THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Souvenir shops sell wooden shoes, bright red tulips grow all over the Dutch countryside and windmills actually do line the highways of this crowded Maryland-size nation of 17 million. But these days, the Netherlands is far more likely to grab headlines for its scientific advances in industries ranging from agriculture and biotech to renewable energy and health care.
Earlier this year — as King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima prepared for their first official visit to the United States — the Royal Dutch Embassy in Washington invited six American journalists to Holland to see these advances firsthand.
The May trip included field trips to a dozen factories, research labs and corporate offices, as well as a half-hour audience with the 48-year-old monarch himself at Noordeinde Palace (whose official protocol forbids photographing, videotaping or directly quoting the royals).
Despite its relatively small size, the Netherlands ranks as the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural products, eclipsed only by the United States. In 2012, the Netherlands surpassed Mexico to become the planet’s top tomato exporter, selling the world 1 billion kilos of tomatoes worth $1.8 billion.
Where better to appreciate this colorful bounty than Tomatoworld, a quirky little educational center in out-of-the-way Honselersdijk that attracts thousands of visitors from schoolchildren to foreign backpackers every year.
“Why Tomatoworld?” mused tour guide Annemiek Mirrewijk. “We are very proud of our sector and we want to tell our story. Here you have the whole process from seed to end plant, and what you must do to have a good-tasting tomato. We’re very innovative and we grow tomatoes in a bio-friendly way — no pesticides any more.”
Mirrewijk’s brother is Jos van Mil, managing partner of Greenco, which along with other corporate partners helped establish Tomatoworld in 2008. The company produces some 30 million tomatoes a week on only 25 hectares of land.
Honselersdijk is located in the Dutch province of South Holland, which boasts 40 square kilometers of glass-enclosed greenhouses. It’s also home to the world’s leading flower auction. What’s especially interesting is that while the amount of Dutch countryside cultivated with crops has decreased by 20 percent, productivity has jumped five-fold since the 1950s. Today, greenhouses are also using 60 percent less water. That type of efficiency embodies the Dutch philosophy of doing more with less to revolutionize how food is produced.
“Innovation is one of our main points. You must surprise customers all the time,” said the 51-year-old van Mil, a fourth-generation tomato grower. His best innovation so far has been Sweet Tommies, which are cherry tomatoes sold in clear plastic 25-gram bags for €1.50 each and marketed to children like candy to get them to eat their veggies.
Even the royal couple’s three daughters — ages 11, 9 and 8 — eat Sweet Tommies, King Willem-Alexander told us during our meeting.
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In the Dutch town of Venlo, Gus van der Feltz, global director of city farming at Philips Horticulture LED Solutions, explained how artificial lighting might some day dramatically boost the cultivation of food crops and even avert mass starvation. In fact, the Dutch say agricultural innovations could feed a rapidly expanding world using only a fraction of the space, water and energy needed for traditional methods of farming.
“At least 70 percent more food will be needed by 2050,” he said. “We must find better ways to grow crops and address urbanization issues as the amount of available land is reduced. You can address these things through vertical farming and get amazing yields from the area you have available.”
Feltz then guided his group of journalists through BrightBox, a futuristic, warehouse-like center that only has 800 square meters of floor space but seven levels where rows upon rows of delicious, crunchy lettuce grow under glowing red and blue light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.
“Sunlight is free and plants have been living off sunlight forever,” Feltz said. “We’re trying to make LEDs the most efficient reproduction of sunlight at the best price we can.”
Among the benefits of LEDs: improved plant quality and uniformity; higher yields; less waste during the distribution cycle; and shorter production cycles.
“Our customized modules allow crops to be grown without daylight, so they can be stacked in trays on top of each other,” Feltz explained. “There’s no need to use pesticides. This technology lends itself well to addressing food requirements anywhere in the world.”
For now, Philips Horticulture has grown only lettuce and strawberries, which will obviously not feed the 9.5 billion people expected to inhabit the earth by 2050.
“This is great for plants that don’t need massive amounts of light,” Feltz said. “We have a road map of crops we want to do later on. Real foods like rice or potatoes will be more difficult to grow, or never at all. But now, we’d be very happy if we could do fresh vegetables with higher nutritional content than just lettuce and strawberries.”
About a one-hour drive northwest of Venlo, PlantLab has converted a former coffee warehouse into a high-tech complex of 16 growing chambers equipped with red and blue LEDs shining above trays of plants.
“This building was used for storage. Rock bands played in this warehouse. It was a mess,” said Ard Reijtenbagh, PlantLab’s chief partnership officer. “So far, we haven’t come across a crop we cannot grow indoors. The question is, what is economically viable at this stage? That varies by country and by crop.”
