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Cultivating change

How a Dutch university is working on a new agricultural revolution – to feed the world

• Wageningen may seem an unlikely place for a revolution. It’s a small town in the central Netherlands, with a small brick church, ruined 16th-century fortifications and a population of 37,000. It doesn’t even have its own railway station. But it has the best agriculture university in the world, according to the annual QS World University Rankings. There at Wageningen University & Research, 5,000 staff and 11,000 students are working to ensure the world will have enough to eat in future.

Ernst van den Ende is the head of the Department of Plant Science. He calls up a PowerPoint presentation showing a steeply rising curve: the demand for food by 2050. “In 30 years’ time we will have 10 billion human beings on the planet, 2.5 billion more than now. At the same time, the area available for agriculture is shrinking. Extreme weather events like flooding and drought are on the rise because of climate change.

“In the next 40 years,” he concludes, “we will have to produce as much food as mankind has produced in the whole past 8,000 years.”

Surprisingly, Van den Ende believes it can be done. There is a model: the Netherlands. This densely populated small country has an enormously productive agricultural sector and is the second largest food exporter in the world measured by the value of its agricultural exports – €91.7bn (£81.5bn) in 2017. Only the United States earns more from agriculture, a little over €120bn. But the Netherlands manages its feat with an agricultural area 217 times smaller than that of the US.

The Netherlands has the world’s highest yields per hectare for cucumbers, chilli peppers and tomatoes; the second highest for pears and wheat; and the fifth highest for potatoes, carrots and onions. And it does so very economically: using only a little over nine litres of water per kilogramme to grow glasshouse tomatoes, for example. The global average is 214 litres.

The Dutch have also radically changed their use of pesticides and fertilisers. In 1999 the country used more than any other European country, spreading on average 500 kilos per hectare. By 2014, the figure had been more than halved.

Many of the methods and techniques making this radical change possible were developed in Wageningen. The revolution in Dutch agriculture is a revolution in knowledge.

Lettuce from the lab, bananas from the greenhouse. Research projects for Ernst van den Ende

That is why Van den Ende can produce his doom-laden statistics so calmly. He knows the problem can be solved. The world just has to become what the Netherlands is today, or probably just a tad better, and that is what the researchers are working on.

More with less, is Van den Ende’s motto. “We want to produce more on each square metre, using fewer pesticides, less water, less energy, less work.”

Visitors can see how it works in a darkened container lit with blue and red LED lamps like an Amsterdam brothel. The temperature is set at 22C. Here, Leo Marcelis, 54, is growing lettuces, each leaf hardly bigger than a cigarette packet.

The plants grow on three levels, making maximum use of the space, and planted in a clay substrate, with no sunlight. This would make it possible to grow crops in very small spaces in cities, more efficiently than in any field.

Vertical farming has for some years been seen as the solution for a planet running out of space for agriculture. Fields are stacked under artificial light, mostly without soil but instead using water enriched with nutrients.

Marcelis is currently testing which mixture of red and blue light works best; 90% red to 10% blue seems to work well. The plants grow especially quickly under red light, but red light alone is not good for them and they need the 10% blue. “We control everything here,” he says. “We can produce like this the whole year round, with reliable and constant quality.”

And using minimal resources: even the water that evaporates is collected and used again. “In our vertical gardens we aim to reduce water consumption to two or three litres per kilo of tomatoes,” says Marcelis. No pesticides are used, because the plants are completely sealed off from the outside world.

An unknown fruit

The biggest difficulty is cost, especially electricity, use of which here is currently two to three times higher than in an ordinary Dutch greenhouse. “You mustn’t think of this as a substitute for the greenhouse but as something completely new, a whole new step up in the control of plant growth,” says Marcelis. “There are already cities that are bigger than the whole of the Netherlands. One day, it will make sense to produce some of the food in the suburbs there, in every climate, in very confined spaces nearer the consumer.”

