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Food and Fútbol: Learning from the Netherlands

July 17, 2014

In terms of landmass, the Netherlands is smaller than Costa Rica. Yet it is a key global player in food production. The agriculture and food industry – farming plus agribusiness – generates 10 percent of the value of the Netherlands’ economy, and it employs roughly 10 percent of Dutch workers. In terms of percentages, these figures aren’t very different than Costa Rica’s. However, in absolute terms, the value of agri-food production in the Netherlands is greater than Costa Rica’s entire gross domestic product.

With only 40,000 square kilometers, the Netherlands is the world’s second largest food exporter, surpassed only by the United States, whose territory is 200 times larger. It is the world’s top exporter of onions, and it exports 25 percent of the world’s tomatoes. People live well in the Netherlands. Their per-inhabitant GDP is five times greater than Costa Rica’s, and the percentage of the population who live in poverty is less than half that of our country.

From these statistics, one can infer that the belief that a country whose economy is strongly linked to agriculture must be underdeveloped is a mistaken one. It also shows that a country doesn’t need large expanses of territory to be a global food provider.

The Netherlands opted many years ago to bet on an agricultural economy driven by innovation and added value. It has one of the most advanced agri-food research systems in the world, led by Wageningen University in close coordination with other research centers in food, nutrition and technology. Thanks to the Dutch system of innovation, their farmers have developed sustainable and efficient production processes and systems, with productivity that is five times greater than the European average and that generates more than 600,000 jobs. The processing industry is one of the world’s most important – just think of their famous Dutch cheese as one good example.

This bet by the Dutch, backed by the government and its institutions and centered in a highly productive private sector, is based on such values as long-term vision, organization, coordination and discipline.

These values are clearly reflected in other aspects of Dutch life, as we’ve seen in the realm of sports. These are the secrets to how such a tiny country has – and historically has had – one of the best football teams on the planet.

Costa Rica can, too. The sporting events of recent days, where our national football team played toe-to-toe with the powerful Dutch team, reflects a process led by Professor Pinto in which these values are applied by players on and off the field. Those values were the keys to success.

Just as our Sele accomplished this in sports, if we apply to our agriculture and food industry the values of long-term vision, organization, coordination and discipline, and set our sights on an agriculture based on innovation and added value where the government, the private sector and academia move forward together, we will achieve greater levels of well-being for all our people.

Luis Felipe Arauz Cavallini is Costa Rica’s minister of agriculture and livestock.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP
Costa Rica's defender Cristian Gamboa, in white, vies with the Netherlands' forward Arjen Robben – aka the Flying Dutchman – during a quarterfinal football match at the Fonte Nova Arena in Salvador during the 2014 FIFA World Cup on July 5, 2014. Gabriel Bouys/AFP

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