Be Learned From The Netherlands Take On Agriculture

As one of the world’s biggest exporters of agricultural products, the Netherlands has a major role to play on a global scale.

The Netherlands has a land area that is 237 times smaller than the leading exporter – the United States – and yet was able to export nearly $100 billion in agricultural goods in 2017, not including the $10 billion they exported in agriculture-related products.

So what is the secret to their success? A quick look at the way they use architectural innovation to reshape the way the agricultural landscape could appear may hold the answer.

To be able to fully appreciate the way the Netherlands feed the world using architecture you should take to the skies. Looking down on the country you notice the large amount of greenhouses that dominate the landscape of South Holland. Covering around 36 square miles there are enough greenhouses to cover the island of Manhattan – and half again!

Nicknamed the “greenhouse capital of the Netherlands” by National Geographic, the West land region has greenhouses seemingly filling any gaps that have been discovered in areas including industrial plants, cities and suburbs.

Over 50% of the country is dedicated to horticulture and agriculture with “banks of what appear to be gargantuan mirrors stretch[ed] across the countryside, glinting when the sun shines and glowing with eerie interior light when night falls.”

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Farmers are now using geothermal energy and hydroponic systems to generate increasing yields of crop and are achieving amazing results with very little resources. Across the country greenhouses are using around 1.1 gallons of water per pound of tomatoes produced, which is in stark contrast to the global average of 25.6 gallons; with some farmers able to produce more than 100 million tomatoes annually over 14 hectares of land.

This is all possible thanks to a strictly controlled indoor environment. Temperature and humidity levels are kept reliable and precise and are combined with a low risk of contamination. Another aspect of the greenhouses’ abilities to produce bumper crops is the architectural forethought.

Roofs are double glazed to allow heat to be retained; the frames are made from light modular steel, allowing for adaption and fast expansion – all while keeping the natural light. When the sun sets and all the natural light disappears, LED lights provide the resources for plants to continue to grow throughout the night.

The Dutch have a legislative measure, however, that 98% of any electric lighting from a greenhouse must be contained, so many greenhouses use blackout blinds and curtains, ensuring minimum light pollution.

So how did the Dutch countryside become full of greenhouses? Back in the early 2000’s a national commitment was made for a new type of sustainable agriculture, eliminating the use of chemical pesticides in greenhouses. The use of antibiotics has also been reduced with a drop of 60% in the last ten years.

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Viewed as one of the world’s leading agricultural researchers, Wageningen University and Research (WUR) is one of the drivers behind this innovation.

As we learn more about how we need to feed the world’s growing urban populations, new techniques such as those in the Netherlands continue to adjust to the situations. More and more farmers are tending to move away from the “natural” and traditional ways of farming, opting towards a more controlled, industrial and artificial approach.

As the urban population grows there are more demands placed on the countryside, meaning the architectural transformation will continue to grow.

There are currently 7.8 billion people in the world and it is estimated that by 2050 there will be an increase of an extra 2.2 billion. With so many people relying on the agriculture market to survive there will be a requirement for higher agricultural yields. And while this is achievable, it needs to be done using less energy, less water and most importantly, less land.

It is clear that there will be a change in the relationship between the countryside and cities, between urbanism and food, and the Netherlands are offering a way in which architectural technology can help these relationships to progress.

While technology continues to change the way processes work, including the construction, transformation and implementation of many procedures, it is believed many architects may be required to create newer, smarter ways to create integrated structures enabling agriculture to move forward.

Rem Koolhaas, founder of OMA has been considering this for sometime, noting “husbandry of the land is now a digital practice. For example, the tractor, which revolutionized the farm in the 19th century, has become a computerized work station. It is a series of devices and sensors that create a seamless, yet detached digital interface between the driver and the earth. The countryside in terms of how we work is becoming similar to the city. The farmer is like us – a flex worker, operating on a laptop from any possible location. […] This is not to say that it is all bad. It is only ironic that such drastic transformations are barely on the radar in our education and thinking.”