Netherlands fact of the day

by on July 5, 2011 at 2:30 pm in Data Source, Food and Drink | Permalink

Take the case of the Netherlands. Unbeknown to most people, it is world’s third largest agricultural exporter, despite having little land (it has the world’s fifth highest population density). This has been possible because the Dutch have “industrialised” agriculture by, for example, deploying hydroponic agriculture (growing plants in water) that uses computer-controlled feeding of high-quality chemicals—something that would not have been possible if the Netherlands did not have some of the world’s most advanced chemical and electronics industries.

That is from Ha-Joon Chang, via Matt Yglesias.  Here is the list of largest exporters.

1 TheCrankyProfessor July 5, 2011 at 3:03 pm

And are the flowers part of it?

2 Roy July 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Surely this is by monetary value of exports, not calories.

Flowers for example are a very valuable crop, if you just grow high value crops it makes it easier to become such a high exporter.

3 Silas Barta July 5, 2011 at 3:20 pm

*cough* marijuana *cough*

4 lol July 5, 2011 at 9:25 pm

yeah seriously.

5 Dan Dostal July 6, 2011 at 7:02 pm

I doubt much, if any, is included in exports. Much of that crop is consumed locally, and unless Europe really is a bastion of personal freedom (not likely), it wouldn’t do well to report the exportation of such a drug.

6 Dirk van Dijk July 5, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Very good pot can be grown hydroponically as well, and that has a high value per pound.

7 Gabe July 5, 2011 at 3:21 pm

The malthusians are sad…might not be a die off after all. The carrying capacity of the planet is much higher than the doom and gloomer carbon tax proponents admit.

8 CBBB July 5, 2011 at 4:40 pm

The reasoning for a carbon tax don’t have anything to do with the “carrying capacity” of the earth. The argument is that we have an unpriced externality that imposes costs on society, because alternative agricultural techniques exists does not mean that carbon dioxide pollution has no costs.

9 Anton Tykhyy July 5, 2011 at 3:22 pm

I have heard less than enthusiastic reports about the taste of hydroponic vegetables, though.

10 Andrew Montgomery July 6, 2011 at 5:26 am

In my experience, imported Dutch tomatoes have virtually no taste.

11 Chris R July 6, 2011 at 7:34 am


12 my informed opinion July 6, 2011 at 8:01 am
13 not so informed July 7, 2011 at 10:41 am

You’re equating “hydroponic” with “organic”. The terms are not interchangeable.

14 DK July 7, 2011 at 2:23 am

As if any hydroponic tomato typically sold in groceries has any taste, regardless of where they are grown. But then even non-hydroponically grown modern tomatoes have a taste of soft colored plastic. It’s a problem with varieties – real tomatoes that have taste don’t yield as much and cannot be stored/transported.

15 my informed opinion July 7, 2011 at 5:29 am

You are deluding yourself.

16 my informed opinion July 7, 2011 at 8:21 pm

> You’re equating “hydroponic” with “organic”. The terms are not interchangeable.

I’m not doing that! I _know_ they are not interchangeable! The thing is that none of these petty differences (non-organic, organic, hydroponic) matter tastewise.

This comes from research literature:

– “Most of the recent literature indicates that there are no objective differences between quality properties of tomato fruits produced in conventional or a SCS (first column of Tab. 1)”, page 142
Do soilless culture systems have an influence on product quality of vegetables, N Gruda – Journal of Applied Botany and Food Quality, 2009

– No difference in tomato fruit quality between hydroponics, peat, sand etc (Horticultural Reviews 26, pages 271-272)

The following are anecdotal, but indicative:

– “As far as taste goes I didn’t notice much diff. I will say (maybe it was just in my head) that I thought the hydro tastes juicer, I got compliments on taste from both hydro and soil. Maybe next time I’ll do a blind taste test.”

– If taste was really that bad why don’t they say so in the wiki?


17 Todd July 5, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Good for Gouda

18 Foghat July 5, 2011 at 3:34 pm

This has been possible because the Dutch have “politicized” agriculture by, for example, deploying massive agricultural subsidies that use government-controlled feeding of high-quality cash—something that would not have been possible if the Netherlands did not have some of the world’s most advanced chemical and electronics industries.

19 unblinkered July 5, 2011 at 11:41 pm


No MAP of European Agricultural Exports is complete without a series of super imposed maps of the varied nefarious Agricultural Subsidies involved. France and Agricultural Exports and Subsidies are fighting terms in my circles…

20 ad*m July 5, 2011 at 3:37 pm

You must have never tasted Dutch tomatoes then. The Germans have a specific term for tomatoes from the Netherlands: Wasserbombe – water-bombs.

