A colleague of mine recently wrote an article about reshoring. For many years, manufacturing processes that were ‘too expensive’ for the Netherlands were moved to low-wage countries. Two years of Covid and the recent political instability have led us to think differently about our dependence on products that are produced far away. It is no longer just about the costs; there is a growing awareness that there is more to consider than just money!
In greenhouse horticulture, something else is at play. Yes, this entails the manufacture of, for example, our flower pots and the cultivation of source materials that require a lot of labor (such as tissue culture) has been outsourced to countries in Asia. However, the risk facing our sector is that we will no longer be able to sell the products we grow in the Netherlands if borders are closed due to a pandemic or a war! Fortunately, we do sell most of our products in the surrounding region. When we cite the strategy of ‘feeding and greening megacities’, we are referring to the production of products for ‘megacity Western Europe’.
However, another part of this strategy is to sell technology and knowledge so that food production in the region of large cities anywhere in the world. So this may seem like outsourcing, as production is outsourced to another country. However, what we take with us is our technology and knowledge!
This has already been a scalable concept for years. Our greenhouse builders have been building fantastic projects all over the world. These include projects in Australia, Kazakhstan and Abu Dhabi, all of which are packed with Dutch high-tech. We have learned that it will not work if you only sell the hardware and let people figure out on the spot how to work with it. We came up with a solution: we sent out cultivation consultants or the sons or daughters of Dutch horticulturists. They really enjoyed working abroad for a number of years.
The demand for high-tech greenhouses has only increased. We are selling more and more greenhouses, climate computers, seeds and knowledge. However, the demand for knowledge is so great now that we simply do not have enough people to send to these overseas projects. Nevertheless, the know-how we have here is absolutely essential for growing crops successfully! Delivering a car to someone who cannot drive is not very useful….
But what if that car could drive (at least in part) autonomously? That’s what we want to achieve when we start making our greenhouses more and more ‘hands-free’. Tomatoes are being harvested by robots. A cobot helps the employee to identify any growth anomalies, diseases and pests in the greenhouses. In addition, a climate computer is controlled remotely and also semi autonomously with the aid of models.
Some of this is still futuristic. There is still a lot of developmental work to be done, and that involves collaboration between growers, technology developers, research institutes and governments. One thing that we need to develop for this is an ecosystem. That ecosystem is RoboCrops, which I wrote about in my previous column.
On 18 and 19 May this year, scientists, growers, developers of robots for greenhouse horticulture, and other interested parties from the Netherlands and abroad will come together to learn from each other and get down to work, and with each other! At the ‘Today‘ event on 18 May, we will be showcasing everything that will be on sale within the next year or two. And one day later, at the ‘Tomorrow‘ event, it’s the turn of the scientists and others who are working on different types of technology, cultivation techniques and business models for the future.
These yet-to-be-developed systems will make it possible to produce plenty of healthy fresh food for local people anywhere in the world. If we have learned anything in the past two years, it is that we need to be aware of where essential products come from. Whether that concerns medicines, chips or food, we will need to be more aware of where they come from and no longer just go for the cheapest solution.
Are you in a position to help apply technology to make greenhouse horticulture more autonomous? Then come and join the RoboCrops event on 18 or 19 May in World Horti Center Naaldwijk. You can register for the event here.
About this column:
In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Eugène Franken, PG Kroeger, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla, Willemijn Brouwer and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.