Agro, Food and Horticulture

Within the NWO theme Agro, Food & Horticulture, scientists are conducting innovative research into the major issues in the agricultural sector, food industry and horticulture. The research has three priority areas: sustainable and safe production, healthy food, and food security from a global perspective. The challenge is to supply the world with healthy food as sustainably as possible.

The agricultural sector, food industry and horticulture together make a contribution of ten per cent to the Dutch economy. Dutch exports of agricultural and food products are the second largest in the world.

By 2050, we are expected to have nine billion mouths to feed. Current production methods will be incapable of meeting these growing needs. Due to scarcer raw materials, uncertain yields due to climate change, and increasing damage to our environment, it is necessary to change over to a sustainable production system that produces greater yields while respecting animals, people and the environment.

  • About this theme

    Within the NWO theme Agro, Food and Horticulture, scientists are seeking answers to questions in three areas:

    Sustainable and safe production

    Only by producing sustainably can we meet the growing demand for food and raw materials. To achieve this, we need information about the resilience of the production system, to avoid excessive drains on soil, water, energy and nutrients. Increasing the yield of existing crops will also contribute to food security for all, without this being at the expense of the environment.

    Healthy food

    Healthy food contains low levels of sugar, salt, saturated and trans fatty acids, and sufficient fibres. Not everything we like to eat meets those conditions. How do you produce food that is not only tasty but also healthy? Because the nutrients someone needs are not the same for everyone, and those needs change throughout a person’s life, research into personalised nutrition (food adjusted to personal requirements) is an important development in science. One example is bread using wheat replacements for people with a gluten allergy.

    And if healthy alternatives are available, the consumer should actually want to eat them. How should you encourage consumers to eat healthily and how can producers contribute to a healthy lifestyle? These issues are also addressed as part of the theme Agro, Food and Horticulture.

    Food security from a global perspective

    If we are to eventually supply the whole world with good quality food, we need information about sustainable local food production with higher yields. But we also need research into access to food. How can consumers in developing countries obtain safe and good food, and how can producers and markets meet this need? And how can we reduce food wastage and improve the preservability of harvested products?

    Top sectors Agri&Food and Horticulture and Propagation Materials

    The Dutch cabinet has designated nine top sectors in which the Netherlands is a world leader and in which the government will make targeted investments  together with industry and researchers.

    The three priority areas of the NWO theme Agro, Food and Horticulture overlap to a large extent with the three topics in the top sector Agrofood:

    • 'More with less' due to sustainable, innovative food systems
    • Higher added value due to an innovative focus on health, sustainability, taste and convenience
    • International leadership through the export of products and integrated system solutions

    The top sector Horticulture and Propagation Materials is centred around four topics that largely concur with the priority areas of the NWO theme:

    • More with less
    • Food safety and security
    • Health and well-being
    • Collaborating value chain


    Research within the NWO theme Agro, Food and Horticulture generates knowledge that can be used by industry. The theme encourages innovative research that provides a broad basis for strategic and application-oriented research. The theme promotes collaboration between science, industry, public authorities and social partners in joint research programmes.

    The research programmes conducted by NWO in 2012 and 2013 are outlined in the NWO proposals for the top sectors Agri&Food and Horticulture and Propagation Materials. 

  • Challenges

    Why Agro, Food and Horticulture?

    Importance of agricultural sector, horticulture and food industry

    The Netherlands is a world leader in the field of innovative, sustainable and efficient food production. The agricultural sector, food industry and horticulture together make a contribution of ten per cent to the Dutch economy. Dutch exports of agricultural and food products are the second largest in the world. In the horticultural sector, food exports are the third largest. The Netherlands is the world’s biggest exporter of ornamentals, flower bulbs and glasshouse technology.


    These sectors are facing the huge challenge of continuing to supply food, preferably as sustainably as possible, to a world with increasing numbers of people who are also consuming more per person. Production of food, ornamental crops and raw materials is placing increasing demands on available space, resources and the environment. And the importance of food for our health is attracting more and more attention.

    Scientific research

    Research in the scientific disciplines relevant to these sectors is undergoing an enormous expansion at present. Our understanding of complex biological systems is continually improving. New interdisciplinary research fields are emerging, in which researchers from the arts, social sciences and humanities and natural sciences are working together on questions from these sectors. The NWO theme Agro, Food & Horticulture focuses on three topics:

    • Sustainable production
      There is a growing demand for food and other biological products. This increasing demand also means a greater demand for scarce resources such as animal protein, water, energy and raw materials. Fundamental demand-driven research into growth and development, the functioning of ecosystems and the prevention of diseases generates knowledge that can be used to reduce these stresses, so that the whole world can be supplied with food without creating shortages or environmental problems.
    • Healthy food
      Food is inextricably bound up with health and disease. Research into the intake and processing of food in the body will increase our understanding of how food contributes to our health, growth and development. Preventing food-related diseases is another goal of research, as is encouraging consumers to choose healthy food.
    • Food security from a global perspective
      Food supply is a global problem. Extreme drought, floods, pests or diseases can cause harvests to fail. Poverty and conflict situations are the cause of entire population groups lacking access to good food. Food security is about access to food for the entire global population, and about the use of healthy and safe food that is valued by consumers. In developing countries, food security is a growing problem. As an exporting country and centre of expertise, the Netherlands can play an important role in developing structural and sustainable solutions geared to local circumstances.
  • International

    Public-private partnerships (PPP)

    • TKI Food, Cognition and Behaviour

      The aim is to develop new foods with the aid of excellent knowledge about the relationship between food and the brain. The focus is on food preferences, choice and purchasing behaviour, appetite regulation, the role of cognitive processes and the effects of foods and eating patterns on cognitive abilities. This investment will also lead to the development of early diagnoses for obesity, eating disorders and conditions associated with ageing.

