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Tiny but mighty

Watching the evolution of Dutch agriculture on TV

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Yasemin Bagci (otwiera się w nowym oknie) (Beeld en Geluid)

The Netherlands is one of the smallest countries of Europe. Despite this modest size, over the years, it has become the second largest agricultural exporter in the world (after the United States). The Netherlands generates around €25 billion a year by exporting meat, dairy produce and vegetables. When and how did this happen, and how was this major transformation reflected on TV?

Post-war rebirth

After World War II, the Dutch landscape underwent major changes. To stop the famines that occurred during the occupation by Nazi Germany, a new paradigm called ‘nooit meer honger’ meaning ‘no hunger again’ was applied to food production. This involved new policies focusing on efficiency, optimisation, food abundance and self-sufficiency. The tools and processes intended to achieve these goals included fast industrialisation, mechanisation, farmer specialisation and larger farms. These reforms proved very effective, with productivity soaring as a result. In 1962, Irish TV reported on the exceptional Dutch fruit and vegetable production.

The reforms were the vision of Sicco Mansholt, the Dutch Minister of Agriculture in the late 1940s and 1950s. Dutch agriculture became associated with large scale industrialised and specialised farms that increased productivity whilst decreasing the need for continuous heavy farming.

Mansholt’s efforts were regularly shown in newsreels showing the state’s support in pushing agriculture forward. In this excerpt from 1952, we see the minister opening a new space in the complex of The Company Laboratory for Soil and Crops Research "Mariëndaal" in Oosterbeek.

Anything left for nature?

Today, two-thirds of the total land area of the Netherlands is used for agricultural purposes. Grassland extends over half of this agricultural land, while arable farming represents a quarter. Given the small size and high density of the Netherlands, such an agricultural system has had a major impact on nature in and around these farmlands.

Over recent years, unforeseen environmental issues have come to the surface, revealing that the productivity paradigm needs to be replaced with one that sustains and protects nature.

A major consequence of industrialised agricultural practice is the loss of biodiversity. For example, bird species inhabiting farm areas have apparently declined by more than 70% since 1960. Intensive farming has caused their bird habitats to deteriorate, affecting nutrition, nesting and chick survival.

To remedy this situation, the Dutch government has proposed various measures over recent decades. For example, this TV programme shows a farmer who decided to sell his land to the state for conversion into a nature reserve. But are such measures sufficient to restore biodiversity?

Global example

Since 2019, the negative impact of nitrogen deposits on the biodiversity of nature reserves has been a key concern of environmentalists and soil scientists. And since the Dutch agricultural sector is responsible for the largest release of nitrogen in the environment, a new vision has been formulated to counterbalance and decrease this trend.

Carola Schouten, the Dutch Minister of Agriculture since 2017, has set out to advocate for the wide adoption of circular agriculture in the Netherlands, also called ‘Kringlooplandbouw’. It is intended that, by 2030, the Netherlands will be a leader in circular agriculture. This means that both the cycles of resources (nutrients, water, etc.), as well as the agricultural production methods, will be optimised to be as efficient as possible.

To learn more about circular agriculture, watch this webinar by Dr. Saskia Visser, Head of Program in Circular and Climate Neutral Society at Wageningen University and Research.


This blog is part of the editorials of Europeana SUBTITLED, a new Europeana Generic services project including seven major national broadcasters and audiovisual archives from seven European countries. Under the theme of 'Broadcasting Europe’ our editorials will showcase how society has been reflected on the television screen in the past eight decades during times of conflict, restrictive regimes, political change, and peace. To this end, we’ll use a diverse range of material from the Europeana collections, with a focus on lesser-known and newly aggregated AV content. For more information about Europeana SUBTITLED, visit this page.