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This Dutch tomato farm might just solve the global food crisis

The world will need to feed 10bn people over the next century. A greenhouse in Holland could hold the key to that.

On a dull morning in April, with chilly drizzle falling from a grey sky, it is possible to think of more promising places to grow tomatoes than the fields outside Delft, in south-west Holland. The headquarters of Duijvestijn Tomaten – in English, Duijvestijn Tomatoes – is an unprepossessing facility, where roads designed for trucks lead to vast greenhouses, around 12 metres high and hundreds of metres across.

The Netherlands has an area almost twice the size of Manhattan under glass, of which Duijvestijn owns around 25 hectares, from which it produces 17 million kilograms of tomatoes per year.

If the idea of a tomato farm occasions images of sun-kissed fields in Mexico or Italy, these steel-and-glass fortresses might be a disappointment. But inside, using hydroponic techniques – without soil – they are able to produce 20 times as many tomatoes per square metre as a field in Spain. This is what peak tomato looks like, and what’s taking place within these walls may help determine the future of agriculture.

I am greeted by Roos Zurel, the company’s head of communications, who has made it clear by email that they take their tomatoes seriously. Biosecurity is tight. Disease here could devastate a harvest and a new virus, tomato brown rugose fruit virus, has been spreading across Europe over the past couple of years. We switch into white disposable suits, secure our phones in small plastic bags and disinfect our shoes, then step inside.

Imagine a grand university library, where instead of books there are bunches of vine tomatoes, at various stages of ripeness, and you may get a sense of it. The air is thick with the smell of tomatoes and the sound of bumblebees, employed as pollinators. A long corridor bisects the greenhouse, with hundreds of rows of plants stretching off on either side, stretching to about 10ft high.

By the end of the season, these plants will be 12 metres (39ft) tall, their stalks pulled ever upwards to allow the fruit at the bottom to ripen and mature.

In this greenhouse, which relies on sunlight, April is harvest season. (At the greenhouse next door, which relies on LED, the picking starts in autumn.) Pickers – a mixture of Dutch and other Europeans – make their way cheerfully down the tomato aisles, examining the fruits for redness, firmness and signs of illness, snipping them or leaving them accordingly.

One, Mariens, a student in her 20s, says she has been doing this for three years while she finishes a degree. She shows me how she identifies tomatoes that are ready. To the untrained eye, they all look comparably tomato-ish. Within 48 hours, some of these fruits will be packaged on site, shipped out and available in a Sainsbury’s – to which Duijvestijn sends roughly a quarter of its product, less since Brexit – near you.

Duijvestijn was founded in 1935 and started out growing other crops, including cucumbers and lettuces, but pivoted to focus on tomatoes in 1963. Since then, it has grown steadily to be at the forefront of global tomato technology. Its story echoes the wider trajectory of farming in Holland, a remarkable tale in which certain fruits, vegetables and flowers have been stretched to the limits of their known potential and beyond, with innovations that have spread around the world.

For some, this points the way to the agriculture of the future: a world in which technology permits more and more produce to be grown from fewer and fewer inputs, in an increasingly eco-friendly way, and distributed locally. For others, they are destructive monocultures, meddling with nature, which can never hope to replicate the beauty of a simple tomato, and represent the worst kind of factory farming.

In one sense, tomatoes have simple needs: warmth, light, water, air and nutrients. The first two of those are the trickiest to provide, at least in Holland. The history of Duijvestijn has been a history of power sources. In 1988 Leo Duijvestijn handed over the business to his four sons, Ted, Peter, Ronald and Remco, who have overseen its modernisation.

‘Energy has always been the focus point of this company, because that’s the reason plants grow,’ says Ted in an office overlooking his kingdom. ‘We build the rest around it. When I was a boy the greenhouses were heated by coal, then we transitioned to oil and gas. But the geothermal heat pump had the most impact on me. I’ll never forget the moment when I first saw the hot water coming up out of the ground.’

These days, there is nothing as crass as soil here. The plants are rooted in a mineral rootstock. Temperature is controlled by radiator pipes, powered mostly by geothermal energy to maintain an optimal growing temperature of around 19 degrees. Rainwater is collected on the roof to be dripped in automatically. Each kilogram of tomatoes needs less than four gallons of water, compared to 16 gallons in open fields. Along the bottom of each row lies a tube where additional carbon dioxide can be supplied for the plants to draw on: there are so many in the room that otherwise there wouldn’t be enough CO2 to go around.

Since the company does not use fossil fuels to heat its greenhouses, they use residual carbon dioxide from other companies where it is a waste product of industrial processes (thus saving it from being released into the atmosphere). Sensors control ventilation in the ceiling, where lights are suspended. After years of experimentation, plant scientists found a combination of red and blue lights to be optimum for growing.

