Dear Sir David Attenborough…

Dutch Ecologist and Journalist Thomas Oudman has shot to prominence by openly rebuking the much revered Sir David Attenborough. In the recent documentary film, A Life on Our Planet, Attenborough had touted the Dutch food production system as a leading example which the world could learn from. Oudman quickly shows us that all is not as it seems in Dutch agriculture.

The main mistake that Sir David (or perhaps his research team) made was to accept the authenticity of stats and figures about Dutch agricultural output without a deeper analysis of how results are achieved. According to Attenborough, the Dutch increased food production tenfold in recent times (giving it an impressive food output to hectare ratio). This, we are told in Attenborough’s documentary, was achieved despite reducing pesticide and artificial fertiliser use white still managing to lower CO2 emissions. Sounds too good to be true? Unfortunately so.

First things first: for the sake of statistics “flowers” are classified as food by the Dutch Government. Once flowers are removed from statistics, the true “food” output of the Netherlands is much less impressive. (Oudman also says that if we allowed nature, biodiversity and wildflowers to thrive we’d have less need for cut flowers to remind us of nature!!) This however is a minor issue. Oudman claims that horticulture is the reason the Dutch use the largest amount of pesticides per hectare in all of Europe. A poor starting point for a nation with “sustainable” aspirations. The horticulture sector is also energy and artificial fertiliser dependent.

Returning to food output, Oudman goes on to claim that 30% of what is sold abroad as “grown in the Netherlands” is actually imported in the first instance. This is termed as “re-exportation”. Furthermore he claims that much of the raw material to grow the other 70% (of exports) is also imported. For example: the Dutch he reveals, are the third biggest importers of palm oil in the world (after India and China). The production of palm oil is linked to some of the most environmentally destructive farming practices in the world. In Borneo, it is directly connected to the extermination of the endangered Orangutan. Palm oil is put into everything such as bread and peanut butter to shampoo and mascara. It even replaces milk fat in baby formula.

Photo by Ludwig Kwan on

Focusing next on the impressive increase in the yield of Dutch agriculture: Oudman says that it’s all thanks to fossil fuels, driving engines, moving food, building infrastructure. Greenhouse horticulture uses 10% of all Dutch natural gas consumption or half of all Dutch housing. Greenhouse horticulture accounts for 80% of all the energy used for agriculture. Oudman also dismisses the latest craze: vertical farming: the growing of stacked vegetables with LED lights. His main criticism again is the amount of energy required to run lamps, dehumidifiers and air conditioners.

So while yields may be impressive, real returns (per unit of energy used) have fallen. He notes the following example: in 1950, every 100 joules of fossil fuels used by Dutch farmers yielded 107 joules of nutritional value. However return has collapsed: 100 joules of fossil fuels now only delivers 6 joules of nutritional value. This is beyond unsustainable.

The Dutch are large dairy producers and use two thirds of their agricultural land to grow grass as feed. Around 20% of cow feed is imported protein concentrates, much of which comes from outside Europe. Again not properly reflected in the official statistics. Oudman also laments biodiversity loss in his homeland: thanks to nitrogen pollution and monocultures (such as rye grass for cows) the Dutch have retained only 15% of their original biodiversity. Many birds, once common, are on the verge of extinction.

Back to the documentary and Oudman takes issue with Attenborough’s warnings about population growth in Africa (as if this is the main driver of global environmental problems). Of course, the real issue is that we Westerners consume seven times as much energy and six times as much meat (for example) as Africans, and that figure is getting worse.

Instead of praising systems he doesn’t fully understand, Oudman implores Sir David to use his immense platform to argue for a reduction in our own consumption. To hold polluters (both direct and indirect) to account. To condemn polluting agriculture at home and abroad. To demand that Europe use it’s massive CAP Budget to reposition agriculture to produce more seasonal vegetables and less meat and dairy. All of these steps would be welcome measures in moving to a greener world.

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