Global food exports have increased ninefold in the past generation and the Netherlands is the second biggest exporter after the U.S. But global food trade has become more than “just” moving goods from A to B. Although the Dutch agrofood sector faces challenges, it has the potential to keep its leading position in the future – if it rises to these challenges.
Global food trade is vivid like never before. In terms of value, it has grown almost threefold over the past decade, and rates of growth are projected to continue to rise. At the same time, the international playing field surrounding the international agrofood trade is subject to large changes. Trade agreements are under pressure, protectionism is on the rise, political tensions threaten trade routes. Furthermore, new players will challenge current players. For the Netherlands, agrofood sector exports are a major contribution to its economy. Building a future-proof agrofood sector is of vital importance to the strategic position as a leading food nation. The following three points are all part of this process.First, volume should not be the golden standard anymore. After the Second World War, the Netherlands made major improvements in modernizing agriculture and with the help of the government, it became very efficient at producing food on a large scale, creating the opportunity to manifest itself as a big exporter. At the recent presentation of the FAO’s 2018 Global Food Policy Report, Director-General José Graziano da Silva said facilitating the export of commodities to feed the world was a postwar imperative, but has become a synonym of industrialized processed food leading to malnourishment. Furthermore, increasing attention to sustainability and climate change has taught us that trade has become more than moving goods from A to B, considering the negative externalities. The need arises to reduce the use of energy and commodities in the agrofood sector. Also, other countries are now equally capable of creating bulk. A future-proof agrofood sector is thus not international and export-oriented but puts quality above quantity. Instead of being the second exporter in the world after the U.S., the Netherlands could become a world leader in sustainable and healthy food production. This leads to the second point: the Netherlands as a transition expert. The country has been praised as a large and efficient producer of agricultural products, referring to the innovative strength of its agrofood sector, that is constantly capable of producing more with fewer inputs. Creating more with less is called “total factor productivity” and the Netherlands could valorize its knowledge and skills in this domain. As stated in the WUR report, Dutch diverse innovative solutions are useful in other parts of the globe and give the Netherlands the comparative advantage it needs to remain a leading food nation. A knowledge-intensive agrofood sector could export a combination of hardware (products), software (knowledge and employee training) and “orgware” (strengthening the local organization and agrologistic processes).Third, a focus on local production and short food chains. The Dutch are well-known for their greenhouses and their knowledge on indoor food production. Considering that food consists of more than 60% of African foreign trade, local food production is a better option for the future. Currently, the Dutch agrofood sector only plays a small role in serving the growing markets of emerging countries, but could increase its contribution by exporting expertise on local production. Another option is for Dutch agrofood companies to produce food abroad, locally sourced and consumed. A case in point is the food company DSM, which produces food in a factory in Rwanda, thereby boosting the economic independence of the country.With the above points, the Dutch agrofood sector has the potential to save its seat in the future as a leading player. In the future, its earning model could contain the production of sustainable, healthy food, food innovation and technology, and expertise in local food production.