One way the Dutch view their colonial history is through the lenses of the priest and the merchant, both of which saw global connectivity, for better or worse, as vital to their missions.
The Consulate General of the Netherlands arranged a modern-day pairing of those two archetypes during a discussion last Wednesday on how greenhouse technology can help feed the world.
Despite its small size, the Netherlands defies odds as the world’s top agricultural exporter, even though its land mass is about 300 times smaller than that of the United States. Greenhouses and vertical farming are key components of this story.
Former Atlanta Mayor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, who served as a reverend before he became a public servant and civil right icon, joined Eric Egberts, CEO of Dutch Greenhouse Delta for a fireside chat welcoming a group of companies in the sector on a fact-finding mission to North Carolina and Georgia.
In opening remarks, Mr. Young said achieving equitable global food production and distribution was a spiritual and moral imperative with potentially eternal ramifications.
“There’s something for me very religious about this gathering, whether you want to see it or not. God does not give a damn what you think,” the ambassador said to laughter before continuing: “While we are yet sinners, he has gathered us and somehow made it possible for us to sustain this planet with peace on earth and goodwill toward men, women and children. And part of that is to feed the hungry and heal the sick. Now, that’s why I’m here. You’re here for other reasons that are just as legitimate.”
A profit motive, he said, is a suitable way to animate the world toward good, adding that, in his experience, the Dutch blend business and social responsibility in a way that is “not pompous and holy and righteous” but instead can be quietly productive.
Mr. Young said he learned early on in life and politics that going with the flow of Dutch ingenuity can be an economic boon. His father, a dentist who traveled up the Mississippi River to provide free dental care during the Great Depression, often praised Dutch innovations helping the New Orleans stay dry even though, like Amsterdam, it sits below sea level.
In 1953, Mr. Young followed the woman who would become first wife to the Netherlands on a Christian mission. During a trip to Geneva, Switzterland, the young pastor ended up serving communion to Dutch Princess Beatrix, who remembered the gesture during a later visit to the U.S. after becoming queen.
“I’ve been running into all these connections, and for me, that has a spiritual meaning,” Mr. Young said.
With a historical flair common in his speeches, Mr. Young noted that his granddaughter is named Abigail after Abigail Adams, the wife of the founding father who served as the second American president, John Adams, and the mother of the fourth president, John Quincy Adams. Without her, he said, America may not have closed its first loan as a nation during a diplomatic mission to Holland soon after winning independence from the British crown.
In more recent history, Mr. Young recalled as mayor of Atlanta seeing Dutch investment at work during the 1980s, when money from Dutch pension funds flowed in to finance developments like 191 Peachtree Street, an iconic tower that helped usher Atlanta into its modern era as a global city. Herman Vonhof, an adviser to the Andrew Young Foundation the ambassador pointed out in the crowd, played a key role in making that happen.
“If that’s your association with the Dutch,” Mr. Young said, “Yyou don’t question it; go with the flow.”
Eric Egberts, CEO of Dutch Greenhouse Delta, made his own historical references, pointing back to founding Dutch monarch Willem I, who helped unite the young nation across religions and social classes. The same ethos is needed today to solve the persistent problem of inequality, and food can play a role, Mr. Egberts said.
“Sometimes people have too much; sometimes people have too little,” he said. “Of course, sometimes we stand up as businessmen to try to make money, but we also talk a lot about, ‘How can we feed the world? How can we contribute to a better life?’” he said.
Four Dutch companies on the trip showcased their innovations via a video shown to the assembled audience, their offerings representing both the technological side of the greenhouse industry and the financial structures that underpin it.
Logiqs B.V. offers AI-driven vertical conveyance systems, greenhouse automation tools and software that enables landowners to design their own vertical farm, while Ridder offers ventilation, climate screens, climate control, water treatment systems and other solutions for greenhouses and other horticultural operations. The latter has an office in North Carolina from which it sells into the Southeast U.S.
Hoogendoorn Growth Management offers sensors to track water, energy and climate management, as well as its newly introduced IIVO computer that can process all this data intelligently enough to run a greenhouse system on an automated basis. Farmers can also use remote management tools through a connected software interface.
Through insurance policies tailored to greenhousing, Hagelunie provides the Dutch horticultural sector a vital backstop against risks like burst water pipes, lighting malfunctions and energy blackouts.
“You might think of insurance as being boring or unnecessary, but it’s an essential part of the ecosystem in horticulture,” said Angelique De Wit, one of the visiting delegates, in her company’s video message. “We are much as part of that chain as any other company.”
Similarly, Dutch-owned Rabobank provides crop research through a network of 80 research analysts around the world, and has offered financing exclusively to food and agricultural firms since its founding by farmers 125 years ago. Rabobank sponsored the event with Mr. Young, with Vice Chair Tamira Treffers-Herrera remarking on the event’s timeliness as food supplies that often go to the world’s poorest people are strained by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“I’m not sure that people actually really thought very deeply about how we feed the world,” Ms. Treffers-Herrera said before introducing to the audience Rabobank team members from Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia.
The answer to mitigate such risks, said Mr. Egberts of Dutch Greenhouse Delta, is innovation. While the Dutch have greenhouse technologies that enable cultivation of produce in just about any climate or soil, he called on attendees to think more outside their glass boxes.
“We have the knowledge about energy. We have the knowledge about robotics, climate control, I can go on for hours. That is what we call technical innovation. But more important is non-technical innovation,” he said.
He added that companies should be constantly evolving their business models to evaluate how they can do more to bridge gaps in wealth and opportunity. Mr. Egberts made note of Atlanta’s evident homelessness problem, saying it was a common challenge across major American and European cities.
Mr. Young agreed: “As rich and wonderful as this country is, there are pockets of poverty that are also on very beautiful turf.”
But the ambassador apparently didn’t want the crowd to lose hope in meeting the challenges of a growing global population. Having just celebrated his own 90 years on Earth, Mr. Young invited them to join him in doing good as he prepares to meet his maker.
“When I read my Bible, it says if you want to get into heaven, you got to feed the hungry,” he said. “We realize that feeding 9 to 10 billion people on a hot, scorched earth is going to require more water. It’s going to require more technology. It’s going to require more experimentation and money. Everything we need to save this planet practically, in terms of food and medicine, is represented by your education, your faith, your companies, your technology, your research. And I hope you look back on this day as an important day in your life. Because I think this is a day where we can make a difference on the Planet Earth, just the people in this room.”