The smart way is the Dutch way | Sunday Observer
Sustainable agriculture; Lessons from the Netherlands

The smart way is the Dutch way

18 June, 2023

The Netherlands is second in the world for global agricultural food exports, totalling more than $100 billion per year. It is considered to be the most sustainable country in the agricultural sector. Considering the small size of this country, their impact on the global agricultural landscape is truly remarkable. The Netherlands is 237 times smaller than the first leading exporter – the United States. The Netherlands is also about 1.6 times smaller than Sri Lanka. With their limited land and a rainy climate, the Dutch have become masters of efficiency.

By 2050, we will need to feed 10 billion people on the planet, which will be more challenging due to the impact of climate change on our soil. Global agricultural production will also have to increase to continue to meet demand. If our current level of production efficiency continues, feeding the planet in 2050 would require clearing most of the world’s remaining forests, wiping out thousands more species, and releasing more greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, conventional farming methods are also not suitable to meet this demand. It has, therefore, become necessary to innovate to develop solutions that can address these pressing problems. More effective and responsible production practices are needed.

The Netherlands is a leader in innovative and sustainable agriculture. Smart farming is the secret weapon that helped them build a sustainable agricultural industry. Ensuring that innovative agricultural techniques that are being used in countries like The Netherlands are scaled up and rolled out worldwide is crucial for creating a bright and sustainable future. We just need to commit resources in the short-term for future gain.

Conventional agriculture Vs precision agriculture

Conventional agriculture causes increased greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, water pollution, and threatens human health. In the traditional farm management model, each field is treated as a homogeneous area, where soil, topographic and environmental conditions are considered to be the same. Thus, the inputs are applied uniformly regardless of any potential variability or heterogeneity. This approach leads to unwanted costs due to inefficient application of inputs and subsequently causes environmental damage due to the surplus of unused nutrients. In many Western countries, Smart Farming is now a basic principle of arable farming, livestock farming and aquaculture.

The rise of Smart Farming began in the early 1990s. The anticipated growth in the value of Smart Farming by the year 2025 is expected to be 43.4 billion euro. Moreover, precision agriculture (PA) reportedly has the potential to boost agricultural productivity by 70 percent by 2050. Precision farming is a modern farming technique that integrates and uses advanced technology and data analytics to optimize crop production while minimising environmental impact and resource wastage. Precision agriculture is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring, and responding to variability in crops to achieve greater efficiency and yields. The big difference with classical agriculture is that rather than determining the necessary action for each individual field, precision agriculture allows actions to be determined per square metre or even per plant. This approach allows farmers to make important resource management decisions both on-site and online.

Advances in digital technologies like mobile phones, remote sensing using satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and cloud computing, as well as their growing affordability are making precision agriculture applications accessible for smallholder farmers in developing countries.

Smart farming

Precision farming integrates various technologies, such as GPS, remote sensing, and drones, to gather data on soil characteristics, weather patterns, and crop growth patterns. The collected data is further analysed using advanced software algorithms to provide farmers with specific insight about crop needs such as optimal planting time, irrigation levels, and fertiliser application rates. By using precision farming techniques, farmers can reduce costs, increase yields, and improve the overall sustainability of their operations.

However, the adoption of precision agriculture technologies has encountered difficulties such as additional application or management costs and investment in new equipment and trained employees. Despite its potential benefits, precision agriculture also faces some challenges that hinder its adoption and implementation. One of the main challenges is the high cost and complexity of the technologies involved. Farmers need to invest in equipment, software, and training to use precision agriculture tools, which may not be affordable or accessible for many, especially smallholders and developing countries. Another challenge is the lack of interoperability and standardisation among different devices.

Efficient Dutch agriculture

The Netherlands is a country known for advanced initiatives in precision farming. The Dutch use 54 percent of surface area of the Netherlands as farmland and crops are cultivated in a narrow range of arable land (with nearly half of its farmland consisting of pastures). Behind the rapid diffusion of precision farming is the fact that it is necessary for sustainable agriculture. Precision farming is extremely effective for gaining a high yield from scarce resources and developing agriculture that is resilient against rapid climate changes and reduces environmental load.

Smart farming offers everything to facilitate the transition to sustainable and cost-effective agriculture. There is growing consensus that Smart Farming is the future of agriculture. Therefore, knowledge institutes and businesses are keen on finding ways of forming partnerships with one another for implementing the smart practice. Agricultural products and technologies of this calibre require collaboration between food industries, technology providers, government, and academia. For many years, Wageningen University and Research was ranked as the world’s leading food and agricultural research university. The research and development expenditure in the Netherlands has more than tripled in the past 30 years, and now constitutes around 2 percent of the nation’s GDP. So, no wonder the Dutch have a reputation for being innovative and progressive.

The Netherlands is shaping the future of farming worldwide. Dutch farmers have had the highest production per hectare for decades. Next to exporting agricultural produce, the country is famous for its expert knowledge on how to sustainably produce food.

Transition to smart farming

Let’s explore why the transition to smart farming is critical in Sri Lanka.

In our country, agricultural exports make up a significant portion of the country’s total exports and play an important role in its economic development. Around 25.5 percent of the population in Sri Lanka is employed in the agricultural sector, although the sector’s contribution to GDP is as low as 7.3 percent. This is a serious mismatch.

Modern agriculture is currently not being employed in Sri-Lanka. Although it has fertile tropical land with the potential for the cultivation and processing of a vast variety of crops, issues such as productivity and profitability hamper the growth of the agricultural sector. The lack of private investment in agriculture due to uncertain policies limits the expansion of the sector.

In recent times, the yield levels of Sri Lanka’s food crops have stagnated at unsatisfactory levels, even for a developing country. Based on total factor productivity (TFP) growth, Sri Lanka is the only country performing poorly in South Asia, whilst the country’s TFP growth itself is declining gradually.

Therefore, it is one of the government’s top priorities to increase productivity in the agricultural sector. The government wants to increase mechanization and grow higher value cash crops (Ceylon Tea, rubber, fruits, vegetables and Ceylon Spices, cocoa, vanilla, etc.) and other export-oriented crops. However, without smart farming these plans may not materialise.


The biggest impediment to the agricultural sector development does not lie at the policy level, but rather at the implementation level. Another hurdle faced by the agricultural sector is the lack of contemporary agricultural research and development programs.

Smart agricultural activities should be introduced to the rural community to encourage them to work in the farming sector, especially for the young generation. Smart farming can provide solutions to most of the problems the Sri-Lankan agricultural sector is facing. One of the key benefits is that it helps farmers to increase their crop yields and reduce costs by optimizing the different inputs (fertilizer, irrigation) used, thereby optimizing the costs.

Both the government and private sector involvement in research and development should be strengthened through collaboration with foreign institutions (for instance, Dutch research institutes). Farmers need to be empowered and educated to use precision agriculture tools effectively and responsibly, and to disseminate their value and benefits to consumers and the whole society.

Opportunities for precision agriculture

The future of agriculture is precision-based smart farming. To make use of smart farming, Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector needs to address the current challenges and constraints, such as low productivity, poor quality of products, and rapid climate change. The implementation of precision agriculture in Sri-Lanka lags behind expectations. The transition towards precision agriculture will contribute to significant changes to the farming supply chain in Sri Lanka. It will impact the country’s food and nutritional security, economy, and sustainable development.