Interview with Gert Dral

‘The Netherlands must continue to innovate, otherwise China will overtake us’

The Chinese central government has now, for the second time in their five-year plan, named the agricultural sector as a focus sector, with a strong emphasis on high-tech solutions. The policy is aimed at increasing the country’s own food production, and thus reducing its dependence on foreign markets. 

Gert Dral

China is responding to the rapidly growing demand from the urban population for fresh, safe and diverse food. Recent food scandals (such as baby formula powder, which contained toxic substances) have certainly played a role in this. Dutch horticultural suppliers have been supplying high-tech horticultural solutions to China for years, but we must ensure that we stay on the ball and continue to innovate, otherwise we’ll be overtaken, states Gert Dral, China Advisor for Dutch Greenhouse Delta

Ability to connect disciplines

In 15 years’ time, China has gone from being a developing country to a developed one. The average income and the level of education are on the rise. Many Chinese students are studying abroad at agricultural universities, such as the WUR in the Netherlands. The rapidly increasing population and particularly the rising average income in China create an increasing demand for safe and healthy food. A lot of land in China is used for urban development, so the land available for agriculture and horticulture must be used for efficient and sustainable production. That is where Dutch high-tech solutions and knowledge come in. “However, the Netherlands will have to continue to differentiate itself,” Gert warns. “Countries like France, Israel, Korea and even China itself are developing excellent technological solutions. There is also increasing pressure from the government to work with local parties. As a result, the Dutch horticultural sector will have to move up the supply chain and increase our level of knowledge if we are to continue to offer sufficient value. We will no longer be dragging steel and aluminium to China, so the focus will increasingly lie in knowledge and innovation. Our strength lies in our integral process approach and our ability to look across disciplines and make connections between them. We put a lot of time into preparation and are process-oriented. We are good at overseeing and steering a process,” believes Gert.

Education and training local staff

“In China, food safety and food security play a major role. Healthy living and healthy eating are gaining in importance, especially among young people,” Gert explains. “Gyms are springing up everywhere and alcohol consumption is decreasing. Young people in China find status important; they’re choosing professions in ICT, Accountancy and Trade. It is difficult to attract young Chinese to the horticultural sector. The human capital in Mid and High Tech in China is, therefore, also scarce. However, with the application of artificial intelligence and robotisation, fewer people will be needed in the future. Currently, what you normally see is that when projects start, the greenhouse management is done from the Netherlands, because the level of knowledge and experience is still not sufficient in China. Local personnel are educated and trained so that they can eventually take over the management themselves.”

Challenges and opportunities in China

In China, the current productivity per hectare is low, water consumption is high and suitable agricultural land is scarce and saline. Heavy industry has polluted a lot of the water in China. Disinfection and reuse of water in horticulture is therefore essential. In addition, the efficient use of energy sources is important. The Chinese government is currently implementing plans to reduce the CO2 footprint, making China less dependent on coal and oil.
“The supply chain in China is generally becoming shorter. In the field of e-commerce, the Chinese are far ahead of Europe. The wholesale trade is steadily disappearing and growers are increasingly supplying retail groups directly. Large growers have their own ordering system integrated into an app, with which people can order and collect the purchased products themselves or have them delivered, like with Picnic or AH to go. Everything happens here by mobile phone,” says Gert.

Agroparks

“There is a need in China to upgrade existing solar greenhouses, but there is also an ambition to develop new High Tech Agroparks near metropolitan areas. In the place where the demand is highest. In Pinggu, you can see both developments,” explains Gert. “Agroparks provide a higher production of better controlled and safer food, through the use of technology. By growing food close to the demand, the number of food miles is limited. In addition to meeting production needs, the Agroparks also demonstrate to the public the innovative nature of the horticultural profession.  An Agropark is a tourist attraction with an experience centre and training courses and demonstrations, comparable to the World Horti Centre.”

Agropark jiashan

Outlook

“In and around Shanghai, as well as in the provinces of Jiangsu and Shandong, you will see a number of large development companies investing in Agroparks. These development companies normally focus on urban expansion, but they are investing in agroparks because they see it as a ‘springboard’ to building real estate. The government demands, as a kind of ‘quid pro quo’, that these companies develop high-tech horticulture as well as buildings. There are relatively few investors who invest purely in horticulture. This is because the return on investment is still insufficiently underpinned. In time, I expect that the yield per square metre will rise and that this will attract more investors” says Gert.
“There is still a somewhat tentative trend in the construction of Agroparks, but it will take hold eventually. As the Dutch horticultural cluster, we must continue to provide integrated total solutions and not become too fragmented. If we tell one story and invest in the development of knowledge and innovation, we will be there for the long haul in China.”

""Our strength lies in our integral process approach and our ability to look across disciplines and make connections between them. We put a lot of time into preparation and are process-oriented. We are good at overseeing and steering a process
Gert Dral
China Advisor