Describing itself as the primary knowledge-intensive agrifood ecosystem in the Netherlands, Food Valley, as it’s known, promises food-related solutions “in the region and far beyond”, via co-operation between companies, knowledge institutions, innovation centres, education and government. The base for these global ambitions is the quiet university town of Wageningen.
This is a modest place, seemingly at odds with its reputation as a world capital of innovation in food and agriculture, where the whole chain of research is usually covered in-house – by the locality’s more than 6,500 specialists and experts, from biochemical engineers to seaweed policy makers to tasting panellists who determine the deliciousness of experimental tomatoes.
Wageningen, an hour’s drive from Amsterdam, was nicknamed Food Valley (referencing the Gelderse Valley, where the town nestles) in the early 2000s. At this time, the university was caught up in a push to infuse its academic prowess with some of tech’s startup spirit – fusing the best of Gelderse Valley and Silicon Valley, if you will. Food and agtech accelerators were established, such as StartLife and Foodvalley NL – a platform to connect an international business network with the research and resources of Wageningen University and Research (WUR). Meanwhile, in WUR’s labs and greenhouses, researchers continued to labour towards answers for the greatest challenges of our time: global hunger, disease and climate change. WIRED speaks to the researchers shaping the future of food.
In WUR’s Unifarm facility, among lanes of pint-sized glass buildings, a team led by Leo Marcelis, a professor in horticulture and product physiology, is studying the effects of monochrome LEDs, in a range of different colours, on greenhouse crops. LEDs offer a more efficient, sustainable approach to greenhouse growth than the high-pressure sodium lamps traditionally used in the Netherlands. Marcelis and his team want to find out if they can employ LED lighting to reduce energy consumption in greenhouses by half.
Simply replacing the sodium fixtures with LEDs results in a swift 25 per cent cut in energy: LEDs have a far longer life expectancy and produce very little heat, which also means that their positioning can be optimised. Because of their warm glow, sodium fixtures must be placed at least a metre away from a plant, and hung from above. LEDs can be positioned far closer, even between plants – allowing light to shine wherever is best for the plant’s growth.
“And then the question is: what is the most ideal colour for the plant?” says Marcelis. Sodium fixtures seem to emit a soft, sunny light, but in fact have much less in common with the spectrum of sunlight than is desirable for fostering indoor growth. With LEDs, the light spectrum is entirely customisable. Each plant, and variety, has its own “light recipe” for optimal growth. Red LEDs are the most efficient in converting energy into the photons that will feed photosynthesis. But crops grown exclusively under red light can experience abnormal growth, known as “red light syndrome”. So blue light is added to help normal development. While each crop has a unique light “fingerprint”, most of Unifarm’s crops can be found under this careful balance of growth-boosting red and regulating blue.
With the right placement and the right light recipes, Marcelis and his team think that their goal of a 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse energy costs is within reach. Or, as the Wageningen motto goes: “two times more with two times less”.
Worldwide, some 2,000 species of insects are consumed as a sustainable source of food. Beyond Africa and Asia, however, insects are still a very niche cuisine — a situation entomologist Arnold van Huis has been attempting to transform for 20 years.
Outside Wageningen, Van Huis is known for co-authoring two landmark books on the potential of insects as planet-friendly protein providers. The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet looks at the history of entomophagy (the practice of eating insects), chefs versed in insect cuisine – such as René Redzepi, co-founder Danish Michelin-starred restaurant Noma – and bug recipes. Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security is a more academic take on the ecological and nutritional benefits of insects.
Cold insect blood translates to a high food conversion rate: per kilogram of meat produced, a cricket needs roughly 1.7 kg of feed, a cow 7-10. Insects also emit less greenhouse gases than conventional livestock; among insect species, only cockroaches, termites and scarab beetles produce any methane at all. Meanwhile, as Van Huis points out in Edible Insects, many insects can compete with conventional meat’s protein content. Per 100g of meat, cattle can produce up to 26g of protein, compared with up to 25g for crickets, and 28g for some species of locusts and grasshoppers.
According to Van Huis, the new age of entomophagy is beginning. Researchers at WUR are looking to capitalise on bugs’ ability to act as both livestock and miniature waste treatment plants. Insects reared on organic waste serve as both food production and waste reduction – a triumph in circular agriculture, where yield and use of resources are optimised for minimal impact on the environment. “We are at the beginning of an exponential growth,” Van Huis says.
Fake steak for all
A freezer opens, and a dense slab of brown-red material is pulled out. Atze Jan van der Goot points at the pancaked layers. It looks like a frozen steak — but this meat is not made up of cow. It’s a mixture of wheat gluten, soy concentrate, colorants and water. “For us, as food engineers,” Van der Goot explains, “we would like to make a product that resembles meat as much as possible.”
Originally a chemical engineer, he turned his focus to plant-based meat in 2004. Several years in, he and his fellow researchers had a breakthrough – one claimed to make the texture of their meat analogue, and the experience of eating it, better than any similar product on the market. WUR’s fake steak, he says, even sizzles in a pan, like a thick slice of bacon. The breakthrough? Shear cell technology.
