With a primary focus on food safety and security, Plant Sciences Group managing director Ernst van den Ende and members of the Wageningen team discussed various applications of its mission to focus on the domain of a “healthy food and living environment.” To fulfill this, research is based on the pillars of science, education and value creation, which are, he said, “combined to solve the complex issues in society.” For example: What is needed to bring a GMO to society? How do consumers accept new technologies? And, overarching all: How can we innovate more (e.g., per square meter) with less (e.g., energy), and better (e.g., safer, healthier)? “All our research programs are linked to this mantra,” van den Ende said.
He then illustrated its application to greenhouses, explaining that a high-tech tomato greenhouse can produce 20 times more than that which can be produced in the field — with four times less water. Additionally, it can use biological pest control in the closed system, resulting in less residue. All of this results in more sustainable production. “People aren’t aware that technology and sustainability are linked because they link sustainability to nature,” he said. “We need to carry that message to them.”
This is particularly important because of the challenges facing agriculture. Not only are there current global issues, such as agriculture inequality and availability of healthy food, but this will be exacerbated with the world population expected to increase to 10.5 billion people by 2100. With the impacts of climate change and our current energy and water use are added to this, said WUR Plant Pathology Scientist Geert Kessel, it is critical that agriculture’s ecological impact be reduced.
A renewed vision
The 2016 rebranding of Wageningen University and the research institutes with which it merged in the late ’90s into Wageningen University & Research has strengthened the university’s research, by furthering the blending of education, fundamental research and practical application in collaboration with the business community and social organizations.
As explained by van den Ende, it is a partnership of the public and private sector. It begins with science-driven, pre-competitive work to provide general knowledge for the industry. As the research continues and moves from theory to discovery to application, the process moves further into the private sector with privately funded, proprietary applications developed from the general research.
The purpose and goal is to provide “science with impact,” he said, explaining that to really have an impact, you have to focus on and listen to the industry. “It’s really a balancing between industry and government to find the common interests and come up with sustainable solutions,” he said.
Van den Ende gave seed breeding as an example:
- Through public funding, research has focused on molecular DNA.
- Through 10 percent private funding, the research centered in on tomatoes and potatoes.
- With more private funding and direction, research was directed to the genomics of specific tomatoes.
As such, he said, “The more private funding, the more the intellectual property belongs to industry.”
Up for debate
There is, however, a lot of debate about the value of public/private partnerships, said WUR press officer Erik Toussaint. “But that’s the beauty of the university; we welcome these debates. There isn’t one right approach; you need to use whichever is best.”
“For us, it’s really important to connect to society and do a lot of public debates,” van den Ende agreed. “I would like to have debates on facts, but very often it’s a debate on emotion.”
Just as controversial is the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Kessel’s work is currently focused on developing resistance management in potatoes. Blight, as well as various bacteria, viruses and pests, all provide challenges to production. Therefore, research is focused on how to increase durability in relation to pests and diseases. The project aimed at stimulating research on genetic modification and public debate on innovative genetic techniques. As explained in the study report, “It was decided to clone and transfer late blight resistance (R) genes of crossable wild potato species (cisgenes) by Agrobacterium tumefaciens-mediated transformation without non-potato genes.”
As such, Kessel said, GMO is a tool for which one should determine benefit and risk by looking at the product in which it is used, not at the technology itself. Each application should be assessed from all aspects. “Here, we can afford not to use it,” he said. “But in poorer countries, they would really benefit from a technology like this.” For example, the study shows that if late blight were to be nearly eradicated, global potato production would increase by close to 80 million tons annually — contributing considerably to the needed additional global future food supply.
A lot of today’s plants are very susceptible to environmental conditions, and we need to study these and consider as many options as possible to increase production, said WUR scientist Gerard van der Linden. Why is this plant doing better than that one? Is there a genetic reason? Can we adapt that?
“We need to try to find the traits that breeders can use,” he said. For example, protein and fiber-rich quinoa is very tolerant to drought and salinity; it can grow in salt water and under normal conditions. As such, it has become a key focus of research for van der Linden. “This is a crop you can grow where no other crop can and produce a high yield,” he said. “So we are studying it to find out why. Maybe we can introduce that into other crops.”