Column | There are plenty of chops left over

On the A4 I passed under a banner: No Farmers No Food – stay away from our farmers. It sounds logical: fewer farmers, so less food. If we convert agricultural land into nature reserves or residential areas, will we have food shortages?

To do this we need to know what our agriculture (including livestock) produces and how much it can yield before we go hungry.

Dutch arable farming produces twenty-five billion kilos of food per year, but it is mainly animal feed. Corn, for example, and sugar beet pulp. Dutch wheat is also largely used for pigs and chickens. You can bake bread with it, but it is compact and hard, while the consumer wants airy, springy bread. That is why the Dutch baker uses French wheat. We like Dutch potatoes and onions, but we only use a quarter of our harvest, three quarters go abroad. The Ivory Coast and Senegal together import as many Dutch onions per year as we eat ourselves. Other vegetables also go largely abroad.

Billions of kilos of animal feed

In addition to animal feed from Dutch fields, we import 17 billion kilos of animal feed from abroad every year. Two billion kilos of that is soy. The feed industry calls soy waste, but this is not correct. People who have a warm heart for agriculture, like feed producers, farmers and CDA politicians, seem to have a tacit agreement that you can color the facts a little for a good cause. That’s why they call soy in animal feed ‘soy flour’. But it is not. It is the fat-free part of the soybean that remains after the oil has been pressed out. This is an excellent raw material for food, rich in high-quality protein and fiber. It is the most valuable part of the soybean, both nutritionally and economically. Livestock here therefore competes with food for humans.

In addition to concentrates such as soy, cows eat a lot of grass and corn. Pigs and chickens mainly eat grain. These grains would also be suitable for food production. Animals convert grains to human food only to a small extent. Ten kilos of animal feed gives approximately two kilos of meat, milk and eggs plus a lot of manure and urine. If we were to halve livestock farming in the Netherlands, we would be left with a lot of grain and soy. So that banner was wrong, less farming does not mean less food. We don’t even need pork chops, cheese and chicken breasts because we now produce three times as much as we can eat ourselves. Our farmers mainly produce for the rest of the world.

Why does the whole world want products from Dutch agriculture? For the same reason, the whole world wants Apple phones: they are the best. Dutch agriculture and livestock is a knowledge-intensive manufacturing industry, the only manufacturing industry in which we are a world leader. ASML from Veldhoven is of course the world leader in chip machines, but the agricultural exports yield five times as much as all ASML chip machines combined. Agriculture is our major technology. A conglomerate of agricultural scientists, governments, high-tech companies and innovative farmers are producing innovations that the rest of the world can’t match. As a layman, you don’t see that. Today’s cows look exactly like those in a seventeenth-century painting, but in terms of milk yield, they compare to the cows of those days like a Tesla to a stagecoach.

The ideal seed potato

Our crops are also high-tech. Take potatoes. Worldwide, more than half of all potatoes are grown from Dutch seed potatoes. We make the ideal seed potato for every climate, soil type and taste. The same applies to vegetables, flowers and seeds. One kilo of Dutch tomato seeds yields one hundred thousand euros. Our hard-working, innovative farmers make the Netherlands rich. With the income from what they export, we can buy the food we like all over the world.

Unfortunately, agriculture is harmful to nature and the climate. How do we get out of here? We could start by focusing on products that cause relatively little harm. Flower growing takes up little space and emits almost no nitrogen. Ornamental horticultural products such as flowers, houseplants, bulbs and shrubs are at the very top of agricultural exports: they generate twelve billion euros a year. Vegetables, potatoes and onions yield seven billion a year and do not emit very much. Milk and cheese account for eight billion in exports, but dairy cows are responsible for more than half of agriculture’s nitrogen emissions. Experts say we could produce almost as much dairy with far fewer cows and fewer emissions. They want to get rid of dairy farms on barren land that produce relatively little and are mainly supported by EU aid. Do this to subsidized organic farmers, they say, and nitrogen emissions will decrease and production will still remain at the same level.

I cannot assess whether this is the case. But no matter what happens, there is still plenty of food.

Martijn Katan is a biochemist and emeritus professor of nutrition at VU University Amsterdam. For sources and figures see mkatan.nl.

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