Not everyone is convinced by the Dutch approach. Franco Fubini is the CEO of Natoora, a fruit and vegetable company that supplies many of London’s top restaurants, as well as selling direct to consumers. If you want rare breeds of tomato, picked at their peak of freshness – and priced accordingly – Natoora is the brand to seek out. Its Sicilian vine tomatoes are listed on Ocado at £2.50 for 180g. According to the Sainsbury’s website, six Dutch-grown vine tomatoes, 450g, are £2.20.
‘We do sometimes buy tomatoes that are hydroponically grown,’ Fubini tells me, ‘but these are tomatoes we don’t really talk about. We don’t believe in hydroponic farming as a solution: we don’t think that you can get a tomato that tastes good. The people doing it always claim they can, but in 20 years I’ve never seen it.’ Nutritional science is still in its infancy, he adds. While we can measure things like potassium and beta-carotene in tomatoes, there is plenty we don’t know about micronutrients, or how nutrients interact with each other.
‘The basic problem is soil,’ Fubini adds. ‘Soil is fundamental for preserving an ecosystem, and for delivering flavour and nutrition. There is a lot of complex biology in soil, including fungal and bacterial networks, which enable the plant to absorb these micronutrients. When you farm hydroponically, it’s a very inert environment where you are growing from a substrate and you’re adding four or five inputs. It’s very hard, almost impossible, to argue that a plant grown in a hydroponic environment has access to the same nutrition as a plant grown in healthy soils.
‘There’s a direct link between nutrition and flavour,’ he says. ‘There is [a concept] called nutritional intelligence, which animals have, and which studies have shown young children have as well, which is that animals are capable of changing their diet based on nutritional deficiencies. Things that taste good are good for us. The industrial system has subverted that, so we love crisps and sugar, but generally when something tastes really good it’s because it has nutrition – our body has been built to perceive health in a tasty way.’
For Fubini, Dutch greenhouses represent the industrialisation of horticulture. ‘Whenever we try to industrialise food – look at chicken, or cheese – we are very good at making it faster, bigger or cheaper. But we’ve never been able to do it better than nature. We’ve never been able to make it tasty. I think that’s really encouraging, because the day we could do that would be a sad day for humanity. It’s dangerous when we lose that connection to nature. There is ample land to be able to feed everyone. The amount of food that gets thrown away is exorbitant. The idea that we can’t feed the world on the soil we have is convenient, but it’s not really true.’
Speak to van den Ende, and the team at Duijvestijn, and it’s clear they believe they are only at the start of a thrilling new phase for tomatoes. ‘At Duijvestijn we test more than 200 new varieties each year – taste and quality are very important criteria when assessing new varieties,’ says Roos Zurel. ‘These must be better than the current variety in order to even consider switching to a new one. Flavour has become more stable over the years and has increased in average over the whole category.’
They are aware of the problems that come with monocultural growing. Duijvestijn has its own biologists who monitor the balance in the greenhouse between insects that can harm tomato plants, and their predators. If necessary, these predators are introduced into the crop – in this way, biological control can be achieved.