Part of Against Doomerism from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
An hour north of Amsterdam, some of the world’s largest seed conglomerates — the first step in a long journey that brings food from the farm to our plates — occupy what the industry calls “Seed Valley.” It’s a play on Northern California’s famous tech hub, but there is no actual valley here — the Netherlands is notoriously flat — and there are no Google buses or towering redwood trees. Instead, in this quiet, rural pocket, rows of pristine greenhouses stand beside small experimental farm plots and low-slung office buildings, all without a ping-pong table in sight. While touring a few seed companies there last month, I couldn’t even order an Uber.
Despite their differences, both regions share the belief that the best way to overcome humanity’s pressing challenges is through innovation. In California, it’s software and semiconductors, but in the Netherlands, it’s something even more elemental: improved fruit and vegetable seeds that can produce more food per acre for a growing population while withstanding ever-evolving threats to agriculture. And just as Silicon Valley has put its stamp on the global tech sector, Seed Valley has done the same for farming: Wageningen University and Research (WUR), an hour southeast of Amsterdam, is the nucleus of the country’s agricultural sector and is widely considered the world leader in agricultural science.
Going back nearly 80 years, anxieties over food security have driven the tiny Netherlands to become a global leader in agriculture despite having just half the land area of South Carolina. After a horrific famine during World War II killed more than 20,000 Dutch, the government heavily invested in its agricultural sector through subsidies, rural infrastructure, and industrialization. Two decades ago, it pledged to grow twice as much food with half as many resources, a goal it has already far exceeded. Today, the Netherlands produces 6 percent of Europe’s food with only 1 percent of the continent’s farmland.
Gerthon Van de Bunt, a senior plant breeder with the seed company Pop Vriend, is one of countless scientists in Seed Valley tinkering away to further boost agricultural output. When I met him in the company’s greenhouse complex, he showed me a few trays of small green bean plants he had infected with anthracnose, a fungal disease that’s killing green beans around the world.
Several days after infection, some plants looked perfectly healthy, while others were shriveled and discolored. After I’d spent hours poring over news articles and academic papers trying to better understand plant breeding, this small experiment made its power unmistakably clear. Plant the wrong seed and it could fall prey to disease, ruining an entire crop and wreaking economic and environmental damage, while newer varieties, bred through years of painstaking experimentation by scientists — many of them in Seed Valley — can make all the difference.
Van de Bunt will go on to breed those resistant varieties with ones that meet all the other desired green bean traits, such as color, size, texture, and yield. But before his anthracnose-resistant beans can make it to supermarket shelves, it’ll take six or seven years of testing in Pop Vriend’s climate-controlled greenhouses and in the field. Years ago, Van de Bunt developed a heat-tolerant variety of green beans this way, making them better able to tolerate rising temperatures that one year had killed as much as 80 to 90 percent of the harvest for some farmers in the southeastern US.
Thousands of such small improvements to food production add up, helping us grow more food on less land and feed a population that’s more than doubled in the past 50 years. We’ve largely been winning the race to feed humanity, but it’s a race that will only get tougher. Countless more innovations will be critical to feed the nearly 10 billion people projected to be alive in 2050, all against the backdrop of a changing and worsening climate.
In part because of its unique role in the global food system, the Netherlands in recent years has also become an emblem of ascendant debates over the future of food. After decades of doggedly chasing efficiency, many Dutch politicians and agriculture experts are now questioning the ills of the intensive farming style that drives that efficiency, calling for drastic changes in how the Dutch eat and farm in order to reduce pollution, improve biodiversity, and meet climate targets.
In the effort to stake out a middle ground between intensification and environmental conservation, I continually heard an updated version of their 20-year slogan throughout my trip: “Grow twice as much food with half as many resources — sustainably.”
Silicon Valley, but for seeds
Rapid world population growth over the past century has repeatedly fueled fears of mass starvation. But that hasn’t come to pass, in part because fertility levels began to decline sharply beginning in the mid-1960s, but also because advancements in agricultural technology, like the spread of tractors, synthetic fertilizers, and more sophisticated plant breeding, helped us squeeze more food out of less land.
To take one example, if the yields of staple crops like wheat, corn, and rice remained frozen where they were in 1961, we would have had to deforest an additional area of land close to the combined size of the US and India to provide the world with enough food. That would have been catastrophic for global biodiversity.
