Where can you work on developing healthy and flavoursome food? And sustainable food chains? Green alternatives for products presently produced using fossil fuels? Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, one of the research institutes that’s part of Wageningen University & Research, is at the forefront of these developments. They work on all this with clients and across the entire food chain, from raw materials to processing and end product. They have an energetic, no-nonsense approach and an open and inquiring vision.
Gerhard de Ruiter, Business Unit Manager at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, can tell us all about it: "We work on socially relevant practical issues which could really make a difference. Take for example research into post-harvest techniques for keeping products fresh for longer, new food processing methods which use far less energy and water, consumer behaviour, big data and artificial intelligence, the effects of specific ingredients on health or optimisation of supply chains."
So you actually sell ideas?
"You could put it like that. They're not concrete products, but rather projects. Let's say a company needs a product development that meets their demands. We have ideas about that and we draw up a plan for how we want to research and implement it, but you can never be sure beforehand whether you can achieve the goals. That's the case with social goals, for example."
Which social issue is high on your list of priorities?
"Making the entire food system sustainable, to the extent that healthy and affordable food is available to all 9.5 billion people in the world, by 2050. Tackling food wastage is a good example of this. Wasting a third of our food, at some point along the chain, causes huge economic damage and from the perspective of sustainability, is absolutely unacceptable. We have been commissioned by the minister to tackle that issue, together with other partners in the Netherlands. That's because it's not an issue you can solve on your own, you have to work on it with partners from the chain. The goal is to halve wastage by 2030. It's very ambitious, but the positive effects on sustainability make it more than worthwhile. All the more so, when it also prevents unnecessary production putting pressure on energy and other resources."
How did Wageningen get to be so famous as the ultimate innovative agrifood hotspot in the world?
"We would not be able to exist without the power of innovation. Wageningen University & Research is a unique organisation employing more than 6,000 people and we rank first in the world in agrifood. In our 100-year existence, we have built up a unique reputation, and are known in the farthest corners of the world. That's a huge help to us. We achieved that position by collaborating with others and repeatedly coming up with new and practically applicable knowledge and developments. We do it better than others and in close collaboration with businesses and other interested parties. Bringing various parties together has already achieved so much. Because we really want to understand how things work in the field, we are sometimes literally up to our knees in mud. And of course, we always incorporate the very latest knowledge. We’re taking all that and trying to make the world, and certainly the Netherlands, a bit better."
In which area are you expecting to make more advances?
"Minimal processing is totally hot. It uses new processing technologies to make production of foodstuffs more natural, and therefore less processed. We're actively involved in techniques with which to produce plant-based meat, where enormous strides are being made. The techniques are complex but demand is great. The whole protein transition aimed at providing the world with enough protein by 2050 is a significant challenge, but one that Wageningen is totally committed to. Our share in all those projects is so large that globally, we are in a leading position in that field. It's hugely interesting."
More and more professionals are going for jobs in which they can really mean something to society? Are you seeing that happen?
"We have welcomed many new colleagues in the last two years, many of whom were in pursuit of that 'higher purpose'. Now, we offer good employment conditions, but some of these new colleagues came to us from the higher commercial segment so obviously their salaries went down, but they're absolutely happy because this work gives them so much job satisfaction. It's also just great to be involved in something new and really make an impact."
So anyone wanting to work on the solutions for the future can find what they're looking for at WUR?
"Absolutely. If that's the case, this is the place to be. Making an impact is what we work on, along with the latest knowledge and insights. This is the ultimate environment for a scientist with an inquiring mind while at the same time, it challenges their ability. You have to have enough experience, knowledge of an area of expertise, be able to think conceptually, have excellent communication skills and an existing network, or the intention of building one, in the ingredients industry. And it goes without saying that you must have an above-average interest in companies' social issues and an ability to think in solutions which contribute to our motto: Better food for more people."
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Read more about Wageningen Food & Biobased Research here.