The Netherlands with a population of 17m is Europe’s top agri-food exporter while agri-food trade from the European Union (EU-28) to the rest of the world has been ahead of the United States in recent years. Ireland had a 10th ranking in the agri-food export league in the EU in 2016 and the United Kingdom was in 7th place, boosted by the whisky sector.


The Dutch have 37.5% of Ireland's utilised agricultural area (UAA) but according to the September 2017 issue of the National Geographic magazine, the Netherlands has become "an agricultural giant by showing what the future of farming could look like."

In 2016, Dutch agri-food exports totalled almost €94bn, compared to €90bn in 2015. Agricultural products accounted for €85bn and agricultural materials, knowledge and technology accounted for €9bn: a new record. "This means the agri-food sector now comprises 22% of total (goods) exports," according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

The Ministry added:

“The exports were mainly foodstuffs, such as vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat and processed products, in addition to high-quality floriculture (flowers and seeds). A noticeable factor is the increasing demand for Dutch agricultural materials, innovations and high-quality technology. Exports in this area totalled nearly €9bn. Examples of such exports include energy-efficient greenhouses, precision agriculture systems (via GPS and drones) and new discoveries that make crops more resistant to the effects of climate change and diseases. In 2016, the import of agricultural products rose by 1.6% to €57.1bn.”

The Port of Rotterdam is Europe's biggest and a category of imports made by Dutch-registered companies that typically involve some processing in the Netherlands, are termed re-exports, and the value in 2016 for agri-foods was €24bn − this contrasts with goods-in-transit from Rotterdam to other European countries, which are not included in Dutch official data.

Eurostat's definition of agri-food includes both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

According to Statistics Netherlands: "65% of the Dutch trade surplus consists of agricultural and agriculture-related products. For every euro exported by agribusiness, 64 cents is earned in the Netherlands, and such agribusiness exports contribute 4.4% to Dutch GDP. The agriculture and food production is very important for the Dutch economy and is expected to become even more so in the next 15 years."

Germany's agri-food exports were valued at €73bn in 2016 followed by France at €60bn; Spain at €43bn; Italy and Belgium at €38bn; UK at €25bn; Poland at €23bn; Denmark at €15bn; Ireland at €12bn (10% of custom-tracked goods exports); Austria at €11bn; Hungary at €8bn; Czech Republic at €7bn; Romania at €6bn; Greece, Portugal, and Sweden at €5bn. 

For agri-food trade balance comparability purposes we exclude the related Dutch high-tech and systems.

In 2016 the Netherlands had the biggest trade surplus at €28bn and the UK had the biggest trade deficit at €28bn.

Germany had a deficit of €12bn; France a surplus of €11bn; Italy had a surplus of €300m; Spain's surplus was €15bn; Denmark and Belgium had a surplus of €5bn and Ireland's surplus was at €4bn.

The Dutch are among the world's top 10 producers of potatoes with an annual output of 7.2m tonnes (1,000kg) compared with Ireland's 400,000 tonnes. 

The National Geographic says in its September 2017 issue:

"The global average yield of potatoes per acre is about nine tons (2,240 pounds or 1,016.047kg). Van den Borne’s fields reliably produce more than 20.
That copious output is made all the more remarkable by the other side of the balance sheet: inputs. Almost two decades ago, the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry 'Twice as much food using half as many resources.' Since 2000, van den Borne and many of his fellow farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90%. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60%."

The Dutch foreign investment agency adds

"The tomato industry is a microcosm of the country’s overarching agri-food infrastructure, a field where the Netherlands is a global leader. The key to Dutch success in this arena is a long horticultural tradition, and decades of developing high-level knowledge and techniques. Twelve of the world’s biggest agri-food companies host strategic R&D or production facilities in the Netherlands, which is also home to Wageningen University and Research (WUR), the top agricultural university in the world."

The European Commission reported this year that the annual value of EU agri-food exports to the rest of the world in 2016 reached a new record level of €130.7bn, up 1.3% on 2015 and €29.4bn higher than in 2011 (+29%). The trade surplus in 2016 rose to €18.8bn.

The US Department of Agriculture says agri-trade has been in surplus since 1959 and at $136bn (€128bn) in 2016 exports were slightly below the EU level. 

Dutch agri-food exports 2016

The world's top agri-food exporters in 2014 according to the World Trade Organisation, were the US, Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, France, China, Canada, Spain, Belgium and Italy.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Australia's agri-food exports were valued at A$50bn in 2016/2017 (to end June). At this month's exchange rate, that rate converts to a value of €33bn. New Zealand which has the same population as Ireland's at 4.7m has a more extensive land area and in 2016 had agri-food exports of NZ$29bn or €18bn.

Brazil had agri-food exports with a value of about €56bn in 2015 and according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), by 2025 Brazil will account for the biggest food surplus in the world and South America will lead the world in a regional food surplus. The total crop area is expected to rise by 24% with soybeans driving most of this expansion.

The OECD/FAO say: "In 2025, at least 70% of total exports will originate from only five countries for each commodity. The highest concentration of exports in 2025 is projected to remain in soybean trade, where the top five exporters account for almost 95% of total exports In 2025, just one country is projected to account for more than 40% of world exports of roots and tubers (Thailand), WMP (Whole milk powder; New Zealand), butter (New Zealand), other oilseeds (Canada), sheep meat (Australia), and sugar and soybeans (Brazil).

