Could hi-tech Netherlands-style farming feed the world?

As the global population swells, so does the need for food. Could a Netherlands approach to farming that doesn't rely on soil, sunshine, water and pesticides be the answer?

The small, overcrowded, low-lying Netherlands might not sound like the answer to feeding a world whose population is predicted to rise to 9.6 billion people by 2050, but farmers and agronomists there would beg to differ.

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The country known best globally for its traditional tulips and wooden footwear, is the second largest vegetable exporter in the world — with exports totalling €6 billion annually. Onions, potatoes and some southern climate vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and chiles are among its top selling products.

The Netherlands is growing them with far less water and pesticides than if production was happening in the soil or open air.

They do it using greenhouse technology, termed 'precision farming', that some in the Dutch food industry claim is the most advanced in the world.

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An old technology modernized

Modern greenhouse farming took off in the country after World War Two as a reaction to one of Europe's last experiences of famine. Up to 20,000 people died in the "Dutch hunger winter," during the last months of the German occupation.

Nowadays, the most advanced part of the country's greenhouse  technology is in the southern region of Westland, where 80 percent of cultivated land is under glass.

In the Dutch farming region of Westland, farmers tend to grown tomatoes in bags rather than soil

In the vast high-tech greenhouses of sustainable producers Duijvestijn Tomatoes, vines drip with red, yellow, green and dark purple fruit. In these highly controlled spaces, visitors are required to wear hygiene overalls.

"In the end, the plant is around 13 to 14 metres (42.7 feet to 45.9 feet) long and will produce about 33 clusters of tomatoes," Ad van Adrichem, general manager at Duijvestijn Tomatoes told DW.

Read more: Transforming German cities into organic food gardens

Reaching such heights is important in a country where land is as precious as it is scarce: the tiny Netherlands has one of the highest population densities in the world. In the greenhouses of Westland, an area that was reclaimed at great cost and effort from the sea, they grow almost 70 kilograms (154 pounds) of tomatoes per square meter.

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That's at least 10 times the average yield from an open field in Spain or Morocco, but with eight times less water and practically no chemical pesticides. 

Alternative thinking

The secret to the success is that Dutch tomatoes are grown in small bags of mineral wool — a fibrous material that can also be used for insulation and soundproofing.

"It gives you far more control," said van Adrichem. "So we can steer very precisely the amount of nutrition we need and the amount of water we need."

But that's not all that's at play. There are also the greenhouses themselves. Duijvestijn Tomatoes has invested in a revolutionary double-glass roof which conserves more heat and, thanks to special coatings, diffuses the light that gets through, thereby making sure it also reaches the plants' lower leaves.

The constant warm temperature comes from two geothermal wells. The level of CO2 gas on which the plants thrive, is doubled in the air inside the greenhouse, carefully piped in from the local oil refinery. LED lights inside these state of the art stuctures allow the crops to keep growing into the night. 

Instead of using pesticides, Duijvestijn Tomatoes unleashes insects in a box to deal with pests

The water used is all pure Dutch rain, captured and stored in an underground layer of sand for use through the dry months. Whenever pests appear, they bring in insects to eat them.

They even have cardboard hives of bees on hand for pollination.

Yet some ecologists are skeptical of the new technology. Herman van Bekkem, campaign leader for Greenpeace Holland, is one of them.

"We indeed see promising examples of farmers doing their best to reduce pesticides," he told DW.  "But if you look at the facts, like the statistics for water pollution in the Netherlands, there is no other region more polluted by pesticides than the greenhouse region."

He says water managers in Westland have been complaining about the high amounts of pesticides in surface water for many years. 

"Not from us." said van Adrichem. "We work with a closed water circuit. We give the plants the exact amount of water they need and because the tomatoes aren't planted in the soil, there is no run-off."

A vertical future

Leo Marcelis, horticulture professor at Wageningen University and Research (WUR), the research hub for the Dutch food industry, says vertical farms are the way forward.

Students from around the world are researching future farming methods at WUR

"In the future, we'll have vertical farms that will go as high as tall buildings that will only use artificial light," said Marcelis. With units built on top of each other as high as you like, with only artificial light and where farming will be completely independent of the climate and completely reliable, he adds.

Half the students at WUR are from abroad, and when they finish their studies, many will be taking this new science home to countries in Asia and Africa. WUR Plant Sciences Group managing director Ernst van den Ende describes a project he is working on in Africa that optimizes the symbiosis between beans and a bacterium that is able to fix nitrogen — a key plant nutrient — from the air.

Read more: From grey to green: Urban farming around the world 

"By optimizing this symbiosis, we are able to increase yields without using fertilizers," said van den Ende.

For him, WUR's research is about stopping people going hungry, as his grandparents' generation did in the Netherlands.

"My grandmother would travel 80 kilometers for a sack of brussel sprouts," he said. Now van den Ende believes the technology the Dutch are developing will, in years to come, be able to feed the world.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Tackling food insecurity with hydroponics

The challenge of feeding a planet that’s set to have 3 billion more people on it by 2050 - made even more acute by climate change as some parts of the planet become wetter, while others drier - means the pressure is on to find ways to feed the planet. So farming has to become more productive – and new areas to grow, especially in dry climates, must be found. One potential solution: hydroponics.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Growing plants in the air

Farming with little space and producing higher crop yields: hydroponics fits the bill. Though it may sound like something out of Star Trek, it's actually been around since the Aztecs – they built floating farms around the city of Tenochtitlan. Hydroponics essentially means growing plants without soil, and instead using a nutrient-rich solution to supply them with water and minerals.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Boosting yields

With hydroponics, plants – usually supported by soil – are propped up artificially instead, and a nutrient solution is applied to the suspended roots using a number of different methods, including spraying them with a solution mist. Together with artificial lights, heaters and other equipment, the nutrient solutions help plants develop faster, produce larger yields and grow all year round.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Efficient hydroponics

Hydroponics can recycle water, meaning it could use as little as 10 percent of the water a conventional farm uses – making it an option in arid environments. And the closed system means nutrients don't escape, cutting fertilizer down to as much as a quarter of what a conventional farm would use. Also, almost no pesticide is needed, since soil pests aren't an issue for plants grown without soil.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Planting vertically

When growing sideways isn't an option, try going upwards: hydroponic growing trays can be piled on top of one another, and plants can be grown more closely next to each than in the soil, making it very efficient in terms of space. As for what kind of space they can grow in, the sky is the limit: with no need for scarce farmland, one possibility could be to have hydroponic farms in skyscrapers.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

The downsides of hydroponics

Running a hydroponic farm can be complex, energy-intensive and expensive. Plants require many essential nutrients, and the farm needs a large amount of equipment. Heat and light, supplied for free by the sun in conventional farms, have to be provided artifically and paid for. And power failures could mean whole crops are destroyed if they go too long without water and light.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Hydroponics on the rise

Hydroponics can theoretically be used to grow any crop, although the technique lends itself best to plants such as cucumbers, salad greens, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Given its long history, hydroponics still isn't widely used. But that looks set to change: the global hydroponic farming industry was estimated to be worth $21.2 billion in 2016. That's forecast to grow by 7 per cent each year.