The situation has improved a little but but the fact that remains is that all of these agricultural exports are traded over a central exchange that sets prices, and where buyers get to see the goods, but not smell or taste them.

‘Markets in everything’:

Thus, goods are valued on looks not taste. Adding size and smoothness by increasing water content then is optimal for growers.

21 mulp July 6, 2011 at 1:15 am

You mean like in the US. Of course US tomatoes are more like red baseballs because they are picked “mature green” when they can be dumped in half ton containers without being blemished. And the Florida tomatoes are grown in sand and depend on chemicals poured on the sand just before planting to grow,

Do they need illegals to harvest the tomatoes in the Netherlands like are needed in the US; Georgia farmers have been forced to leave crops rotting in the fields because no one who even looks like they might be illegal are unwilling to go into or stay in Georgia.

22 JSK July 6, 2011 at 3:31 am

Yes. Mainly eastern-europeans.

23 dirk July 5, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Note that after the 1st largest agricultural exporter, there’s a rrreally big drop off into 2nd.

Also, I buy my weed from Mexico.

24 Dan Dostal July 6, 2011 at 7:04 pm

Bah, support your community, buy American grown drugs!

25 Pierre-Louis July 5, 2011 at 3:42 pm

does this include re-exports? (flowers are imported then re-exported)

26 Greg July 5, 2011 at 3:51 pm

I think this is it. Rotterdam is a huge port for ag exports and imports. I think most of what goes out of Rotterdam is not grown in the Netherlands though.

27 Floccina July 5, 2011 at 4:24 pm

That could really distort the picture. How about agricultural production.

28 JSK July 6, 2011 at 3:32 am

No, all dutch flowers are produced locally. We re-export alot of stuff, but agricultural goods isnt one of them.

29 Peter Schaeffer July 7, 2011 at 12:18 am


Apparently yes. According to the FAO the actual value of agricultural production in the Netherlands in 2005 was around $9 billion. Basically, MattY is treating pass through trade as an “export” and then confusing exports with production. Typically shoddy MattY analysis.

See for the FAO data. Of course, the Netherlands isn’t number three in agricultural production.

As always, MattY is beating the Open Borders drum… He needs to get over it.

30 Fabio Franco July 5, 2011 at 4:04 pm

The data is from 2003-2004 — Brazil may be in third place currently, at least according to an article in “O Estado de São Paulo” newspaper (translation here):

31 FYI July 5, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Does the number for Brazil include ethanol? Both Brazil and the US will probably get a boost from that and I don’t think those should count in the agricultural category.

32 Hell-Mikey July 6, 2011 at 8:47 am

According to CRS Report for Congress document “Brazil’s Agricultural Production and Exports: Selected Data”:
“Brazil is a major world producer and exporter of agricultural products. In 2004,
Brazil exported $30.9 billion worth of agricultural and food products, making it the
world’s third-largest exporter of agricultural products after the United States and the
European Union.”

Which easily tops the $19.78 Billion cited on the linked map.

33 dennis July 5, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Fabio is right, this data is pretty out of date. 2003 was the beginning of China’s massive growth spurt just as they came out of their bank re-organization and it was also the beginning of the massive credit bubble too. I’m sure that in 2011 things look quite different.

34 spencer July 5, 2011 at 4:45 pm

As indicated above ag exports can mean a lot of things.

I wonder how much of the ag exports are food or feed grains vs flowers, etc..

I suspect on this basis Dutch ag exports are much smaller.

35 londenio July 5, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Exactly. Vast amounts of goods enter the EU via Rotterdam. Sometimes goods are minimally “processed” in the entry country to make the product a “EU” product. They are then exported to other countries. But it is mostly logistics.

36 Thijs July 5, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Dutch statistics:

Agricultural exports in 2004 are 15.3 bln euros, or about 19.7 bln US which sort of matches the number in Maps of the World. Agricultural imports in the same year are 8.6 bln euros, which is 57 percent of exports. So yes, Pierre-Louis above is right.

Note that exports in 2010 are up to 20.5 bln euros, with 62% re-exports.

37 TallDave July 5, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Notice who does NOT appear: China.

This will have consequences.

38 Millian July 5, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Why can the Netherlands not buy the world’s most advanced chemicals and electronics from Germany, with which it has a free trade agreement?