Many artificial meat companies, such as Impossible foods, with its famous bleeding burger, employ a technology called high-moisture extrusion — essentially, the heating and then cooling of the meat substitute mixture, to create texturisation.
With WUR’s “meat”, the texture is achieved through unaligned, or shearing forces. The mixture is pumped under mild pressure into the shear cell cylinder, which contains two nested compartments: one spinning, the other fixed. This movement pulls and weaves the strands of soy and gluten together, creating a fibrous structure that the WUR technicians regard as superior to that achieved through extrusion. Both the energy input and the cost of investment for shear cell are lower than those of any available extrusion technology: respectively, 25-40 per cent less, and 40-60 per cent less.
And it is catching the eye of big investors. Plant Meat Matters, a project led by Van der Goot looking to scale up the shear cell method, has partnered with several food companies in the Netherlands, France and Germany, and the multinational consumer goods company Unilever. But shear cell could also provide a more democratised method for producing plant-based products. In the near future, Van der Goot believes that every restaurant, grocery store and kitchen can be equipped with a fake-meat machine.
For generations, we’ve manipulated our crops to boost nutritional value, or achieve disease resistance through chemicals and irradiation. CRISPR-Cas is a new breeding technique part-developed at Wageningen, that works within the plant itself – like a pair of “molecular scissors”, as Jan Schaart, a plant-breeding researcher at WUR explains.
CRISPR-Cas allows scientists to directly target a section of the genome with these molecular scissors, snipping off the gene in question. After the cut is made, the cell’s immune system jumps into action, and the repair mechanism mends the break, hopefully writing in a mutation as it does so, which may result in an improved, strengthened or enhanced plant. “It is much faster and more precise than traditional breeding,” says Schaart.
Take the potato. Phytophthora, known more commonly as blight, has plagued potato crops for hundreds of years, perhaps most infamously in the Irish Potato Famine. Using CRISPR-Cas, WUR scientists can target and cut the genes of the potato that determine how susceptible the plant is to the disease, thereby creating resistant mutants.
CRISPR-Cas is also behind the research at WUR into breeding wheat, barley and rye types containing only “safe” gluten. Using those same molecular scissors, scientists remove toxic antigens, known as epitopes, present in certain gluten genes. The result is a wheat plant that is not gluten free, but is nonetheless rendered safe to eat for those with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance.
Its versatility and simplicity also means CRISPR-Cas also has great potential in breeding plants better equipped to resist climate change, Schaart explains: researchers could identify, locate and target genes to modify, say, for drought resistance – as long as they are able to determine exactly what and where those genes are. “I always say it is a knowledge-based technique,” says Schaart. “You have to have knowledge about the genes you want to target. And you have to know what happens if you knock them out.”
The taste detectives
Food fraud, like the horsemeat-in-beef scandal of 2013 scandal, costs up to $40 billion (£32 billion) a year – but WUR uses a food product’s biological fingerprint to determine its origin and authenticity.
The key criteria for choosing the products to be analysed include ubiquity, which means items consumed by a wide population, such as olive oil, bananas or salt. In studying a food product, researchers diagnose the type of fraud most likely to affect that particular product, such as dilution (olive oil), substitution (meat), or counterfeiting (battery eggs posing as free-range). Then they choose the technology best suited to distinguish between adulterated and unadulterated samples. “It’s very difficult to achieve,” says Sara Erasmus, a researcher in food quality and design at WUR, “because each product can be exposed to different types of fraud in different ways.”
When studying coffee, WUR researchers have mapped out the fingerprints of a bank of products in order to distinguish between organic and non-organic samples. They use proton-transfer-reaction quadrupole ion time of flight (PTR-QiTOF) technology, a form of mass spectrometry that measures the samples’ volatiles (compounds quick to turn to gas or vapor) by mass. The PTR-QiTOF equipment thus “smells” the coffee, detecting minute differences in quality that are mapped out with statistical methods, forming two little clouds of data: organic on one side, non-organic on the other.
WUR scientists have been developing a handheld food scanner which uses infrared sensors to compare a product such as ground beef with a cloud database of reference samples. The scanner, connected to an app on your phone, could within seconds deliver a profile of the product you are about to buy — revealing what’s really hiding in that tangle of meat, and whether its packaging is telling the truth.
Fuelling green growth
Algae needs very little to grow and prosper: a few nutrients, water, sunlight, carbon dioxide. But it has the potential to form the foundations of everything from superfoods to biofuels. ”What I like the most about micro-algae is that it’s such a simple process that can have a very high impact on our society,” says Maria Barbosa, the director of AlgaePARC, a 15-year research programme at WUR looking to create low-cost, low-energy micro-algae production.