Much of that growth in yield is attributed to the Green Revolution, a US-led agricultural shift from the 1960s to ’80s to adopt synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, better irrigation, and hardier, higher-yield seeds in the Global South (Latin America, Africa, and Asia). The revolution spread harmful pollutants around the globe, but it also led to a dramatic reduction in death rates and immense economic growth, helping lift millions out of extreme poverty and hunger. No revolution is fought without casualties, but in the case of the Green Revolution, the benefits far outweighed the costs.
But despite decades of progress, as many as 811 million people — one in every 10 — still go to bed hungry. The coming century will bring new challenges for food production, some similar to what we’ve experienced before, some that we’ve never faced. We’re not doomed to suffer climate change-induced famine, but we’ll need a combination of improved technology and smarter, more just farm policy that prioritizes more resource-efficient foods — something tantamount to a second Green Revolution.
One of the most pressing problems is closing what’s termed the “yield gap” — the difference in agricultural productivity between high- and low-income countries. If every country had farms as productive as those of the Netherlands, we’d have no problem feeding the world. But they don’t — while the Green Revolution significantly narrowed the yield gap, it stubbornly persists. A potato farmer in the Netherlands will harvest almost twice as many potatoes from an acre of land as a farmer in India, or three times as much wheat as a farmer in Brazil, to name just a few examples.
On top of the deadly bacteria and viruses like those Van de Bunt battles with his green beans, plants can also be devoured by insects, withered by drought, or drowned in a flood. Up to 40 percent of global crop production is lost to disease and insects alone. Too much salt in the soil and poof — plant growth is stunted. Strong winds can carry seeds away or knock down plants, and extreme temperatures can kill crops or prevent them from ever sprouting.
All this will be amplified by climate change, said Xana Verweij, manager of research and application of cell technologies at Enza Zaden, a top seed producer located just a few miles from Pop Vriend. In an unstable climate, “sometimes it’s drought and the next week it rains cats and dogs,” Verweij said. “Putting that into the [plant’s] genetics, that’s a really big challenge.”
Agriculture experts say we’re still far from getting the most food out of each seed. One way of strengthening agricultural resilience in the face of climate change is by shortening the time it takes to develop new seed varieties that can adapt to the latest threats.
This is high-tech work, but it’s a continuation of something humans have been doing since the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago: selectively breeding plants by crossing one variety that has a particular trait, like size or color, with another, like resistance to a disease or insect. Scientists like Verweij can speed up the process using what’s called molecular marker technology, by simply tearing off little pieces of a plant and quickly scanning its DNA for a genetic marker associated with a particular trait. This and other technologies have enabled breeders to significantly shorten the number of years it takes to develop a new variety.
“It’s almost like a race against the clock,” Verweij said. It previously took seven or eight years to breed a new lettuce variety; now it’s more like three or four. It usually takes eight to 10 years to develop a new tomato variety, but Enza Zaden recently created one in just five that is resistant to ToBRFV, a virus that first appeared in Israel in 2014 and has since destroyed tomato crops across Europe, the Middle East, and North America.
A suite of technologies to make seeds go further, known as seed enhancement, is also in the works in Seed Valley.
Newly planted seeds are especially vulnerable, since exposure to extreme temperatures can prevent them from sprouting, which depresses yields. So some Seed Valley companies, like Incotec, enhance them for seed companies through “priming.” They begin the germination process in the seed to shorten the vulnerable period and expand the temperature range in which seeds can grow. Priming dates back to ancient Greece — companies like Incotec are simply advancing the technique.
Priming also increases seed uniformity, according to Maria Vermeer, a germination specialist at Incotec, which can improve yield because when plants grow at uneven rates, farmers are forced to harvest some before they’ve reached their full size.
Inside Incotec’s germination lab, the power of priming is obvious to the naked eye. Vermeer showed me a priming test of lettuce seeds — in the photo below, on the left are regular, unprimed seeds, and on the right are primed seeds that had also been pelleted, meaning covered with a coat of liquid and powders to give the seeds a uniform size, which makes planting more efficient.
Incotec can also coat seeds with a thin film that contains a fungicide or other solution to prevent disease, or coat especially tiny seeds, like carrot or flower seeds, to make sure they don’t blow away in the wind.
The company also feeds an artificial intelligence program images of healthy and unhealthy seeds that it then uses to scan through massive batches of its customers’ seeds, tossing out the ones that have a lower likelihood of sprouting and maturing.
