Speech by Minister for Agriculture Martijn van Dam at the opening of the AU-EU Conference Noordwijk

Speech by Minister for Agriculture Martijn van Dam at the opening of the AU-EU Conference, Noordwijk, 4 July 2016

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

How far apart should I plant cabbages to get the best yield? What’s the most efficient way to irrigate my crops? In Tanzania, farmers with questions like these can turn to SEVIA. I was in Kenya and Tanzania two weeks ago and saw for myself how it works.

SEVIA is an initiative of Dutch and Dutch-Asian vegetable breeding companies, as well as Wageningen University and local partners. It receives support from the Dutch government. Its aim is to improve the production and variety of vegetables grown in Tanzania, for instance through technological innovation.

The demonstration projects are called ‘Seeing is believing’. They show farmers how to grow crops as efficiently as possible. Everyone benefits: farmers earn more, local employment increases, and people eat more nutritious food.

During my visit, I reached an agreement with Tanzania that it will allow Dutch seed potatoes on its market. When it comes to potatoes, great things are happening in my country in terms of innovation. Solynta, for instance, is developing potato hybrids that can be adapted to the climate in which they are to grow. The company raises plants from seeds rather than tubers. This has enormous logistic benefits, of course, because seeds are much easier to ship. In a number of years, Solynta may play an important role in reducing hunger and malnutrition.

And I prefer to call the seed potatoes that Agrico will export to Tanzania ‘smart potatoes’: potatoes especially grown for local circumstances. in Kenya, 12,500 small farms are seeing their yields increase fourfold or even fivefold with these potatoes, using the same amount of fertilizers and less plant protection. And to grow the potatoes, farmers need five times less water than they would for growing corn or maize, and twenty times less than for growing rice. The aim is to expand the project’s reach to 800,000 farmers.

Partnerships like these are an excellent example of what’s needed to bolster food security. And not only in Africa. In 2050, the world will have 9 to 10 billion mouths to feed, compared to seven billion today. The populations of Kenya and Tanzania are already increasing by a million each year. We’ll need to feed all these people – but we haven’t even overcome hunger and malnutrition today. Worldwide, 800 million people still go to bed hungry, including many children.

The challenge is not only to produce more food, but to produce it in better and smarter ways. Because people are calling for more, but our planet Earth is crying for less. We only have one planet, and we need to use its resources wisely. Otherwise we’ll have depleted the Earth by 2050, and its people will go unfed.

Another global threat that we need to address is climate change. It threatens millions of small farmers who are most vulnerable to extreme drought or flooding. They must be able to continue their vital work. So we need to make rural and urban communities more resilient. And help farmers adapt to the effects of climate change.

Together, Europe and Africa can make a significant contribution to global food security. Agriculture is a key sector for economic growth on both continents. That’s why the Netherlands, as holder of the EU Presidency, has worked to strengthen agricultural cooperation between Africa and Europe. As you may know, the Netherlands is the most productive member state of the EU in agriculture, and its largest exporter of agricultural products. This is due to our high productivity, based on a high level of knowledge, innovation and entrepreneurship. Our country is also one of the world’s most important food hubs – which means we are also an important link between Africa and Europe. 

In our combined efforts to eradicate hunger and guarantee a stable food supply, we must give priority to reducing food losses and waste. The food that is ultimately wasted consumes about a quarter of all the water used in agriculture. And is equivalent to the amount produced in an area the size of China. Food waste also accounts for eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. So reducing food waste is an enormous challenge, but will also help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

It’s important, first, that we calculate exactly how much food is being wasted by country. Because as we say in the Netherlands: to measure is to know. When you have the figures, you can set your targets. Although there’s no need to wait until then. There are many no-regret actions that we can take now, like building basic storage facilities.

Guaranteeing a stable food supply also asks for knowledge and innovation, a theme that we will discuss at our conference and that is dear to me. The Netherlands is limited by its size, we have to use every inch of space efficiently and therefore innovation is second nature to us. For years we have used knowledge to do the same thing, but better and more efficiently. Now we need to use that knowledge to do the best things differently. In order to innovate we need to share agrifood knowledge and combine it with know-how from other sectors. In the Netherlands, entrepreneurs and scientists from different disciplines work closely together to bring an efficient and sustainable future for agriculture closer by. And with result.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the coming days, it’s up to us to make food security a real possibility for Africa and the rest of the world. We’ll discuss innovation and food waste, the access to each other’s markets and the encouraging of public-private partnerships. So we have a lot of work to do. In the words of a Swahili proverb: Haba na haba hujaza kibaba. ‘Little by little fills up the measure.’ That is: even if we take small steps at the time, we will persevere and achieve our goal.

Thank you.