The advent of LEDs was helpful for reducing energy usage. At the end of one row is an experimental robot picker, which might soon replace humans. Drones and AI may offer the chance for plants to be monitored individually.

‘Since I was a boy I was interested in photosynthesis, which is why I was interested in growing plants in the first place,’ says Ted. ‘But now it’s the people. The advantages of being a family business are that you support each other in good times and bad times, and you think long-term. But the disadvantage is that family and company interests are sometimes intertwined, which can be a challenge. It’s complicated sometimes.’

As it has expanded, Duijvestijn has taken on more and more specialised staff. The current CEO, Ad van Adrichem, the son of a cucumber grower, was initially brought on to help with the move to a new greenhouse but rose through the ranks and is now one of the shareholders, along with the Duijvestijn brothers. In 2015, the firm was awarded the title of ‘Best Tomato Grower in the World’ by a panel of international judges at something called the Tomato Inspiration Event.

They were among the first growers in the world to use geothermal energy to heat their greenhouses, saving up to nine million cubic metres of natural gas each year, and the first to use a double-insulated greenhouse, which uses 60 per cent less energy than a conventional one.

‘We produce twice as much as we did 30 years ago,’ van Adrichem says. More than their hi-tech growing techniques and improvements in genetics, important as those are, he says the Dutch skill is driven by commercial imperatives.

‘The biggest driving force in Holland is competition,’ he says. ‘There is a lot of pressure on land and we have to be careful about how we use it. But because there are a lot of growers there is knowledge sharing. In the past there were small growers, but the brand was “Holland” so everyone worked together. These days the firms are bigger but many of the same principles still apply. The big challenge for the future is to make all our processes circular.’

The future of farming has rarely looked more precarious. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided a stark reminder of the fragility and complexity of global food supply. The disruption to Ukraine’s exports, particularly of wheat, will have consequences far beyond its borders. In British supermarkets, there are now shortages of cooking oils, with other foodstuffs likely to be hit. Parts of east Africa, already suffering one of the worst droughts in memory, are facing starvation. When everything is working, international food chains look like a fine-tuned machine, a triumph of globalised capitalism. When things go awry, those same systems look recklessly flimsy.

At the same time, climate change is threatening traditional agricultural land all over the world. The kind of hi-tech solutions in which the Dutch specialise may never be a solution for commodity cereal crops, but they suggest that there are ways even for small countries, with unpromising climates, to improve production of certain foods without the need for international shipping. Dutch firms are being enlisted around the world, including places like the UAE, to try to improve food security.

The future has often begun in Holland. Like the British, the Dutch were quick to realise the potential of globalisation, the power and risks of which were made clear by the tulip craze of the 1630s. They are a seafaring, mercantile nation, who have long known that their land, small and wet and often under threat of invasion, was ill-suited to growing all their crops.

In the late 19th century, the Dutch government decided to open themselves up to cheap wheat from North America and focus on higher-value produce that could be grown in greenhouses. This early specialisation, together with policies that encouraged growers to work together with universities and the government, gave the Dutch an extraordinary advantage during the 20th century.

When the Green Revolution arrived in the 1960s, firms like Duijvestijn were perfectly positioned to take advantage. The dynamic has been described as a kind of horticultural Silicon Valley, where historical know-how, young talent and commercial opportunities work together, within a germane regulatory environment, with startling results.

‘A field in Spain will yield roughly four kilograms of tomatoes per square metre per growing season,’ says Ernst van den Ende, a professor at Wageningen University, a school that has been at the forefront of Dutch success, and who ran its Plant Sciences group for 12 years.

‘In a top greenhouse in the Netherlands, that same square metre will produce 80 kilograms of tomatoes.’ While the world often focuses on yield, however, Dutch farmers have been pivoting to reducing their use of pesticides, water and energy. Yield has been steady over the past few years, after decades of growth, and top nations – the USA, Scandinavia, even the UK – have more or less caught up.

Having worked out how to maximise the potential of the tomato, Dutch farmers are trying to work out how to feed the world sustainably.

‘Over the past 60 years, greenhouse production has been focused on yield,’ van den Ende adds. ‘If you compare a field in Spain with greenhouses in the Netherlands, we are more sustainable because we are using agricultural land more optimally. If you want the same yield in Spain, you need 20 times as much land. But the best part of the story is because we grow under controlled conditions, we can use biological controls. There are hardly any pesticides used in greenhouse production, but it’s also more efficient with water. The 80 kilograms per metre in the Netherlands is achieved with four times less water than the four kilograms of tomatoes in Spain.’