But there are plants for which even creating new artificial environments won’t be enough; the banana, for instance. The outlook for the banana is worse than for practically any other fruit. Nearly every dessert banana in European supermarkets is a Cavendish variety, which can only be protected from disease by lots of pesticides: Costa Rica sprays about 45 kilos of pesticide a year on each hectare of banana plantation. Hardly any other plant requires so much poison to safeguard it. Bananas are incredibly fragile.

Yet cooking bananas or plantains are one of the key sources of food in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The Philippines and Brazil consume an average of 60 kilos of bananas a year per head of population. In Uganda, Rwanda and Cameroon the figure is even higher: around 200 kilos a year. In some regions, bananas account for a quarter of people’s calorie intake.

On the track of plants’ final secrets

Perhaps the greatest hope for the future of the banana lies in a glasshouse in Wageningen, where huge trees grow, watched over by robot cameras which record the slow wilting of the leaves. Nearly all the plants here are infected with some of the worst pathogens in existence. One of them is TR4, a variant of Panama disease, which has the potential to jeopardise the cultivation of the Cavendish banana. There is no effective means of combating TR4. When it attacks a plantation, its spores penetrate so deep into the ground that they can survive there for decades, leaving the plantation useless for decades. In South-east Asia and Africa whole fields have had to be abandoned. Until now Latin America has been spared. But the question is, for how much longer?

In Wageningen, Gert Kema is testing new varieties of banana intended to be more disease-resistant to prevent the cultivation of the fruit collapsing suddenly one day. “Here we are thousands of kilometres away from any banana plantation,” he says. “We can work on these diseases without running the risk of something escaping from our glasshouses.”

To test the new varieties, young plants are damaged at the roots. Then liquid with millions of fungal spores is dripped on to them. Most of the plants die within six weeks. The problem for Kema is that this process takes far too long. “It took four years just to test a few hundred plants for just two pathogens. We hardly know anything about the genetic basis. Research is far more advanced with wheat, maize or rice.”

In Kema’s view it will take at least 10 years. By then he hopes to have found the first varieties of banana that are resistant and suitable for large-scale cultivation. “The good thing is that once you have got a breeding programme up and running, you constantly get new varieties that you can market.”

Wageningen’s research has never been restricted to the Netherlands. In the first two decades following the establishment of the university in 1918, many students graduated in “colonial agriculture” or “colonial forestry”. Their fathers often owned plantations in the Dutch colonies in what is now Indonesia or the Caribbean. But Wageningen did not evolve into an internationally leading agricultural university until after the second world war, when the former Dutch colonies became independent.

The Netherlands is the last western industrial nation to have experienced famine. In the final winter of the war, about 20,000 Dutch citizens died because Germany did not supply the occupied territory with sufficient food. That is why in the post-war years Dutch politicians followed a policy of massive investment in research into agricultural technology. Never again should there be such a catastrophe as the “Hongerwinter” (Hunger winter) of 1944-45.

Green lettuce likes red light

Today, the scientific foundation that subsequently emerged is of interest to the whole world; 40% of masters students in Wageningen and 60% of doctoral candidates are from abroad. Students come from 126 countries, particularly China, Indonesia, Mexico and India.

Is Wageningen setting out to change food production throughout the whole world? That is not such a wild idea as it may seem. Ernst van den Ende says: “Our great advantage is concentration. As a research institute we specialise totally in agriculture and food technologies. That is probably unique in the whole world.”

Research is going on into how algae can be used as food and fuel, how chemical pesticides can be replaced by insects, how to create hi-tech greenhouses that don’t need soil. But at present one project seems more promising than any other: robotics.

When Rick van der Zedde, 38, leaves the podium after addressing an annual fair for agriculture investors, it takes him nearly half an hour to get away from all the people who want to talk to him. The representatives of major industrial robot manufacturers hand him their business cards; scientists want to talk about projects – and about robotics. The focus is not so much on automation as on information that can be gathered via cameras and sensors. There are now 60 researchers working on this in Wageningen.

