It’s been well-documented that Covid-19 has rewired the consumer’s demand for more organic and locally produced food, something that has played to the favor of Vermont and its thousand or so farmers who sell vegetables, berries, seeds, etc. Demand is through the roof, which is strengthening an economic sector of our farming economy that only recently was seen as saturated.

The immediate question is what happens when the pandemic is over and people resume their normal routines.

But the focus on healthy food is also an opportunity at a variety of different and important levels. Getting people to eat healthy foods has its advantages in terms of their physical health, which is the major factor in today’s health care costs. It also raises the issue of how our government should approach subsidizing local food production versus what we have today. Is there really a need to subsidize the production of corn, with all its harmful effects on health, and spend next to nothing to get Vermont’s fresh vegetables to consumers?

The most intriguing question is being raised by Sir David Attenborough in his new documentary “A life on our planet.” The film chronicles the effects of climate change and Mr. Attenborough makes the obvious case that to survive as a species we need to change our behaviors and, as nations, work cooperatively.

His “big thing?”

Food. [Think Vermont.]

He says the fuel and the space used is out of kilter. “The planet can’t support billions of meat eaters. If we all ate only plants, we’d need only half the land we use at the moment.”

He makes the case that the example we need to follow is before us: the Netherlands. It’s a country that treats agriculture as a vertical as well as a horizontal business; and better than anyone else, including us.

What’s stunning — and thought provoking — is that the Netherlands is the world’s second largest exporter of food on a dollar value basis, second only to the United States. And, in size, it’s a shade less than the combined acreage of Vermont and New Hampshire. The United States is about 250 times the size of the Netherlands.

The brains behind the country’s farming miracle is Wageningen University & Research [WUR], which is regarded as the world’s top agricultural research institution. They follow a process that is entirely science driven and oriented toward future markets. It’s done the unimaginable, which is taking a country with a fraction of the land other nations have and producing many-fold what other nations produce. For example, the Netherlands is the number one producer of tomatoes on a per square mile basis, almost five times the amount produced in the United States, which is third. A greenhouse in the Netherlands would be home to tomato vines 20 feet tall, rooted not in soil but in fibers made from basalt and chalk, which eliminates runoff, saving water and other resources.

The country has made this sort of progress with all food staples, seeds included. The incentive is primarily one of sustainability for the planet. The country is looking ahead to see the impending challenges of over-population as well as the climate change issues of drought and flooding. Much of its focus is on helping the world’s poorer nations. WUR is also attracting the brightest talent from all over the world to its cause.

As we remake our way through this world, and as Vermont searches for new and better ways to go forward, and to remain a national leader in health, surely the Netherlands offers us some encouragement. With the University of Vermont’s interest in research and the environment, and our agricultural heritage, isn’t there something the Netherlands offers that we can replicate here?

by Emerson Lynn

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