39 Daniel July 5, 2011 at 9:16 pm

US agricultural exports (by state) are highly distorted because bulk commodities are often counted as “from” where they are last combined. One shipment may contain corn or grain or soybeans from many places, so it is impossible to determine the content of a shipment. As a result, Louisiana (and Connecticut) often show up as a top “exporters” of agricultural products that are not even grown in the state. I would guess this also plays a large role in the Netherlands position as a top ag exporter at the national level.

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42 fructose July 5, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Yglesias’s point is rather stupid. He is saying that we can afford to let more people live in the US, because we could produce enough food to feed them. But we are already producing food to feed them, and then exporting it. It obviously isn’t the case that population density increases food production. Food production is almost automated, less than 2% of workers are on farms. If anything, the increased urban sprawl would lower food production.

All this is before you factor in the fact that Netherlands is mostly producing flowers and spices, not staple foods. The Dutch aren’t producing enough calories to feed their people, I guarantee it. So what point is he making? It isn’t an argument at all, just the appearance of an argument.

43 mulp July 6, 2011 at 1:20 am

We can’t produce the food we eat because we are keeping out the people willing to do the work to grow it, so we need to use illegals in the US, something that is under attack and that attack on illegals is driving US farmers out of farming, or we need to import it. We seem to be moving toward the day when nothing grown on farms in the US can be eaten without being converted into chemicals in a factory.

44 unblinkered July 5, 2011 at 11:50 pm

Another of the many ways, along with The Sea faring Security blanket, Technology factory, and the Dollar, that the U.S. has provided allot of unrecognized support to global economic development. Unlike Europe, which tends to dump vast quantities of excess production onto global markets, artificially suppressing prices, much of U.S. exports outside of sugar and cotton, and along with Australia and Brazil, are basic staples that feed billions around the world.

45 Five Daarstens July 6, 2011 at 1:06 am

Part of this is because in The Netherlands there are not endless suburbs like there are in the US. Even in the Randstad, there are farms even between The Hague and Rotterdam – some of the most densely populated area in Europe. Image farms between New York and Newark. Most of the people in NL live in the center of cities and towns and the other areas are put aside for farming.

46 JSK July 6, 2011 at 3:35 am

Also part of agricultural exports is milk and meats. We have a pig for every person in the Netherlands. The bio-industry is HUGE over here, with the fodder mainly imported from other countries. We are far from being agriculturally self-sufficient in that respect.

47 Stefano July 6, 2011 at 3:40 am

On this FAO map showing net trade on a calories base, NL is shown as net importer:

I wasn’t able to find the raw data on their site.

On the other hand, higher-than-average density countries like France, Germany and Denemark are shown as net exporters.

NL has a large production of diaries, so perhaps it’s a net exported on a protein base.

48 Dan July 6, 2011 at 8:29 am

JSK tells only half the story. A big meat and milk industry means plenty of animal waste, more than can be disposed of locally. So Dutch farmers dry and pelletize their animal “by-products” and sell it to other nations as fertilizer.

49 JSK July 6, 2011 at 11:32 am

These days we also mix it in with biomass and burn it. But obviously, the caloric value decreases along the chain…

50 Philip Ebersole July 6, 2011 at 10:53 am

Wikipedia says that the Netherlands accounts for two-thirds of the world’s exports of cut plants, flowers and bulbs, a third of exports in cucumbers and chilis, a quarter of exports of tomatoes and 1/15th of world exports in applies. That’s a good achievement, but, as the other commenters said, it doesn’t mean the world can satisfy its need for calories by using Dutch methods.

51 cultured ape July 7, 2011 at 3:33 am

During one particularly nasty winter in world war II the Dutch themselves resorted to eating tulip bulbs as food, so maybe it is possible after all.

52 Dr. Goose July 6, 2011 at 7:38 pm

The data behind this blog post are highly suspect if they do not include Brazil in the top ten agricultural exporters. Here are the top commodity exporters according to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization:

53 TallDave July 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm

As best I can tell they don’t give overall numbers, just commodity-specific.

I would not be surprised if Brazil were not on the list, because Brazil grows massive amounts of sugarcane that are converted to ethanol and consumed domestically. I don’t know how much ethanol they export, or whether that would be considered an ag export.

54 Ronald Brak July 6, 2011 at 8:25 pm

While some of the agricultural conversion of solar energy into chemical energy is done in the Netherlands, the bulk of it is done elsewhere in Europe and transported down the Rhine, or by other methods, to the Netherlands where capital intensive animal slave pens convert a great deal of it into pig flesh, chicken flesh, and eggs. So while the Netherlands exports a very large amount of agricultural goods as measured in Euros, the country is overall, a calorie sink.

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