Unpacking the Gouda cheese

When we think about the Netherlands, we think of channels, dikes, coffeeshops, tulips, windmills, cheese…but from the large family of Dutch pride the so called Gouda cheese is one of the most emblematic symbols of Dutch traditions. It reminiscent of small farm, colourful and folkloric performances of ancient trade’s traditions, a good wine and exclusive aged gourmet cheese; finally gezellig moments.

Enjoying a Gouda cheese has become a must to experience the popular culture of Holland, and a mandatory point of the touristic itinerary. This cheese was named after ‘Gouda’ a town in the North of Holland, where merchants met and exchanged goods during the Middle Ages. Currently local merchants still meet and perform the trade’s ancient practices for the amusement of tourist every Wednesday or Saturday in the local markets of the city. The Gouda cheese therefore evokes this explosion of colours, traditional clothes, hundreds of yellow cheese disks in the square that dates back to the city’s heyday.

From cheese farms and local markets, to exclusive gourmet stores in Germany, Peru or Beverly Hills (in the United States), Gouda cheese is everywhere and duly certificated of its origin. The name “Gouda Holland” is protected by EU trade laws that guarantee the cheese is produced in the Netherlands, using traditional methods.

Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/579459/value-of-the-import-and-export-of-gouda-cheese-in-the-netherlands/

From the middle age to XXI century

Gouda cheese has been produced in the Netherlands since 12th century and is considered one of the oldest types of cheese in the world: currently the cheese industry is an important component of Dutch economy.

In 2009, the Netherlands produced 712 million kilograms of cheese, of which 350 million kilograms corresponded to the protected names of traditional cheese (such as the Gouda-Holland); however two-thirds of the production was exported to other countries, accounting around 50% percent of the world’s cheese consumption. The picturesque and historical Gouda represents millions of kilograms exported each year besides of the Dutch pride. The Gouda is travelling all around the globe having Germany as the biggest buyer.



In 2017 the Netherlands was ranked second worldwide in cheese exports, at least 50% of the production of cheese corresponded to protected names, labelled as traditional.

Looking at this numbers, I wonder, what traditional means when talking about intensive cheese production? According to the Ministry of Agriculture Nature and Food Quality on the granted protected status of the Gouda Holland; traditional refers to the method of production, the natural aging process and using milk from Dutch cows.

 Dairy and cheese Industry

For every kilogram of cheese 10 -13 litres of milk and 2.62 m3 of water is required. We cannot talk about cheese production without looking at the dairy industry. The dairy industry in the Netherlands it’s highly mechanized and is characterised for constantly improving feed quality and genetic selection though breeding programs, this means that are focused in reducing dairy herd and improving efficiency. Dutch cows can produce an average 22 litres of milk per day (some cows may produce over 50 litres a day) which is six times more than what a cow would naturally produce to feed her calf. Doing some numbers, we realize that around half a million cows were required to produce, in 2009, the 350 million kilograms of cheese labelled as traditional.


Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/search/automatic+milking+machine

On the other hand, a significant part of Dutch livestock feed is imported, and agriculture  for animal food is intensive in external nutrients.  However imported ingredients (of cheese) are assumed to be produced from Dutch domestic resources. The Dutch cows are greatly feed by food produced mostly from European countries, but also from Asia, United States, and South America.

An intensive production model is characterised, among other aspects, by being highly mechanized and constantly producing and therefore by requiring higher demands of water, energy and other resources . The cheese as a final product embodies significant amounts of green house emissions, accumulated in every stage of the transformation and commercialization chain.

Gouda cheese propaganda in the Central Market, The Hague. Picture: Karelia Martinez

To conclude I leave a question;

Can we still say that our delicious slice of cheese, labelled as Gouda- Holland and just made in a cheese farm (well technically equipped), that produces 13,000 litres of cheese per day, using milk from highly mechanised dairy farm with genetically selected Dutch cows (with the highest production rate of Europe, more than twice than UK), fed with imported food from intensive agriculture, is traditional?


About the author

Karelia Martinez, Civil Engineer from Nicaragua, currently  studying Water Management and Governance in IHE Delft, Institute of Water Education, in partnership with UNESCO.


Hoekstra, A. Y. (2012). The hidden water resource use behind meat and dairy. Animal frontiers, 2(2), 3-8.

Oulu, M. (2015). The unequal exchange of Dutch cheese and Kenyan roses: Introducing and testing an LCA-based methodology for estimating ecologically unequal exchange. Ecological Economics, 119, 372-383.

Van Oel, P., Mekonnen, M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2008). The external water footprint of the Netherlands: Quantification and impact assessment.























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