Interview with Eric Egberts

The food crisis that will follow in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic may have long-lasting global consequences if governments, industry and universities fail to take prompt, joint action. That’s the view of Eric Egberts, CEO of Dutch Greenhouse Delta foundation.

“We must respond locally to the growing need for fresh, healthy and sustainably produced food,” says Egberts. “If we don’t, it will soon be too late – not just because of the coronavirus but also due to climate change. Even more people will be displaced worldwide. We need leadership!”

There is a way out of this food crisis. The Dutch know how.

The Dutch are experts at producing fresh food sustainably and efficiently by using little water and energy and as few chemical pesticides as possible. The Netherlands’ success has earned it a formidable international reputation in agriculture and horticulture. But a global change is afoot. An increasing number of countries want to become self-sufficient, according to Eric Egberts, CEO of Dutch Greenhouse Delta, a consortium of service providers and suppliers that develop know-how and technology for greenhouse cultivation.

Egberts explains, “This shift began about two to three years ago when our foundation was founded. More and more countries have been importing technology and expertise from the Netherlands to secure their food supply and create more jobs. We offer a helping hand and advise them on how to turn a plan into reality.”

The coronavirus crisis has disrupted many transport and production chains, exposing the weaknesses of our current food system. While one part of the world is experiencing surplus food but also crop destruction due to farm labour shortages, millions of people – especially in developing countries – are facing a crisis because of rising food prices. The world will experience a catastrophe if governments and NGOs fail to intervene quickly.

Improved transportation and capital injections will be necessary to meet the most pressing needs. In the longer term, however, more structural solutions will be required to organise food production locally and sustainably.

Egberts says that this will require government, industry and universities to work closely together: “It’s a complex problem that arises from the climate crisis which we were already experiencing. Harvests worldwide are being affected by increased droughts and floods. The world population is still growing as is the demand for better, safer food by the rising global middle class. At the same time, cultivation conditions in many places around the world are declining. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated these problems – or, as we like to think of them, challenges.”

According to Raoul Bino, researcher and strategic adviser at Wageningen University & Research, global food production and distribution must become more effective. The market for precision food systems is approximately €4.5 billion and will increase annually by 20% in South America and Asia. The market for alternative meat production (the shift to plant-based protein) will grow from €4 billion in 2018 to €120 billion over a 10-year period. Sustainable food production (circular food chains) is expected to see an increase in earning capacity from €20.8 billion to €49.4 billion by 2030. 

The role of the Netherlands will also change. It will switch from exporting fresh food and agricultural products to exporting technology, systems and knowledge that enables other countries to become sustainable producers themselves. The Netherlands aims to play a leading role and will be supported in this by a new innovation programme (FoodSwitchNL) in which governments, industry, knowledge institutes and social enterprises will work closely together.

So, what will the future of food production look like? According to Wageningen University & Research, it will involve more technology. High-tech computers, sensors, robots and seeds will be used to produce resilient crops. Even in the centres of large cities, indoor farming will use LED lights, water recirculation and closed cultivation systems to produce safe and healthy food close to consumers.

The use of internet connections and smart sensors already makes remote cultivation in greenhouses possible. In addition, digitisation and robotisation are rapidly advancing. For instance, scout robots and drones are now being used to protect crops from pests and diseases. The use of artificial intelligence and data platforms is also on the rise. Cultivating fresh, healthy and sustainable food increasingly not only demands skilled workers but also requires highly trained, specialised personnel. Fossil-free, chemical-free and emission-free cultivation is the new standard – and challenge – in fresh food production. They are too modest to boast about it, but the Dutch are the frontrunners here.

The Netherlands is the safest river delta in the world, with a strong international reputation in the field of water management. But the country has even greater ambitions. It has now set its sights on ensuring global food security and contributing to green, liveable cities worldwide.

“‘Good health and well-being’ as an export product: it may sound revolutionary, but the Netherlands is certainly going for it. We have to prevent people from becoming displaced worldwide due to climate change, economic factors or food shortages,” says Egberts.

He concludes, “If leaders don’t act now, this will happen – with potentially disastrous consequences. Dutch horticulture has the knowledge and technology to help solve these problems. We are world champions when it comes to sustainable food, even more so when finding integrated solutions to the problems that all large cities in the world are currently facing. That’s why I would like to tell those leaders, ‘Bring in the Dutch’!”