Treated seeds are already routinely used among farmers in high-income countries, but if the technology can be deployed globally, it could be a critical tool in closing the yield gap. A 2022 meta-analysis found seed treatment can reduce crop disease incidence or severity by an astounding 48 percent, and it increases yield by 6 percent on average. These effects vary by crop, geography, and farming practices.
The Netherlands has too many cows
Improving crop yields and resilience is only one part of the agricultural revolution that we’ll need to confront the climate crisis — we’ll also need to change what we farm and eat. As a result of decades of government policy that promoted efficiency and intensification above all else, the Netherlands now has the most densely concentrated livestock population in Europe. To meet climate and conservation goals, this will have to change.
Meat and dairy production account for around 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and while the Dutch eat less meat than many of their neighbors, their huge livestock population has led to immense nitrogen pollution that’s contaminating the country’s water and air and destroying its biodiversity. The solution to that challenge primarily isn’t technological advancement, but political and behavioral change.
“If we reduce our meat production and dairy production 50 percent, actually, that’s the solution,” said Wijnand Sukkel, an agroecology researcher at WUR. “That’s the biggest step we can take forward.”
You’ll hear similar sentiments from some Dutch politicians. When policymakers around the world suggest cuts to meat and dairy production or consumption, it’s often met with backlash. But the Netherlands has been far more receptive to calls for dietary change, even though this is a country where cheese is a national point of pride and cheese shops put Roomba-size Gouda wheels on window display.
In 2018, an environmental advisory board for the Dutch government recommended that the country transition 20 percent of its protein intake from animal- to plant-based sources by 2030. Ever since, the recommendation has been seeping into local and national policy, with strong public support.
The world’s first lab-grown or “cultivated” hamburger was created by Dutch scientist Mark Post, and last year, the Dutch government invested $65 million into cultivated meat research, with plans to invest at least another $272 million. Six months later, the city of Haarlem banned meat advertisements, and last month, the city of Altena — in partnership with WUR — launched a “Plant-Based Together” pilot program to influence its 55,000 residents to opt for more vegetarian meals.
Also last month: the Ministry of Agriculture — also in partnership with WUR — announced the goal of doubling legume consumption by 2030. It’s no wonder, then, that the country has been described as a “plant-based protein powerhouse,” with more than 60 companies and research institutions working to make better-tasting meat and dairy alternatives.
Consuming more legumes and less meat and dairy as a way to conserve land is a lesson we could stand to learn in the US. Three-quarters of US cropland is dedicated to growing corn and soy to feed farmed animals, even though meat and dairy only account for about one-third of our calories.
The comparatively positive reception to such policies in the Netherlands might be explained in part by how the Dutch seem less driven by the ideologies that typically dominate food fights — organic versus industrial, vegan versus carnivore, local versus global — and more by their national goal of growing twice as much food with half as many resources.
The focus on outcomes over ideology is in part a result of what the Dutch call the polder model, an approach to decision-making employed in the Netherlands that emphasizes broad consensus and compromise among stakeholders. Much of the country is under sea level, and one theory says that the origins of the polder model date back to the Middle Ages when its polders — the Dutch word for the country’s low-lying parcels of land protected from flooding by dikes — required shared responsibility and cooperation to maintain.
The philosophy is palpable at WUR, the country’s agricultural R&D giant, where sometimes clashing agricultural experts share space and collaborate: Plant breeders, livestock researchers, environmental scientists, plant-based advocates, organic farmers, and social scientists.
But the Netherlands’ sky-high nitrogen pollution, which has plagued the tiny country for decades and has now turned into a full-blown crisis, is testing the peacekeeping model. In 2019, the European Union’s highest court ruled that the country’s system for permitting construction and farming that emits high levels of nitrogen, which can cause respiratory distress in people and trigger mass die-offs in plants and fish, puts it in violation of EU environmental law. The Dutch Council of State agreed and put thousands of construction projects on hold, including new livestock farms.
The government now aims to slash its nitrogen emissions 50 percent by 2030, and most of the cuts will have to come from the livestock sector, the largest emitter. It plans to do that by spending over $26 billion to pay farmers to change their practices, or buy them out, leading to a potential 30 percent reduction in livestock.
The decisions have polarized a populace that enjoys an incredibly high rate of social trust and cohesion. Livestock farmers have jammed up highways with tractors in protest, set fire to manure and hay bales, and blocked access to supermarket distribution centers. The farmers benefit from high levels of public sympathy, though that appears to be slowly waning.
