Naktuinbouw (the Netherlands inspection service for horticulture) and Wageningen University & Research jointly study pests and plant diseases. Michel Ebskamp, research & development manager at Naktuinbouw, focuses on ensuring healthy propagation material for vegetables, flowers and trees.
Healthy propagation material is the basis for growing healthy vegetables, flowers and trees. Naktuinbouw ensures that the quality of propagation material meets Dutch and European legislation at some 3,500 companies in the Netherlands, performing tests in its laboratories when required.
“Our strength is in translating basic research into daily practice,” explains Ebskamp. “We have direct contact with the private sector. The experts at Wageningen University & Research come to us with the latest technologies and we then examine what they mean in practice and how they can be deployed.”
Actively involving the private sector
“There is a seamless communication with the scientists from Wageningen University & Research who let us know about the latest developments and techniques early on. Our cooperation often takes the form of a public-private partnership (PPP) as part of the Dutch top sector policy. This is organised through a formal procedure with clear rules.
“When these projects were first launched by the government, it took some time to find the right form and structure. Things run more smoothly now. For the private sector, it is easier than before to get into these kinds of projects. They are actively involved in information days, we have good communication with the real world and we build bridges to practical applications. There is awareness among scientists that a PPP has impact on the outside world and that this is a positive thing.”
A healthy start
“In our line of work, everything starts with diagnostics. Are the seeds and seedlings we’re dealing with healthy?” There are several techniques that detect diseases. In recent years, experts from Wageningen University & Research’s business unit Biointeractions & Plant Health and Naktuinbouw have been working with new methods such as Next Generation Sequencing, a technique that enables millions of DNA building blocks to be determined and analysed at once.
“Breeders want more assurances that their new orchid material arriving from abroad, for instance, is free from known and unknown viruses. This is something we can now investigate. We can also use our technologies once private sector operators are already dealing with an unknown disease – naturally, they want to be able to take action as soon as possible. We therefore included certain sample materials in a project where we examined them with the latest sequencing technologies. This helped us find new viruses in Mandevilla, Begonia and other species. The results lead to further investigation and were used to develop new tests. Sometimes we found that it was in fact a combination of viruses that was affecting a plant, for instance.
“We mostly look at how we can apply a given technology. Does a business really need the latest technology to solve its problems and is it willing to invest in it? Wageningen University & Research takes a scientific approach to this. Of course, they give thought to practical applications too, but that's often secondary to them. Our partnership brings out the best of both worlds and that’s what makes it such a success.”
Making a difference
“The European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisation (EPPO) recently organised a workshop. Various inspection services, the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority [NVWA] and Wageningen University & Research were able to make an important contribution to the debate on topics such as Next Generation Sequencing, which allow many viruses to be detected in a short time.
“For instance, not all elements detected have to be a problem: an incomplete virus does not cause any damage, but its genetic material will still be identified in the sample. This is a nuance we brought up at the workshop. These kinds of insights can help government bodies establish the degree of risk, which can, for instance result in them allowing plant material to be imported instead of banning it. This is an essential distinction for the private sector and the market.”
“We really put ourselves on the map during this significant meeting. We are a serious player that takes part in the major activities of the sector worldwide, and that is something to be proud of,” concludes Ebskamp.