    • TKI Protein Competence Center

      Due to the growth of the global population and increasing prosperity in emerging economies, the consumption of meat, fish and other proteins is rising. Consequently, there is a growing need to ensure that our future protein supplies are sustainable. Companies are focusing on innovative protein products (such as ingredients, functional animal feeds and meat alternatives) and are aware that innovation emerging from the knowledge base can bring a competitive advantage. This initiative will provide industry with effective access to knowledge and expertise in the field of protein research and valorisation. 
      Read more: (in Dutch)

    • Biobased Economy

      In the field of BioBased Economy, a cross-sectoral theme, NWO is contributing to the development of an interface programme combining chemocatalytic, biotechnological, thermochemical and biorefinery aspects of biomass processing. NWO also intends to set up a partnership programme with Brazil in the field of BBE. Biomass supply will be one focus of this programme. These programmes are being run in collaboration with the top sector Chemistry.

    • Responsible Innovation
      This programme focuses on the technological developments expected to have radical effects on individuals and/or society. This concerns new developments in technologies such as ICT, nanotechnology, biotechnology and neurosciences on the one hand, and technological systems in transition such as energy, transport, agriculture and water on the other hand. NWO will put out a call addressing ethical and social issues. This call will focus on the top sectors Energy, Agri&Food and/or Horticulture and Propagation Materials, Water, and Life Sciences & Health.

    • Industrial Partnership Programme with Unilever
      The starting point for this programme is that in future, food and personal care products will need to have functional properties that are conducive to health, such as reducing obesity or cardiovascular conditions, or long-term disinfectant properties. The central focus is the development of a deeper understanding of the structure of substances and their interactions, the relationship between molecular composition and mechanical properties, their biophysical 'fate' during digestion and adsorption and in their external applications.

    • Global Food Systems
      An integrated approach to food security is vital, given the dependence of the food supply on activities and processes at a global level. New insights are expected in system solutions relating to safe and healthy food production, linked to the wishes of consumers. The following three areas of attention have been identified with a view to achieving sustainable and stable food security: 'Sustainable local food production with higher yields', 'From consumer to producer' and 'Better access to adequate quality food'.
    • Enabling Technologies & Infrastructure
      To support a number of emerging technologies in the agricultural ('green') and medical ('red') life sciences, a roadmap on 'Enabling technologies & infrastructure' has been included in the top sector Life Sciences & Health.
    • Core Programme Propagation Materials
      The aims of this programme are to consolidate and strengthen the knowledge base and to build capacity within the research field Propagation Materials. There is a growing demand for high-quality, sustainably produced food and ornamental plant products. More knowledge of the processes surrounding the growth and development of plants, in relation to environmental factors, will lead to sturdy propagation material for high-quality crops. This programme will be set up in partnership with plant breeding companies.

    • Experimental Plant Sciences, Graduate Programme
      This programme from the Experimental Plant Sciences (EPS) research school focuses on attracting and training top talent for the plant sciences. Dutch breeding companies with large and high-quality R&D programmes need talented, motivated, well-trained scientists so that they can continue to produce groundbreaking innovations in the future. The plant breeding industry is actively involved in this programme via the EPS Industrial Advisory Board.
    • STW-Rijk Zwaan Partnership Programma
      This programme focuses on the study of meiosis and meiotic recombination during the crossbreeding of plants. New knowledge and techniques should make it possible to develop varieties with an optimal combination of natural properties in a more efficient manner.
      Read more: (in Dutch)

    Other targeted activities (non-PPP)

    Thematic call Less is More

    The call 'Less is More' is inspired by the theme Less is More of the top sectors Agrofood and Horticulture and Propagation Materials. The call focuses on sustainable and safe production in agriculture and horticulture. The focus areas within this call are:

    • yield from agricultural and horticultural products
    • resilience of the production system
    • optimal utilisation of raw materials for food and non-food products
    • sustainable protein production

    Talent, non-programmed and infrastructure

    With its open programmes and NWO talent lines, NWO is contributing to the funding of excellent academic research relevant to the top sectors Agri&Food and Horticulture and Propagation Materials.

  • International collaborations

    Within the theme, the following international collaborations exist:

    JSTP Agriculture & Food: How to feed the World?

    Joint Scientific Thematic Research Programme (JSTP): a partnership programme with China. 

    Read more: Joint Research Projects: Agriculture & Food

    Cooperation China (NSFC) - Joint Research Projects - Plant Developmental Biology

    A partnership programme with the National Natural Science Foundation of China in the field of plant developmental biology.

    JPI Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life (HDHL)

    Joint Programming Initiative: a European partnership focused on prevention of diet-related diseases and on strengthening the knowledge base for the food industry. HDHL is an international network coordinated by the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw).

    Read more:

    JPI Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (FACCE)

    Joint Programming Initiative: a European partnership focused on food security and sustainable food production. The Netherlands has an important role in the FACCE key team.

    Read more:

    ERA-NET for Coordinating Action in Plant Sciences (ERA-CAPS)

    A European collaborative association of 24 countries aiming to develop a common vision and strategy for innovative plant research and to set up an international research programme.


    Partnership with South Africa aimed at strengthening technological capabilities in the field of agriculture and water in Africa.