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Innovate or go hungry

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Seed breeders wrestle with decline in research and shortage of students

 

On Friday 21 January, journalist Henk Engelenburg of Het Financieele Dagblad looked at the Dutch seed sector. The full articles are available for subscribers to read on the FD website.

A summary:

“If we fail to innovate, much of the world will really go hungry”

 

Innovative Dutch seed improvement companies invest heavily in order to increase the yields of agricultural and horticultural crops. Only by doing so can the growth in the world’s population (nine billion people in 2050, compared to just under seven billion now) be absorbed. Yields need to increase by 70% through the development of crops that produce more with reduced quantities of fertiliser and pesticides. Crops need to be more productive under extreme weather conditions.

With some 25 companies, the breeding sector in the Netherlands is concentrated in the Kop van Noord-Holland and Westland regions. Innovation is the core activity. Joep Lambalk, research director of Enza Seeds in Enkhuizen, says: “If the global breeding sector did not innovate in food crops for around five years, yields would fall substantially around the world after a few years. Then people would go hungry.” Ongoing work to breed resistant varieties is needed because varieties quickly lose their value as fungi and bacteria gain a foothold. This is why the firms reinvest between 20% and 25% of their turnover in crop innovation.

Bernard de Geus, director of the Green Genetics top institute, is concerned about the quality of fundamental research at Dutch universities and the lack of long-term vision on the part of the government. Structural government investment has fallen sharply, leading to a decline in research. De Geus describes the field of plant breeding and research as a profession of the future, given the trend towards a bio-based economy. “We need to acquire a position. Biodiesel from algae? Not much breeding has yet been done in algae. Medicines from seaweeds? Nobody is looking at it. If you want to seize the opportunities offered by sustainability, you need to take on things like these.”

Lambalk states that $1.3 billion are spent on plant biotechnology R&D annually. Of that, the Netherlands accounts for $200 million, or 13%. “That is an astonishing share for such a small country, and it illustrates our position.” If the government does not invest in green education, that will have consequences. “Because a new generation of breeders and researchers are badly needed. It is already hard finding the right people.”

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