Depending on the species, and how it’s grown, algae are capable of producing proteins, lipids and starches. More than 15,000 new chemical compounds have been discovered in algae in recent years. Among these elements are omega-3 fatty acids: the same ones that fish consume when they eat algae, and that we seek at the fish market or, in the form of fish oil supplements, the pharmacy. Harvesting algae for omega-3 provides a possible solution for an inevitable scarcity.
Barbosa is part of the European MAGNIFICENT project, a multinational initiative investigating micro-algae as a source for nutritional substitutes for food and feed. Improving strains of algae for optimal omega-3 production is one of the project’s main goals. At AlgaePARC, the bright green liquid that rushes through curving pipes is refined and cultivated in a long chain of production, which begins with strain improvement. The objective is to create mutant strains, which are sorted using fluorescence-activated cell sorting, that will enable the most effective and efficient production of omega-3 fatty acids.
Micro-algae could also be key to our energy needs. AlgaePARC wants to tap into algae’s ability to capture carbon, and convert it into molecules that could serve as building blocks for alternative fuel. “That makes micro-algae a very interesting crop,” says Barbosa, “with the potential to supply not only food, but also the longer-term energy demands that we will have.”
The sweet pepper harvesting robot SWEEPER, developed by WUR with partners in Israel, Sweden and Belgium, glides between greenhouse pepper plants. Its robotic arm, fitted with an “end-effector” – the device that interacts with the world – scans the crop for mature peppers. SWEEPER’s camera snaps images of the fruit, simultaneously evaluating colour to classify maturity, and producing a distance map to record the location of the pepper for precision harvesting. When the fruit is ripe, SWEEPER’s arm reaches out and picks, dropping the pepper into a crate.
Powering SWEEPER’s progress is a far less flashy technology: phenotyping. “The essence of quite a few of the automated devices, for farmers and growers, is the eye and the brain of the machine,” explains Rick van de Zedde, a senior plant scientist and co-ordinator of the Agro Food Robotics initiative at WUR. “And phenotyping is all about collecting information about how the plant actually performs, using cameras or other kinds of sensors.”
Robotics has transformed what was once the cumbersome, manual task of phenotyping. This quantitative assessment of the traits of a plant provides breeders, researchers and engineers with the keys to understanding what makes a plant flourish or fall prey to disease, and how it withstands climate change.
Agritech robotics is what makes products such as SWEEPER good at their jobs. But robots developed by WUR t WUR – such as the Phenovator, a robot for measuring the photosynthetic capacity of a plant, and the PhenoBot, a robotic system for phenotyping tomato plants using a 3D-light-field camera – gather the data that powers their robot siblings.
In 2018, the Dutch government announced it would be funding a national project at Wageningen called the Netherlands Plant Eco-Phenotyping Centre. The goal is to conduct high-throughput phenotyping to study plant performance at a far greater speed. “Then we can also tackle the challenge of more healthy food, or more disease-resistant crops, that you don’t have to spray with all kinds of chemical materials,” says van de Zedde. “The phenotyping domain will be coming closer to the real life applications that are searched for by growers and breeders and farmers”.
Inside a WUR greenhouses at Bleiswijk, a small town 20 kilometres south-east of The Hague, Filip van Noort, a crop specialist with Wageningen’s plant research facility, points to a cluster of green pods poking out from the vanilla orchid far above his head. These are part of the greenhouse’s “Nethervanilla” crop: proof that growing and harvesting it can be achieved in Dutch greenhouses.
Vanilla is considered the world’s most popular flavour and its second most expensive spice, after saffron. In recent years, however, drought, cyclones and notoriously dangerous farming conditions have threatened the Madagascan market, where roughly 80 per cent of vanilla beans are grown — driving up vanilla’s price. In early 2018, the price per kg breached the $600 (£470) barrier – more expensive than silver.
Vanilla is not the only high-value, exotic crop growing under glass in Bleiswijk. Van Noort has recently been involved with a range of experimental projects, from papaya and avocado to wasabi and indigo. The idea is to mirror the success of the greenhouse tomato: since the end of the second world war, the tomato, which originates in South America and grows best in temperate, un-Dutch-like climates, has become the poster child of agricultural innovation in the Netherlands – the world’s second-biggest exporter of tomatoes (after Mexico), by value.
With each crop that comes across his desk, Van Noort is tasked with solving a riddle. Most of the plants that his team now grows are not commonly cultivated in greenhouses, so they must study how the plant grows naturally, to determine how best to mimic the temperature, light and rainfall of its place of origin – through LEDs, hydroponics and mist. They need to know how to make the flowers blossom, and whether or not those flowers need a pollinator.
With vanilla, the pollinators are the researchers themselves. Vanilla blooms can be unpredictable, and when a flower opens, Van Noort’s team has only until midday to hand-pollinate the flower before its petals close. Flowers that go unpollinated will never bloom again, and the pods will hang useless on the vine. At Bleiswijk, the vanilla crops are monitored seven days a week (even on public holidays – in Easter 2018 there was a bloom of 1,500 flowers). Every day an aerial lift takes a researcher up and down the aisles of the greenhouse, as each opened flower is delicately tended to.
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