On this dark grey Dutch afternoon, the squat greenhouses are gleaming jewels against the winter sky. Insta-worthy though the countryside scene may be, the freezing temperatures ensure no one’s about — except for us, it seems. A phone call and a few minutes later we're ushered inside, and suddenly, the giant glasshouses are alive with activity.

Students, visitors, businessmen — people from all over the world gather here to discuss one of the most pressing problems of our time: how to feed the world as its population balloons to ten billion people in the space of a couple of generations.

There are projects of all kinds around us here at Wageningen University and Research Centre, the world’s top-ranked agriculture research institute, and their impact is being felt as far afield as the UAE and China.

In a room awash in purple, a slim Asian student records how the coloured light changes the rate at which tomato plants grow. Down another corridor, a pair of tall Europeans appear deep in discussion in front of a crop of papaya trees. Across campus, others are investigating if plants can truly reproduce the juicy, fibrous texture of meat, or how the environmental flow of water, energy and food impact urban planning agendas, whether food waste can be a buffer for renewable energy, or if hydroponics can help Syrian refugees find employment in Jordan.

This is the beating heart of Food Valley, a geographical concentration of research institutes, government agencies and private companies active in food sciences and development, and from where the Netherlands hopes to lead an inevitable food revolution.

“Most global problems start with a shortage of food,” says Aalt Dijkhuizen, President of the Dutch Agri and Food Topsector, one of nine key areas the country is investing in. “Over the next 40 or 50 years, the planet will need to produce as much as we did in the past 4,000 years. We believe there won’t be one major breakthrough, but the change will be in everlasting incremental improvements, from better breeds and seeds to digital applications and integrated approaches.”

Triple helix

Each hectare of Dutch agricultural land provides added value worth five times the European  average, Dijkhuizen says — something possible largely because of the triple-helix collaboration  between science, government and commerce. Despite its small size, the Netherlands is the world’s second largest exporter of food after the US, with revenues of €101 billion (about Dh463 billion) last year.

“Our success lies in being early to market with new innovations, and because of our high land and labour costs, we’re forced to be better than others,” he says.

Some of those novelties will be on show in the UAE this week. Sixty-seven Dutch exhibitors will display food industry solutions at Gulfood, the world’s biggest annual food trade show starting today at Dubai World Trade Centre.

One company, Scelta Mushrooms, a grower and producer of dried and packaged mushrooms, has developed an alternative to salt that is already being used in bread and chips, where as much as 50 per cent of the salt is already being extracted, CEO Jan Klerken said in a recent statement.

Karak chai in Wageningen Qubez instant Karak chai being served at Friesland Campina's Food Valley headquarters in Wageningen

Another exhibitor, Friesland Campina, debuted an instant karak chai solution in UAE  supermarkets a few months ago. The product, Qubez, is a tablet developed especially for the

Gulf market, says Erik ten Grotenhuis, Development Manager, Dairy Based Beverages CP EMEA, Friesland Campina Innovation. “Many of our customers wanted to recreate the karak chai experience at home and in offices — and they can now do so, with the addition of just a little hot water,” he told GN Focus last month at the company’s Wageningen headquarters in Food Valley.

The company’s Rainbow Milk has become so deeply entwined in the cultural history of the UAE that a can sits on display at Dubai Museum.

Policy collaboration

While trade shows are where a product is first introduced to consumers, the cycle of innovation often begins at the policy level. The Netherlands has collaborated with the UAE and other countries across the region for a few years now, on food projects ranging from improving crop yields to using desert algae to reduce carbon dioxide in Qatar.

“The Gulf with its largely desert areas is not pre-eminently an agricultural region,” says Samar Kadri, Senior Policy Advisor — Agriculture and Food at the Netherlands Consulate General in Dubai. “To develop a sustainable sector under difficult conditions in terms of climate, soil and water shortage is challenging. There are certainly opportunities for smart, innovative ideas from the Netherlands.”

As regional governments seek to ensure food security for their people, innovation assumes prime importance. Two Wageningen scientists, Dr Jouke Campen and Dr Sjaak Bakker, recently completed pilot projects in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to demonstrate how greenhouse horticulture could be made more sustainable. They demonstrated three solutions, Dr Bakker told GN Focus: a low-tech plastic greenhouse with soil cultivation; a mid-range glass greenhouse with pad-fan cooling; and a high-tech closed greenhouse whose climate can be fully controlled via air conditioning, air treatment and water recirculation.

The results from the Abu Dhabi project, which involved working with local contractors and training staff, were very encouraging, he says. “We demonstrated that a crop of cucumbers uses about 2.5 litres of water per kilo in a high-tech greenhouse, compared to 300-400 litres of water per kilo of product in a plastic greenhouse. That’s over 100 times less, with a product far superior to locally grown produce already available in the country’s supermarkets.”

Riyadh greenhouse horticulture The Wageningen pilot project in Riyadh examined how greenhouse horticulture could be made more sustainable