The Netherlands is the second biggest exporter of food in the world behind the United States. The small northwestern European nation does have a highly dynamic food and agriculture sector, but the real reason for its success is a strategic location surrounded by some of the world’s most economically successful countries, with major ports and well-developed road, rail and water transport systems to move goods inland. A long history of trading prowess adds to its advantages.

The Dutch farm ministry, as of Jan. 21, 2021, put total agricultural exports at €95.6 billion ($116.2 billion), a rise of 1% on 2019, mainly because of increased re-exports of agricultural products of foreign origin.

Minister Carola Schouten noted that Dutch farmers “have not had the easiest year” because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the effect of the UK’s exit from the EU.

The biggest export customer is Germany, which takes 26% of the Netherlands agricultural exports. Neighboring Germany, Belgium, the UK and France together account for 54% of the total. The ministry explained that without a rise in exports to Germany and China in 2020 there would have been an overall fall. By sector, the biggest exports are flowers (€9.5 billion/$11.4 billion), meat (€8.7 billion/$10.5 billion), dairy and eggs (€8.3 billion/$10 billion), vegetables (€7.1 billion/$8.6 billion) and fruit (€7 billion/$8.4 billion).

The ministry explained that the €95.6 billion total is made up of €65.3 billion/$78.7 billion in products produced in the Netherlands and €27.3 billion/$32.3 billion in re-exported products that have gone through little or no processing in the country.

The European grains sector organization COCERAL forecasts Dutch grains production in 2021 at 1.547 million tonnes, up from 1.429 million in 2020.

COCERAL puts wheat production in the Netherlands at 1.093 million tonnes in 2021, compared with 990,000 in 2020. Barley production is put at 280,000 tonnes, down from 293,000, while maize is put at 154,000 tonnes, up from 130,000 in 2020. The small rye crop is forecast to rise to 6,000 tonnes from 5,000, while output of oats is expected to go up to 6,000 tonnes from 5,000 in 2020. Production of triticale is expected to rise to 8,000 tonnes from 7,000.

COCERAL forecasts the 2021 Dutch rapeseed harvest at 7,000 tonnes, up from 5,000 the previous year.

The Netherlands Enterprise Agency (Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland, RVO) puts total Netherlands imports of grain from the start of the marketing year on July 1, 2020, until April 11, 2021, at 16,034,418 tonnes, down from 20,298,984 tonnes in the same period a year earlier. The figure includes 1,673,780 tonnes of common wheat, down from 1,682,030 tonnes the year before, with flour imports at 25,926 tonnes, in grain equivalent, up from 22,116 in 2019-20. Imports of durum, in contrast, rose to 2,124,862 tonnes in the 2020-21 period, from 1,565,659 tonnes the year before. Imports of barley were 225,369 tonnes, down from 567,887 the previous year. Imports of malt, in barley equivalent, were 11,333 tonnes, down from 11,518. The most important grain in terms of imports was maize at 11,973,148 tonnes, down from 16,449,774 compared to July 1, 2019, to April 11, 2020.

RVO puts total Netherlands grain exports during the same period at 31,920,818 tonnes, down from 41,327,316 tonnes in July 1, 2019, to April 11, 2020. Exports of wheat so far in 2020-21 were 20,807,632 tonnes, compared with 27,557,137 the year before, while flour exports, in wheat equivalent, were 349,200 in the period in 2020-21, compared to 826,027 the year before. Durum wheat exports were 332,784, down from 826,027. Exports of barley so far in 2020-21 were 6,098,853 tonnes, up from 6,088,968. Those of malt, in barley equivalent, rose to 2,364,487 tonnes from 2,200,046. Maize exports were 1,967,862 tonnes, down from 4,197,266.

Flour milling

According to the European Flour Millers Association there are four mills in the Netherlands: Dossche Mills, Koopmans, Ambachtsmolen and De Jong, producing 1.05 million tonnes of flour a year. The average capacity usage is 70%. Less than 50% of the country’s wheat crop is suitable for milling. Average per capita flour consumption is 62.5 kilograms, while bread consumption is 57 kilograms per person.

According to an analysis published by the Royal Dutch Grain and Feed Trade Association (Het Comité), the Netherlands imports 83% of the wheat it uses, along with 95% of the maize, 90% of the barley, 99% of the rapeseed and over 99% of the soybeans, as well as 100% of the sunflower seed.

“The Netherlands is the gateway for ingredients for food and feed in Europe,” the association said. “Not only our strategic location, well-organized infrastructure and logistics contribute to this success, also the people working in the agri-food trade.

“Northwestern European ports play a major role in international agri-bulk trade. Being the largest port in Europe with a No. 10 ranking worldwide, the Port of Rotterdam handled 30% of agri-bulk traded in Northwestern Europe in 2018. Amsterdam as runner-up covered 25%, which means that the Netherlands (including Vlissingen and Terneuzen) covers more than half of the total Northwestern European volume. Dutch ports provide unique hinterland connections that cover all transport modes.”

Annually, the Netherlands imports grains, seeds and pulses for some €7 billion ($8.4 billion), the association said.

“This mainly concerns raw materials that are processed into food and feed for both the local and export market,” Het Comité said. “The annual export value of grains, seeds and pulses is approximately €4 billion ($4.8 billion).”

Biotech and biofuels

In a Feb. 7, 2020, report, the USDA attaché described the approach of the Dutch government and agricultural sector to the import of genetically modified products as “pragmatic,” explaining that “the Netherlands is one of the largest importers of soybeans and soybean derivatives, which serve as an important input for the Dutch European livestock sector.”

Most of the country’s soybean imports come from the United States.

“However, domestic crop trials and commercial cultivation of GE crops are effectively prevented by cumbersome regulations and the threat of protests from environmental groups,” the report said. “Experimental planting of GE crops is almost impossible in the Netherlands. Crop trials are effectively prevented by cumbersome regulations imposed by the government and by the threat of protests from environmental groups.”

The Netherlands has been among those EU member states pushing for a review of GMO legislation, particularly as, according to the attaché, “the Dutch plant breeding and propagation sector is supportive of the use of innovative biotechnologies.”

Dutch fuel ethanol consumption was forecast in an attaché report at 380 million liters in 2020, a level unchanged from the previous year.

A separate report explained that in 2018, the Dutch government decided to increase the mandate for biofuel blending in transport fuels in order to achieve the overall 14% renewable energy consumption target in 2020. The 2020 mandate is 16.4% by energy content, of which 1% must be from advanced biofuels.

“In order to qualify, the advanced biofuels must be produced from waste, excluding used cooking oil and animal fats,” the report said. “The physical volume of biofuels blended is lower than the mandate, as a large percentage of the volume blended is double counting biodiesel.

“Since Oct. 1, 2019, Dutch distributors are obliged to offer E10 at their gas/petrol stations. At least half of the offered blends must be E10.”