What can Norfolk farmers learn from their innovative Dutch neighbours?

The innovation and cooperation which made the Netherlands the world's second largest agricultural exporter could inspire the next generation of Norfolk farmers, said a senior Dutch diplomat.

Tim Heddema, agricultural counsellor to the Embassy of the Netherlands in London, was the guest speaker at a virtual meeting held by Yield (Young, Innovative, Enterprising, Learning and Developing) – a rural business network for younger members of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association.


There is much to gain from close co-operation

Although his country was sad to lose its "main ally in Brussels" after Brexit, he said it was eager to maintain its close trading links with its "North Sea neighbour" - particularly in East Anglia.


He said the key to the Netherlands' growth into a farming powerhouse was its investment in innovation, applied through a closely-linked "triple helix" of business, science and government.


And, in a changing world, he said the two countries could learn from each other on how to boost productivity, trade and environmental sustainability.

The new figurehead for Norfolk farming, Nick Deane, has urged food producers to find their voice and champion their industry at a pivotal time for agriculture.

"There is a great deal of like-mindedness between the Netherlands and the UK - and East Anglia specifically - and there is much to gain from close co-operation," he said.


"There are already many links between your region and the Netherlands. We have contacts with the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, the new Anglia LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) and Agri-TechE, for example, and ties between Dutch north-eastern provinces and Norfolk and Suffolk are getting stronger and stronger as well.


"We are keen on keeping that exchange of views and ideas going, of mutual inspiration. This is illustrated by a shared wish between our countries to intensify our trade, investments and innovation cooperation in agricultural technology and to be front-runner in worldwide climate-smart agriculture in the process.


"For the Netherlands, this lies at the heart of our position as the second biggest exporter of agricultural goods in the world in value. A remarkable feat for such a tiny country and something which we are very proud of. In 2019 our exports of agri-food products totalled a record 94.5bn euros."


The combination of the science-driven and the market-driven, has indeed led to a fantastic record in terms of efficiency

The secret behind that success story, said Mr Heddema, was founded on the historical necessity for a small seafaring nation to trade with the world.


"To produce much more than we needed for ourselves we needed to become ultra-efficient," he said. "Even now with our extremely dense population we have just 1.8m hectares of farmland. That is around 10pc of the amount in the UK, I believe.


"Then and now, the key factor was, and is, innovation. Research and education expenditure in Dutch agriculture is growing by 10-20pc per year - that is huge, above the national average for all business. And in turn, the key factor to getting innovation right and getting it applied in practice is that it is supported by close cooperation between business, science and government. You know it as the 'triple helix' and we have long used the term 'golden triangle'."


That co-operation between entrepreneurs and academics, with government support, takes place at hubs across the country, most notably in its Food Valley, including the world-renowned Wageningen university.


"The combination of the science-driven and the market-driven, has indeed led to a fantastic record in terms of efficiency, with the Dutch agricultural sector, relatively speaking, having the lowest impact on the environment of all countries in the world," said Mr Heddema.

"But, still, despite our achievements in terms of both productivity and sustainability, current production methods are not without cost, and climate change and resource scarcity require us to reassess those production methods."


In response to those challenges, the Dutch government's future vision is to create a system of "circular agriculture", where arable, livestock and horticulture producers primarily use raw materials from each other's local supply chains, while recycling waste from food industry and food supply chains into animal feed and organic fertilisers.


"This means a shift from producing at the lowest possible cost to producing at the lowest possible input, with careful management of soil water and nature, and the minimum of unnecessary leaks of nutrients and residual biomass," said Mr Heddema.


"Overall, healthy soil is the basis. Responsible soil management means low inputs, low tillage and precision farming for soil to be able to recover and regenerate, and the use of chemical agents is seen as a last resort.


"New technology and alternative growing techniques clearly also have a role in increasing soil health and efficiency - think of precision farming, agroforestry, strip cropping and even 'pixel cropping' which we are now trialling in the Netherlands."


Source: EDP24