Ticking off a list of common misconceptions, Reijtenbagh — whose company has only 40 employees — said it’s possible to produce, in one square meter, 200 grams of fresh vegetables and fruit per person per day.
“Growing horizontally takes a lot of land, water and pesticides. But if you have a closed system and you’re stacking, you can have much higher yields per square meter,” he said. “You’d need two soccer fields 10 layers high to feed an entire city of 100,000, and an area half the size of the Netherlands could feed the whole world.”
Meanwhile, in the town of Wateringen, not far from The Hague, one of Holland’s largest orchid growers is about to take its first plunge overseas — in the form of a sophisticated greenhouse to be constructed later this year in the highlands of Guatemala.
“We built this company with sustainability in mind,” said CEO Richard Ter Laak as he showed off the 4,800 solar panels on the glass roof of his greenhouse, which produces 6 million Phalaenopsis orchids a year.
“This daylight greenhouse saves us 50 percent on energy costs, on top of other savings,” said Ter Laak, whose grandfather founded the company in 1955. “It’s double-glass and in between the glass is a lens that projects direct sunlight and keeps temperatures under control. During the day we save energy, and at night we use it.”
Ter Laak has annual sales of €29 million ($32 million), with exports to Western Europe as well as Turkey, Poland and Russia.
He said the company investigated China, Brazil, Eastern Europe and even the United States as part of its first foray overseas, “but we were looking for a place where the market is still in the early phase,” and therefore decided on Guatemala. Partly flowering plants will be sold locally, while semi-finished plants will be exported to the U.S. and Canadian markets.
Ter Laak plans to invest $2.5 million in his Central American venture and employ 15 to 20 people initially.
“Hopefully it’ll grow to 200, but that will take a few years. We will start with one hectare — a little less than 10 percent of what we are doing here,” he told us. “For us, since it’s our first international experience, it’s high risk, so it was difficult to find good, reliable partners. But it’s very exciting to take this step.”
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In Utrecht, our press group visited the Hubrecht Institute, which has 225 employees (including scientists from 40 countries) and an annual budget of €20 million. The nearly 100-year-old institute specializes in biomedical research that forms the fundamentals of clinical applications in cancer, diabetes and regenerative medicine.
“It started with embryology, but our focus is now on stem-cell research. We have fewer restrictions here than in the U.S.,” explained the institute’s director, Alexander van Oudenaarden, while an associate guided visitors through a laboratory of aquariums filled with tiny genetically modified zebra fish. “There are two different types of stem cells, adult and embryonic. All the discussions are about embryonic stem cells; the adult stem cells just fall off. You can reprogram an adult stem cell back to the embryonic state. Here, no embryos will die, so in terms of ethics, it’s not a problem at all.”
Meanwhile, at the nearby Delft University of Technology, Henk Jonkers — who started as a marine biologist — is making a name for himself in the unlikely field of self-healing cement, the main ingredient used to make concrete. While it is the world’s most popular building material, concrete, no matter how durable it is, eventually cracks. That’s where Jonkers and his bacteria-based “bioconcrete” come in.
“In 2006, we decided to start a completely new direction of research, something completely novel that could put the Netherlands on the map,” he said. “We decided to develop self-healing materials, mimicking nature. We have lots of examples of organisms that can repair a certain amount of damage.”
Jonkers knew that certain bacterial spores will germinate and multiply if they come into contact with enough water and the right type of food.
“If you feed this material to the bacteria, they’ll basically poop out limestone. And limestone is a material that is part of concrete, so it’s concrete-compatible,” Jonkers explained. That limestone, in turn, can be used to repair concrete that has cracked because water has seeped into it.
Even so, it took Jonkers several years to find exactly the right type of food and the right bacteria that would stay dormant for years, before activating at just the right time. (In the end, Jonkers chose bacillus bacteria and calcium lactate as the winning combo.)
“You cannot just mix any type of food source,” he cautioned. “Sugar, for instance, the tiniest amount mixed in concrete results in problems. It will not set. This bacteria needs food, so it took quite a long time to find a suitable food source which does not have negative effects on the concrete mixture.”
Another challenge, he said, was to prevent bacteria from multiplying during this stage and activating the limestone effect only once the concrete cracks and water gets in.
“Our bacterias make limestone fill up cracks. It is a solution against leakage problems, and helps to protect steel reinforcement against corrosion. At the same time, you avoid a lot of excess manual repair, saving money. The granules we’ve developed are suitable for new construction,” Jonkers said.
