As regular readers of this irregular blog will know, I do a lot of work in the Netherlands. The Dutch, of course, have their reasons for being interested in food and cities. The first nation on earth to be predominantly urban and one of the most land-starved, they know a thing or two about intensive farming. Back in the 17th century, they pioneered many of the techniques – deep digging, heavy manuring, constant weeding, planting clover leys and fodder crops – that were later copied by the English, making the English Agricultural Revolution (and thus modern farming) possible.
Dutch tomatoes don’t taste of very much, and flying over the land at night, you can see why. It is dotted with eerily-lit rectangles: the vast greenhouses where such produce is grown for export. Since the plants are grown hydroponically, they never encounter anything so character-building as soil.
Extraordinarily, for a nation less than one seventh the size of Britain, the Netherlands is second only to the USA in terms of agricultural exports by value, being 600 per cent self-sufficient in eggs, potatoes, chicken and pork (although the latter are fed on South American grain). The drive to efficiency has left the Dutch remarkably unsentimental about their traditional rural landscape, not least because very little of it remains. Thirty years ago, the government ‘re-parcelled’ the land with a ruthlessness not witnessed in Britain since the 18th century, destroying centuries-old farms and amalgamating them into modern agri-estates.
The result, seen from the upper deck of an inter-city train, is a landscape that rolls past, for the most part, in unvarying monotony: large industrial farms, intersected by canals and interspersed with factories and compact cities. Even the cows are missing: grass-fed herds increasingly spend their lives indoors, since it is deemed more efficient to mow the grass and feed it to the animals, rather than let them wander about and nibble the stuff themselves. This approach apparently saves one cent off the price of a litre of milk. Personally, I would happily spend the extra cent for the pleasure of seeing the cows out in the fields, where they surely belong.
The interesting thing is that, like the Americans, the Dutch are starting to realise that their super-efficient, cows-in-greenhouses approach to farming may not be the best way after all. So while the search goes on for ever-more efficient methods, another search has begun for ways to bring sociability back to farming, and ‘nature’ back to the countryside. Coupled with the plain-speaking, lateral thinking, solution-seeking Dutch mentality, this makes the Netherlands one of the most interesting places I know to talk about food and cities right now.