In Sub-Saharan Africa from 1990 to 2013, the total value of agricultural production, measured in constant US dollars, increased by 130% according to the OECD/FAO.

Statistics Netherlands (CBS) on the Dutch agri-food sector in 2016

Beware of over-baked food claims

Wageningen University & Research, a collaboration between Wageningen University and the Wageningen Research foundation, in 2013 published the results of research based on an extreme crisis scenario where the Dutch population of 17m would have to become self-sufficient in food.

Yes, it would be possible to feed 17m people but "The most striking differences compared with the current situation are the limited consumption of grain products (including bread), the complete absence of pork and the relative prominence of potatoes, chicken, and eggs in the diet... Moreover, citizens would be inclined to supplement their menu with food produced by themselves"

Claims, without any credible original source, are often made on how many millions of people a country's food output could feed.


In September 2016 the Danish Agriculture and Food Council produced a brochure which says: “Denmark has a population of 5.7m inhabitants. However, the food production is high enough to feed 15m people.”

Denmark’s official website accessed on 28 Sept 2017 says: “Today we produce enough food products for 30m people, even though Denmark’s population is only just over 5m.”

New Zealand

New Zealand produces enough food to feed 100 million people


Simon Coveney, Irish Minister of Agriculture 2012: "We are in the fortunate position of being able to produce enough food to feed 35m people and this will rise to over 50m in 2020." 

Jim Power, chairperson of Love Irish Food: “It's going to become more and more difficult to feed the world. We need to exploit our natural resources. We produce enough food for about 35m people but by 2020 it will be 50m if not more.”

A Martha Kearns in 2014 wrote in a publication called Natural Capital: "Ireland has already shown itself to be a world leader in the agri-food business and, as a nation of four million people, is worldwide feeding up to 400m every year." 

In 2015 a KPMG-Farmers Journal report states: "Ireland has come from a situation where it was unable to feed itself in the 19th century to providing food to feed 50m people globally today."

Here we have the 50m people that could be fed, put in 2015 rather than 2020.

Enterprise Ireland said in a report in 2011: "Ireland currently produces enough food to feed 36m people. By 2020, Ireland wants to be in a position to provide enough food to feed 50m."

The state agency said 36m while Coveney said 35m but at least it cited a source.

A June 2011 report by Seán MacConnell in The Irish Times was cited by Enterprise Ireland but the late agriculture correspondent, had not cited a source in his report. Three days after MacConnell's piece, The Guardian reported the feed statistic and referenced an update of the Food Harvest 2020 report but that wasn't correct as the statistic had been lifted from The Irish Times — we present this rigmarole here as 1) Finfacts goes to the trouble of trying to verify received wisdom 2) We are an exception as repetition often gives dubious claims the veneer of facts.


In December 2014 The Economist wrote: "In the next 40 years, humans will need to produce more food than they did in the previous 10,000 put together."

In 2016 the US Secretary of Agriculture said: "the United Nations estimates that worldwide demand for food will increase 60% by 2050. Some experts estimate it will take as much innovation in agriculture in the next 40 years as in the preceding 10,000 years to meet the growing demand for food."

Then in May 2017 Microsoft said in an article:  "According to the United States Secretary of Agriculture, it will take as much innovation in agriculture in the next 40 years as in the preceding 10,000 years to be able to feed our growing population."

Doug Boucher, a scientific expert on climate change and preservation of forests wrote in 2015 that  "This statement has been repeated hundreds and perhaps thousands of times in the past decade, often as the introduction to articles, speeches and web postings explaining why it’s necessary to raise agricultural production, whether by using GMOs, clearing forests, or totally revolutionizing the global food system."

Boucher writes "this is an economic projection, not an estimate of need" and he sourced it to FAO experts Nikos Alexandratos and Jelle Bruinsma, who in several publications made clear that their projection was based on dollar value of food: “The figures we use refer to the aggregate volume of demand and production of the crop and livestock sectors. They are obtained by multiplying physical quantities of demand or production times price for each commodity and summing up over all commodities.

Doug Boucher says on the projection: "It weights foods not by how many calories or how much protein they contain, but by their prices."

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), who is called the Father of the Green Revolution, said in 2000 on the 30th anniversary of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: "I now say that the world has the technology – either available or well advanced in the research pipeline – to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10bn people...It took some 10,000 years to expand food production to the current level of about 5bn tons per year."

We have located a 1996 publication, 'Global review of the field testing and commercialization of transgenic plants 1986 to 1995: the first decade of crop biotechnology' written by Clive James and Anatole F. Krattiger , where there is a reference to food production and 10,000 years: "in the next 50 years the global population will consume twice as much food as has ever been consumed before since humans started to practice agriculture 10,000 years ago."

There is no source reference for the claim in the briefing paper and 21 years later a similar claim is being made without a credible source, even though more recent recycling of it does not suggest that the consumption in 50 or 40 coming years would be double that of the previous 10,000 years. 

Note the difference between both The Economist's comment and the 1996 publication on consumption, with the other comments on production.

Food, agriculture 10,0000 years

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