Problems are particularly acute with parking garages, where cars often bring in snow and salt during winter months. When the snow melts, the concrete suffers water damage.
Asked how his products are marketed commercially, Jonkers said he and his colleagues filed patents for the technology. Last November, they put all these patents in a company that is 100 percent owned by the Delft University of Technology.
Jonkers, who studied at Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Institutes, said one cubic meter of wet concrete costs €80. The healing agent adds €40 to that — meaning an expense up front but significant savings in the long run. Once the university builds its own on-site factory, Jonkers thinks he can further reduce the cost to around €10 to €20 per cubic meter.
“Any contractor will say this is impossible,” he said. “However, if you calculate the construction of bridges and the like, the cost of concrete is only 1 percent of the total. The rest is labor and other things. Even if you add 50 percent to the concrete’s cost, that still adds only 0.5 percent to the total. You will earn this back in three to four years.”
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In another building on the same campus at Delft, the focus is on healing damaged patients rather than damaged concrete.
At the center of the IMDI NeuroControl lab is a bright red chair attached to a TV monitor by harnesses and metal pipes. The weird-looking contraption — designed for those suffering from Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy and other conditions — allows physicians to see whether the damage is in a patient’s brain or in his muscles, so they’ll know where to focus the therapy.
“We are focused on movement disorders,” said Agaath Sluijter, business director at IMDI NeuroControl, which was established in 2011 and uses neuroplasticity technology to diagnose and treat neurological disorders.
Given that 7 million people around the world are living with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement, and that another 33 million suffer from the aftermath of strokes, it’s crucial to know exactly where in the brain damage occurs — and whether this damage is reversible or not.
“Sometimes, especially children with cerebral palsy, you have to make a choice what to treat,” Sluijter explained. “If we can pre-select which treatment to pursue, the burden on the patient will be less.”
To that end, NeuroControl, in the presence of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, signed a memo of understanding with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) to collaborate on an extensive research program to advance the clinical application of neurorehabilitation using Dutch technology.
“We try to help patients by offering tools for better rehabilitation,” said Frans Steenbrink of Motekforce Link, which was part of the RIC memo of understanding. “In everyday life, you’re not aware of your locomotion or balance control until you lose those functions. We live in an aging society, so we need to think about how we’re going to optimally treat these patients and keep them mobile for as long as possible.
One of the world’s top experts in Parkinson’s and other movement disorders is Bastiaan Bloem, a professor at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre.
Bloem, who’s published more than 180 scientific papers and book chapters on the subject, is a towering figure in his field — and not only because of his 6-foot-7 stature.
“Health care is now seen as an export product of Holland, not just wooden shoes and tulips — and Parkinson’s is a recognizable disease affecting Muhammad Ali, Michael J. Fox, the former pope and other famous people,” said Bloem, who played volleyball on the Dutch national team in his youth.
“I strongly believe the future of health care is specialized networks, where specialists treat high case loads,” he said. “Leaving specialized care to the hands of generalists is a thing of the past.”
Bloem is the brains behind ParkinsonNet, an acclaimed Dutch health care network that involves over 2,700 trained professionals who collaborate to provide top-rated Parkinson’s care. ParkinsonNet is credited with lowering costs associated with Parkinson’s care by more than 5 percent, in part because the care needed for injuries associated with the disease fell sharply.
Interestingly, he said, the top three concerns of Parkinson’s patients don’t involve tremors or gait, but rather revolve around sleep, sex and relationships.
“Our starting point was listening to patients. There’s a tremendous movement in health care to see patients as an invaluable source of information,” he said. “With many neurological conditions, some areas of the brain are damaged, but others aren’t. If you’re a specialist, you can use this to your advantage.”
Bloem said that King Willem-Alexander, whose father had Parkinson’s, is an avid supporter of his project; so is the Dutch Health Ministry.
Among other things, Bloem’s team has developed ParkinsonConnect.nl, which brings patients and professionals together online. “We are now extending this to Kaiser Permanente, and with Google Translate, a doctor in California can ask a question which will be answered by a therapist in the north of Holland,” he said.
By focusing on simple things such as collaboration and listening to patients, Bloem is showing that innovation doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing the wheel.
“When people try to innovate in health care, the insurers always say, ‘Prove to me it works, then we’ll innovate it.’ This is a Catch-22, because you cannot prove it works unless you first test it,” Bloem said. “Our true message is, cherish the value of imitation. We value innovation, but let’s stop blindly innovating all the time. Look around, see what’s good and copy it.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat. Luxner’s recent trip to the Netherlands was sponsored by the Royal Dutch Embassy.