Upside-down Dutch flags, a symbol of protest against the livestock regulations, lined the highway on my way out to rural Leeuwarden to visit WUR’s dairy research campus, where scientists are working to reduce nitrogen from the country’s 3.8 million cows. That’s where I met with manager Kees de Koning, a dairy veteran, who handed me overalls and boots before we headed into the first research barn.
Most dairy cows are raised on cement flooring, where their urine and feces, both high in nitrogen, fall through slats and mix into a slurry, creating ammonia — a more potent form of nitrogen. De Koning’s research center has tested new flooring that separates the urine and feces early on to reduce ammonia emissions. WUR researchers also say they can cut cows’ ammonia levels 15 percent by reducing the protein in cows’ diets by 10 percent — another project at the dairy campus.
One of the more elaborate approaches to reducing nitrogen from dairy farms is the CowToilet, a machine developed by the agriculture equipment company Hanskamp and tested by WUR. The cow enters a feed station, and after she’s finished eating, a bucket rubs a nerve above her udder that triggers a urinating reflex. The bucket catches the urine, which is then stored in a tank. Hanskamp says this can catch about 50 percent of a mature dairy cow’s 3.75 to 5 gallons of daily urination, as they also urinate elsewhere.
It’s unclear how much of a role these techniques will play in solving the country’s nitrogen crisis, as some are still in the research phase and others will be costly to scale up. The most affordable option — altering cows’ diets — only has a modest nitrogen reduction and is difficult to monitor and verify, while the CowToilet is so convoluted it borders on satire.
The reality is that we’re never going to make 1,500-pound animals more resource-efficient than plant-based foods, and for ethical reasons, we should hesitate before endlessly engineering them for efficiency like we do with plants. At the same time, demand for dairy and beef isn’t likely to fall globally, especially as more people from the Global South become rich enough to adopt a more Western diet. The most obvious and effective solution is simply raising fewer cows, but given how politically fraught the proposal to buy out farmers has been, anything that can shave off nitrogen emissions will help.
“I’m pretty sure at the end, we will find the balance,” de Koning said. “That’s the Dutch way of thinking.” But he’s worried about how polarized the issue has become. Some Dutch farmers unions, “now they call themselves the Farmers Defense Force,” he said. “That’s also something I would have thought never would happen.”
Combining old farming methods with new tech
Not everyone in the Netherlands’ agriculture sector, or at WUR, agrees the intensive, industrialized farming model is best.
“We need some quite drastic system changes,” said Wijnand Sukkel, who manages WUR’s Farm of the Future, after rattling off the ills of conventional, chemical-laden farming that dominates the Netherlands and other high-income countries: soil degradation, pollution, biodiversity loss. His agroecological approach seeks to find a better balance between agricultural productivity and environmental conservation. At Farm of the Future, Sukkel and other staff experiment on small farm plots to figure out how to wean Dutch farmers off monoculture farming without sacrificing crop yield.
One solution is strip cropping, which dates back thousands of years. Instead of planting crops in a monoculture fashion, Sukkel said that planting numerous crops in alternating strips can increase biodiversity and reduce the need for synthetic pesticides.
Crop diversity can also slow the spread of plant diseases. After implementing strip cropping, a large organic farm that worked with Sukkel slowed the spread of a potato disease that had afflicted its crops in the past, increasing yields by up to 25 percent.
But Sukkel cautions that right now, it wouldn’t be wise for conventional farmers to adopt a highly diverse strip cropping model, as it’s still more labor-intensive and could increase production costs by up to 20 percent. But that increase in cost has to be weighed against rising costs of conventional farming, he added. The cost of nitrogen fertilizer, for example, which can account for around 10 percent of European farmers’ input costs, has more than doubled over the past two years.
Planet-friendly agroecological methods might seem low-tech, but they actually need new technology to work at scale. That’s the biggest bottleneck, Sukkel said. For example, he uses robots to detect where pesticides are needed and to spray them in a targeted way, rather than the indiscriminate use typical in conventional agriculture, which he compares to using a cannon to shoot a mosquito. But it’ll be some time before techniques like this can scale affordably.
Sukkel’s work is still limited to the Netherlands, but many of his WUR colleagues are devoted to working with farmers around the world to ensure their breakthroughs can make a difference where they’re needed most.
