"The best ways to increase yields are not necessarily high-tech", according to Ernst van den Ende and Sjaak Bakker “Whatever the local conditions may be, Wageningen University & Research can contribute to the sustainable intensification of agriculture anywhere in the world,” says Ernst van den Ende, general director of Wageningen Plant Research. “Our starting point is improving existing systems rather than simply introducing the latest technologies. The latter requires extensive knowledge to work with. Based on the actual socio-economic and climatological conditions in places such as Indonesia and Africa, we develop viable and sustainable concepts that increase production.”
Developing growth strategies
Wageningen University & Research advises many companies and governments in Asia, Africa and Latin America on their growth strategy. Sjaak Bakker, manager of the business unit Greenhouse Horticulture, often attends these meetings. He regularly has to convince his discussion partners that designing an intelligent solution may be an innovative process, but that the solution does not necessarily have to be high-tech. “In Indonesia we were able to use a relatively simple, well-designed foil greenhouse with passive ventilation – so without high-tech climate control – to considerably increase the yield,” Bakker explains.
“Another good example of a low-tech solution based on a high-tech concept is the N2Africa project”, Van den Ende adds. “Wageningen plant scientists, led by Professor Ken Giller and financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are improving food security by using plants that combine with bacteria to fixate nitrogen from the air. This method helps increase the food crop yields.”
Realising better systems step by step
Van den Ende: “The technological possibilities should be in line with socio-economic conditions. A top-of-the-range greenhouse may be the ultimate solution in the long term, but it shouldn’t be developed until the on-site preconditions allow it.” China still has many plastic foil greenhouses that lean against stone walls which warm up during the day and give off heat at night. Bakker: “We also used this principle of so-called ‘wall greenhouses’ in the Netherlands at the start of the greenhouse era. We didn’t get to where we are now in just one step. It takes time. Chinese companies will take these steps faster as they can learn from us but they shouldn’t be too quick for the local businesses. Affordable and applicable adaptations to existing greenhouses can increase production considerably.”
Financially realistic innovations
Because the local preconditions are included in the design process, the search is always for custom solutions. ‘Sustainable intensification’ is the starting point, Van den Ende explains. “We design concepts that are first of all financially viable. Next we aim to use this sustainable intensification to increase production while reducing the input of water, nutrients and energy. Part of that concept is about developing methods which limit losses after harvesting.” Bakker agrees: “It is not just about increasing production – we have to achieve a sustainable improvement of the food supply.”
Global network of experts
Wageningen University & Research is in contact with local agricultural experts, often Wageningen alumni, in nearly every country. In addition, many employees are globally active in collaborative projects. “We are very familiar with the local conditions,” says Van den Ende. “Moreover, we have the means to enter these conditions into models whereby we can calculate which existing production, transport and processing chain could result in sustainable improvements.” In this sense concrete figures can show whether a developed concept could actually result in improvements within the local framework.