To consider a country itself a world food power, it should meet a series of premises such as the extension and use of its farmland, productive capacity, have a strong gastronomic culture, investment in research, optimal climate for cultivation, the prestige of its cooks or the influence of its industries internationally.
But not all the previous premises seem to have the same weight when it comes to deciding whether a country is a world power or not. For example, the Netherlands ranks second in the world for agri-food exporters (per dollar value) behind the United States and ahead of countries such as Brazil, China, Spain or Italy (1).
With a much smaller cultivation area than other European countries such as Spain (3) or Italy (4), Netherlands is a leader in both exports and innovation. Furthermore, if we look at the percentage of land devoted to cultivation is practically equal to that of Spain (5)(6). Then, what is special about the Netherlands?
Behind these astounding numbers is the influence of Wageningen University & Research (WUR), which is located 50 miles southeast of Amsterdam. This University focuses its research on scientific, social and commercial problems in the field of life sciences and natural resources and it is widely known for its agriculture, forestry, and environmental studies programs. WUR is the nodal point of Food Valley (alluding to California’s Silicon Valley), an expansive cluster of agricultural technology start-ups and experimental farms and where about 15,000 professionals are active in food-related sciences and technological development.
All of these efforts result in impressive harvesting yields. For example, over the past 30 years, the Dutch tomato industry has become the world leader in yield, producing more tomatoes per square kilometre than anywhere else (7). The tiny Netherlands has become an agricultural powerhouse with only a fraction of the land available to other countries, using the world’s most efficient agricultural technologies.
We could definitely consider the Netherlands as an agricultural powerhouse.
If the productive capacity and the use of farmland are a determining factor to consider a food power, could the gastronomic culture be sufficient to determine the food power of a country?
Certainly, there are countries that enjoy greater culinary prestige than others, for example, Italy, France, Spain or Greece have a well-established food culture and their products are coveted throughout the world.
The common denominator of all of them is the climatology. All these countries have a Mediterranean climate with many hours of sunshine and ideal temperatures for almost all crops and are capable of producing high-quality fruits, vegetables, meats and fish with also high yields. The cuisine of these countries impregnated with the best quality raw materials that they possess, it is exported to the rest of the countries creating a high-value brand. In fact, food is one of the best means to export the cultural image of a country. For example, if we talk about pizza, lasagna or pasta, we already know what country we are talking about. Similar to this, Hollywood has used the power of the film industry to export American culture since its origins - there is practically no movie where an iconic image of the stars and stripes flag does not appear. Food works in a certain way in a similar way.
Italy undoubtedly weighs heavily on culinary preferences. The strong influence of its cuisine has crossed borders and Italian dishes are the favourites of most people. Their diets are a blend of colours that leave an unforgettable taste in the mouth.
Food historian Monica Askay conducted a study exploring how family food trends have changed over the decades. Pizza, pasta and spaghetti bolognese have been featured in the top 5 for the last 3 decades. (8)
If for a country to be considered as a food power, it is necessary to win their hearts (or stomachs), without a doubt, Italy would be.
Research and business network
According to the 2019 Academic Ranking of World Universities (or Shanghai Ranking), among the world top 50 universities in the field of food science and technology there are 9 Chinese universities, 9 universities from the US, 5 Spanish and 4 Italian. (9)
The push of China in the global food market is great. In the last 3 years, China has kept 3 universities among the top 5 and it became the world's largest producer, importer, and consumer of food. This makes sense since China has the world’s largest population and most of its production is consumed within its borders. So, would China be the world's largest agricultural world power?
The role of universities in R&D is key to increase the number and quality of innovative companies and facilitate the transfer and dissemination of knowledge to the business network.
The role of universities is a key factor in technological progress and innovation, although by itself it does not guarantee economic and social development.
The US also has a large number of prestigious universities but in regard to the most powerful companies, US has 5 of the 10 World’s Largest Food & Beverage Companies in 2017: PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Kraft Heinz Company, Mondelez International, Archer Daniels Midland. (10)
It is complex to determine which country could be the world's largest agri-food power and many more factors than those mentioned above should be taken into account.
Investment in research, productive factors or cultural influence are just a few and the adaptation to demographic and climatic challenges that we will face in the coming years will determine which countries will maintain their position in the ranking of the world's largest agricultural powers.