Wageningen University: Food security in the Netherlands: robust with frayed edges

Looking at food security from the perspective of supply and availability reveals a system that is actually quite resilient. Although food security in the Netherlands is not immune to disruptions, it can certainly be qualified as robust. However, food security is also about access to food and the way in which it contributes to a healthy lifestyle. Examined from this perspective, the image we obtain is not as rosy as we would expect. On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of households in this wealthy nation have inadequate access to sufficient and healthy food and, on the other hand, half the Dutch population is currently struggling with overweight because food is so abundantly available to them.

A few decades ago, food security was primarily defined as the availability of food. However, the emphasis has gradually shifted in the course of time to access to food, which is mainly determined through purchasing power. Also, the definition of food security has expanded to the ability to secure sufficient, safe and nutritious food that enables an active and healthy life.

Generally speaking, the antithesis of food security is hunger. In the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations (UN), ‘zero hunger’ takes second place – preceded only by ‘no poverty’. Hunger should be completely eradicated everywhere in the world by 2030, but if recent trends remain unchanged, the number of people affected by hunger would still exceed 840 million by then. Millions of people suffer from acute hunger, largely due to man-made conflicts, climate change and economic downturns. According to the UN, increasing agricultural productivity and enhancing the sustainability of food production are crucial to alleviating the dangers of hunger.

Even in a prosperous country like the Netherlands, hundreds of thousands of households live in poverty and are battling with structural debts. The coronavirus crisis means that a significant part of the Dutch population will experience a drop in income, now and in the near future. The current increase in the number of people forced to appeal to food banks is a harbinger of this. The Red Cross has also sounded the alarm.

The Dutch food system is linked to the European and global food system through trade and investment. Shocks to the Dutch system can come from within or without. They can be short-lived, such as the outbreak of an animal disease, or have a longer-term effect, such as climate change.

Based on experience to date, the Dutch food system can be considered robust, as demonstrated by its ability to withstand various crises and trade boycotts.

The system relied on by supermarkets for the supply of food is sensitive to short-term disruption in the event of a distribution centre failure. The strategic maintenance of stocks in shops is limited thanks to an efficient logistics system with regard to the distribution of food. A disruption can result in costs (due to spoilage) and can lead to empty shelves. The consequences will mainly be noticeable with regard to fresh products, which are supplied on a daily basis and of which only small-scale stocks are retained at the shops. However, in the event of a blockade at the distribution centre of a certain retail chain, there are usually sufficient alternatives available to households.

In the Netherlands, food security is not only – or particularly – an issue deserving of attention due to an imminent shortage of food; an excess of food may perhaps be an even greater problem. The abundant supply of food facilitates over-consumption, which contributes to overweight and obesity. The average dietary habits of the Dutch population do not take heed of the applicable recommendations advocating moderation and variation. We generally eat too much of what we should eat less of (e.g. red meat, salt, saturated fat) and too little of what we should eat more of (e.g. fruits and vegetables, fibre, fish).