The global effort to close the yield gap
The Netherlands is a rich country that exports much of the food it produces, so its agricultural system will weather climate change more easily than most — especially compared to countries in the Global South, which will face an increasingly precarious farming environment in the decades ahead. And they’re standing on a much shakier foundation, in large part because of the yield gap that remains for many crops and animals.
One barrier to closing the yield gap for crops is cost. The expensive, high-performing seeds that most seed companies sell will drop in yield over time if saved and reused, so farmers have to buy new ones each year to keep yields high. Many countries limit the exchange of seeds, per World Trade Organization policy, and major seed companies that sell genetically modified and bioengineered seeds seek to protect their intellectual property by prohibiting farmers from saving or exchanging seeds.
Another barrier is a mismatch between what subsistence farmers need and which seeds big seed companies develop. The seed industry, which is highly consolidated and concentrated in Europe, focuses on high-margin, internationally traded vegetables and fruits — not the staple crops that so much of the Global South relies on for calories, like cassava (yucca), yams, and millet. The lack of resources devoted to developing new varieties for these foods has earned them the nickname “orphan crops.” That’s especially unjust considering that the Global South is far less responsible for climate change than rich countries, yet will suffer disproportionately from it.
Governments across the developing world, as well as on-the-ground research centers like those run by the global agricultural development organization CGIAR, are working to close the yield gap by developing higher-yielding seeds and working with farmers to improve practices. A number of teams and programs at WUR are doing similar work.
WUR’s international reach starts with who studies there. Almost half of its graduate students aren’t Dutch — as of 2017, the number of students from Asia was almost higher than the entire non-Dutch European student population. Many WUR alumni end up working in their home countries.
Walter de Boef, a senior adviser at WUR’s Centre for Development Innovation, works with experts in low-income countries to develop their seed systems. In 2021, WUR and a local consultant in Nigeria compared challenges in the country’s seed registration and approval process to other African countries and found that Nigeria’s was too slow, unclear, and expensive, costing the equivalent of $8,500 to $21,000-plus to register a new seed variety.
As a result, new higher-yielding, climate-adaptive seeds from Nigerian breeders and elsewhere weren’t coming on the market for Nigerian farmers, so agriculture experts from Nigeria and WUR brought case studies to the government.
“This is the reason why you don’t close this huge [yield] gap,” they explained to regulators, de Boef said. “This is one of the reasons why farmers still have varieties that are not doing well.” They worked with regulators to run pilot trials for new tomato, rice, maize, and cassava varieties, learning from how Kenya and other African countries go about approving new seeds to make the process more efficient and affordable.
In the first year, three new tomato varieties and one new maize variety were released in Nigeria under the new pilot rules. They’re in talks to pilot onions next. Other WUR programs include developing Ethiopia’s seed sector and legume production across Africa.
The stakes of improving yields and other aspects of farming in Nigeria and across Africa couldn’t be higher, according to Kenton Dashiell, a plant breeder and a deputy director at Nigeria’s International Institute of Tropical Agriculture — part of CGIAR.
“We have to produce our own food,” he said. “Africa imports over 100 million metric tons of food per year, at a cost of $75 billion annually. This is $75 billion governments could use to develop their countries. To kind of put it in blunt terms, Africa is making farmers in other parts of the world rich.”
Lack of access to higher-yielding seeds is just one of many barriers subsistence farmers face, Dashiell said. They also need increased access to financing, fertilizer, and information on best practices.
De Boef acknowledged that while some of WUR’s corporate seed partners want farmers in the Global South to source their seeds from the formal market — which includes both companies and public institutions — this is not necessarily just or realistic. Upward of 90 percent of seed production among small-scale farmers in Africa is informal, coming from sources like local markets and fellow farmers.
“We are not [the industry’s] consultants,” de Boef said. “We have to work with informal markets.”
The world should learn from both the Netherlands’ ingenuity and its willingness to make hard policy choices to rectify the harms of agricultural intensification. But climate change and food insecurity are global challenges fueled by global inequality, and solutions to feeding nearly 10 billion people by 2050 — with most of that growth coming from the Global South — will need to be much more inclusive and democratic. It’s no longer the 1960s, when the countries of the Global South lacked economic and political influence. The second Green Revolution will need to come primarily from within, not just be imported from abroad.
Dashiell, for one, has hope. “The challenges can be overcome,” he said. “And I believe they will be overcome.”