Not everyone is convinced by the Dutch approach. Franco Fubini is the CEO of Natoora, a fruit and vegetable company that supplies many of London’s top restaurants, as well as selling direct to consumers. If you want rare breeds of tomato, picked at their peak of freshness – and priced accordingly – Natoora is the brand to seek out. Its Sicilian vine tomatoes are listed on Ocado at £2.50 for 180g. According to the Sainsbury’s website, six Dutch-grown vine tomatoes, 450g, are £2.20.

‘We do sometimes buy tomatoes that are hydroponically grown,’ Fubini tells me, ‘but these are tomatoes we don’t really talk about. We don’t believe in hydroponic farming as a solution: we don’t think that you can get a tomato that tastes good. The people doing it always claim they can, but in 20 years I’ve never seen it.’

Nutritional science is still in its infancy, he adds. While we can measure things like potassium and beta-carotene in tomatoes, there is plenty we don’t know about micronutrients, or how nutrients interact with each other.

‘The basic problem is soil,’ Fubini adds. ‘Soil is fundamental for preserving an ecosystem, and for delivering flavour and nutrition. There is a lot of complex biology in soil, including fungal and bacterial networks, which enable the plant to absorb these micronutrients. When you farm hydroponically, it’s a very inert environment where you are growing from a substrate and you’re adding four or five inputs. It’s very hard, almost impossible, to argue that a plant grown in a hydroponic environment has access to the same nutrition as a plant grown in healthy soils.

‘There’s a direct link between nutrition and flavour,’ he says. ‘There is [a concept] called nutritional intelligence, which animals have, and which studies have shown young children have as well, which is that animals are capable of changing their diet based on nutritional deficiencies. Things that taste good are good for us. The industrial system has subverted that, so we love crisps and sugar, but generally when something tastes really good it’s because it has nutrition – our body has been built to perceive health in a tasty way.’

For Fubini, Dutch greenhouses represent the industrialisation of horticulture. ‘Whenever we try to industrialise food – look at chicken, or cheese – we are very good at making it faster, bigger or cheaper. But we’ve never been able to do it better than nature. We’ve never been able to make it tasty.

I think that’s really encouraging, because the day we could do that would be a sad day for humanity. It’s dangerous when we lose that connection to nature.

There is ample land to be able to feed everyone. The amount of food that gets thrown away is exorbitant. The idea that we can’t feed the world on the soil we have is convenient, but it’s not really true.’

Speak to van den Ende, and the team at Duijvestijn, and it’s clear they believe they are only at the start of a thrilling new phase for tomatoes. ‘At Duijvestijn we test more than 200 new varieties each year – taste and quality are very important criteria when assessing new varieties,’ says Roos Zurel.

‘These must be better than the current variety in order to even consider switching to a new one. Flavour has become more stable over the years and has increased in average over the whole category.’

They are aware of the problems that come with monocultural growing. Duijvestijn has its own biologists who monitor the balance in the greenhouse between insects that can harm tomato plants, and their predators. If necessary, these predators are introduced into the crop – in this way, biological control can be achieved.

While farming is the story of man’s harmony with nature, it is also a story of technological mastery. In that version of history, greenhouse drones, robotic pickers and AI-powered climate control are the next steps after the plough, irrigation and fertiliser.

‘There are still lots of exciting opportunities around vegetables,’ says van den Ende. ‘AI and data will become far more important in agriculture. There are a lot of opportunities for precision there.’

Van den Ende believes that the Dutch model for farmers – a ‘triple helix’ approach with private companies, the government and academia working together – is one that could be replicated by other nations. Though he adds that while consumers can, and ought to, be educated to eat more vegetables, this produce alone will not solve world hunger.

‘The big commodity crops, like wheat and rice, will not be grown in greenhouses,’ he says. ‘So it’s a niche. There are lots of opportunities globally to increase production in greenhouses, but it’s only part of the food challenge. I would like the Netherlands to become the world champion of doing more with less, and better.’

Ted Duijvestijn’s father died two years ago, with the family firm riding high, and almost unrecognisable from the one he had inherited from his own father. ‘He was extremely proud of what we had done,’ Ted says. ‘But he didn’t understand the business by the end. It was a completely different type of farming.’

The challenges of the next century mean the inevitable expansion of businesses like Duijvestijn, and possibly consolidation with other growers. The questions are too big to be answered by single firms. ‘You need bigger companies to deal with big questions like biodiversity and water use, to make an impact,’ he says. ‘We’re doing everything to make all our practices circular and zero-waste. And we need to teach the younger generation that this is the only way to make the world healthier.’

The world will need to feed 10 billion people over the next century. The future might be Dutch orange – and tomato red.


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