In a climate chamber, visitors can marvel at the great promise for the future. In the brightly lit sterile room a robot passes over tiny green young plants, each barely thumb-high, and irradiates them every few seconds with a flash. The robot measures how much light they can absorb, meaning how receptive they are in photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy.

“The problem with photosynthesis is that at present plants are only able to absorb about 1% of the sunlight,” says Van der Zedde. “So if we could find plants that could process just a little more, say 2%, then we would potentially be in a position to double the productivity of our plants.” The assignment for the robot, with its light-sensitive camera and automatic data processing, is no less than to find the plants of the future. “It is clear that we can only get on top of the most important problems of agriculture with the help of automation,” says Van der Zedde.

A key food in danger: the banana

Vegan steaks

When talk turns to the future of agriculture, there is no getting away from the topic of meat. Meat production is grotesquely inefficient and takes up vast amounts of space. Nearly 30% of Earth’s ice-free land area is used for livestock farming. At least a third of all crops are fed to livestock and 15,500 litres of water are needed to produce one kilo of meat. Despite all this outlay, meat contributes only 18% to the worldwide calorie intake of human beings. The problem is: we like it too much.

“Lots of people like the texture of meat, this particular kind of fibrousness, how soft it is and juicy,” says Atze Jan van der Goot. “If we can offer people something that feels the same, they will be more likely to do without meat.” Van der Goot is a food engineer and for 16 years he has been working on a machine that does something that has long seemed impossible: reproducing the consistency of steak. Over the years, he has built eight different versions, all of which look like hi-tech kitchen blenders. He keeps the artificial meat in a freezer. It is made of soya protein. Big rectangular slabs with a greyish colour.

“We are not concerned with the taste,” he says. “That is not really our area. And fortunately there are already artificial aromas. But getting the consistency right is still a big challenge.”

Most meat substitutes are heated and compressed into a shape that is supposed to resemble small chunks of chicken or mincemeat. But that process comes nowhere near reproducing the consistency of a juicy steak. “Real meat basically consists of layers of fibre,” says Van der Goot. “But with imitation meat, the layers of fibres must not be too similar or the consumers get suspicious.”

In Jan van der Goot’s machine a lump of soya is heated to 120C and rotated, forming layers of fibre that mimic the consistency of a steak. “Normally it only works with small pieces of imitation meat. Suddenly we had a 7kg slab.”

At the moment he is still experimenting with the recipe and trying to find better ingredients. “The advantage of soya is that it is relatively tasteless. We have also tried peas, but they leave an aftertaste you simply cannot get rid of. It always tastes rather of peas.” 

Atze Jan van der Goot: steak – or fake?

The technology is so promising that a consortium of Dutch, French and German firms has now been formed to market the vegetarian meat. It includes the giant Unilever but also a small Dutch firm calling itself the “vegetarian butcher”. Van der Goot is hoping that the meat substitute will be on supermarket shelves within three years.

In the 1960s it looked like agriculture was not going to be able to feed the growing world population. What followed was an incredible surge in productivity. This had its downsides, especially the massive use of pesticides, but it nevertheless succeeded in producing so much food that today, at least in theory, nobody should have to go hungry.

Ernst van den Ende remembers how scientists and growers worked together in those days. “Back then we succeeded in raising productivity within 20 years, with new varieties, fertilisers and pesticides. We have to manage something similar this time.”

After the interview, as Van den Ende walks across the university campus past the new, climate-neutral research buildings, he recalls that only 20 years ago none of this existed. “When I was a student, none of this was here. There were just a few research fields. The university was originally spread out all over the town. And it was a lot smaller. Now, we have twice as many students as there were in the ‘90s.”

Perhaps that alone is a reason not to look into the future with too much pessimism: this knowledge factory just keeps on growing.