the Netherlands
Small country is a food export giant.
The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries on earth and yet it still manages to be one of the world’s biggest exporters of food products. With ports that serve the other countries of northern and western Europe, the country is hugely important in trading terms, serving as a trading hub for grains from all over the world. Agricultural policy is determined by the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. The Netherlands is seen as taking a pragmatic approach to regulation and has focused on the economic importance of the farming sector and food production to its economy.

The European grain trade organization Coceral puts total Netherlands grains production at 1.543 million tonnes in 2016, down from 1.889 million in 2015. The wheat crop is put at 1.06 million tonnes, down from 1.359 million. Barley production in 2016 is put at 215,000 tonnes, down from 219,000 tonnes the year before. Maize production in 2016 was 250,000 tonnes, down from 280,000. Rye production is estimated unchanged at 10,000 tonnes. Oat production is put at 9,000 tonnes, down from 10,000. The Netherlands also, according to Coceral, produced 15,000 tonnes of rapeseed, up from 7,000 tonnes the year before.

The Netherlands is a steady net importer of maize. On average in the last three years it imported 5 million tonnes and produced 200,000 tonnes. Exports are limited to around 500,000 tonnes. Most of the imports are used for domestic consumption (4.7 million tonnes) split between feed (around 70%) and food (30%).

According to the European Flour Millers Association, four companies are responsible for 97% of flour production in the Netherlands: Ranks Meel owns two mills, while Meneba, Koopmans, and Krijger each own one mill. Less than 50% of the country’s crop of grains is suitable for milling. That means that it has to export between 1 million and 2 million tonnes of wheat for milling each year as well as approaching 3 million for other uses.

the Netherlands Port of Rotterdam
Port of Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe by throughput.
Photo by Freek Van Arkel.

Second largest exporter

The Port of Rotterdam celebrated its and the country’s importance to agri-food trade with an announcement last year on the latest figures.

“In 2014, the Netherlands again came second, behind the United States, on the world table of agricultural exporters,” it said. “It was followed by Germany, Brazil and France. This was revealed by recent figures from the UN-ComTrade database. Exports of agricultural products continued to grow in 2014 by more than 1% and reached a value of €108 billion.”

An attaché report on the food market for U.S. exporters also stressed the country’s trade.

“Dutch agriculture is highly intensive and export focused,” it said. “Total agricultural exports for 2015 are estimated at $78.3 billion, making the Netherlands the second largest exporter of food and agriculture. The temperate climate, fertile soils, and educated labor force make the Netherlands a highly productive agricultural producer. However, the large and sophisticated food processing industry accounts for a significant portion of exports. The Netherlands is a small country geographically, but with the Port of Rotterdam and the confluence of four major rivers, the E.U. traders and importers are here.”

Due to its large and sophisticated food processing industry, the Netherlands increasingly depends on stable supplies of bulk and intermediate products (e.g. grains, meat, seafood, nuts, fresh produce, specialty products, etc.) from other E.U. member states and third countries, the report said.

“Dutch agricultural policy is driven by the E.U.’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), although most of the heavily supported crop sectors are of minor importance for the Dutch, making the country a net payer to the CAP,” the report explained. “Given the heavy reliance on trade in both directions, it is not surprising that the Netherlands is generally in favor of free trade and the reduction of trade-distorting agricultural subsidies.”

The attaché report suggested that the Dutch were more protectionist in the dairy, swine and poultry sectors.

“A high population density and influential environmental lobbies contribute to a strong bias toward consumer and environmental protection in Dutch food policy development,” it explained. “The Dutch government strives for more business-focused agricultural policies, and wishes to treat it as any other sector in the Netherlands.”

The business-like approach to agriculture taken by the Dutch government is underlined by the 2010 decision to incorporate the Ministry of Agriculture into the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

“The policy priorities of the Directorate-General for Agro and Nature are animal welfare and sustainability of production,” the attaché wrote. “The green growth strategy focuses on highlighting innovative agriculture, the bio-based economy, renewable energy and further developing the ports.

“With the goal of making agricultural commodity trade more sustainable, the government funded the development of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Roundtable for Responsible Soy (RTRS). The Dutch government is actively advocating for adoption of these programs in the countries of origin and other E.U. markets. RTRS is mainly focused on the production methods used in South America, and is not applicable to the practices in the United States. The U.S. sector developed an alternative, the Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP).”

An earlier report looked at the soy plan in more detail.

“In a press release of Oct. 1, 2014, the Dutch Feed Industry Association (NEVEDI) stated that their goal of sourcing exclusively sustainable soy will probably be reached,” the report said. “NEVEDI approved a two-track sourcing policy. The first track will only supply livestock, poultry and dairy production destined for the domestic market and only RTRS-certified soy is eligible for this purpose.”

That market is estimated at 600,000 tonnes.

“The second track will supply the sector’s production share destined for export,” it said. “This market is estimated at 1,200,000 tonnes and must be certified by alternative sustainability programs, which are accepted by the NEVEDI, such as the Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP) and Proterra. The report said that the Netherlands is the world’s second largest importer of soybeans and derivatives.

Free trade favored

The USDA report saw the Netherlands as pro-free trade.

“With the Dutch economy heavily focused on international trade and as a hub for transportation and logistics, the Netherlands has expressed support for the prospective U.S.-E.U. Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP),” it said. “The Dutch support the E.U. in its mandate and don’t want to see the E.U. system changed. They would like the E.U. to be treated as one entity.”

There is a vocal minority of free-trade opponents holding an increasingly firm grip on the public debate over TTIP, the report said.

“As is the case in other E.U. member states (Germany, The U.K, Austria), civil society NGOs are inserting numerous non-economic arguments into the public debate and are so able to garner a growing sympathy/audience for their projection of TTIP as being a vehicle for vested interest that may not be aligned with the general public’s interests.”

The Dutch government issued a statement on the country’s food export performance in 2015 in January, referring at the time to provisional figures.

“In 2015, the Netherlands again exceeded the previous year’s exports of agricultural products,” it said. “Total exports in 2015 amounted to €82.4 billion. Compared to 2014, this is an increase of €700 million (almost 1%). Within the European Union, Germany continues to be the most important trading partner. This was announced by the Minister for Agriculture, Martijn van Dam, at the Grüne Woche international agricultural fair in Berlin. Agricultural exports represent 18.8% of total Dutch exports, which amounted to 438 billion euros in 2015.”