Many of the strawberry varieties you find at markets and in supermarkets are also ‘made in Wageningen,’ such as the Elsanta and Lambada varieties. Strawberries are susceptible to diseases and are vulnerable to damage during transport. New varieties did considerably better for this type of fruit as well. The predictive flavour model for strawberries and other fruits, developed by WUR researchers, has helped to accelerate the development of new varieties.

The same can be said for other fruits commonly found in fruit bowls. From bananas (finding a solution for threatening diseases) to spinach (environmentally-friendly cultivation by reducing nitrogen fertiliser), and from oyster mushrooms (developing a sporeless strain to improve the working environment of growers) to onions (finding a way to grow this globally consumed crop in nutrient-poor soils).

The future

Wageningen researchers also play a role in what will be available to consumers in ten years’ time. The key issues they are currently working on are not as visible to consumers. ‘This involves crops that require less water or fertiliser, that can handle periods of drought or thrive in salty soils,’ explains Visser.

 The most important breakthroughs can be expected in crops that require less water or manure.

Richard Visser, Professor of Plant Breeding at Wageningen University & Research

Another development is the use of genomics to create niche products and niche markets – custom cultivation, so to speak. Greater efficiency combined with relatively low costs means that investments are recouped more quickly and that it’s possible to profitably grow crops for specific markets or consumers.

Wageningen will continue to play a major role in this by developing new varieties of crops that commercial breeding companies have not tapped into yet. For example: nearly all quinoa produced in Europe comes from varieties developed in Wageningen.

Food security

In order to earn back the development costs, new crop varieties must be protected by patents or plant breeders’ rights. In principle, this should not adversely affect the use of those crops. ‘We apply for breeders’ rights or patents to maintain our control and to prevent others from claiming and shielding them,’ says Visser. ‘This helps us determine who can use them for free, in the interest of food security for example, and who has to pay.’

The situation is slightly different for crops like tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers, which are largely grown by strong Dutch companies that receive semi-finished products from Wageningen researchers. ‘But we’re asked to take the lead on challenging plant diseases and diseases that companies find too risky to handle in-house for research purposes. So we’ll cross-breed these crops with disease-resistant wild varieties, which the companies can then use for their research.’

More sustainable fruits and vegetables

Breeding for resistance to disease and pests is an elegant way of becoming more sustainable. However, cultivation without any pesticides is extremely challenging. ‘If you use these pesticides wisely, it can help build up longer resistance,’ says Visser. ‘And if go from spraying 14 to 16 times per season to only once to three times, I consider that a massive improvement.”

Science at the Local Market

To mark 100 years of WUR, a group of artists and film makers were asked to envision the story behind a shopping bag full of fruits and vegetables. Their acts prompt people to reflect on the world behind their shopping bags and connect the world of growers, researchers and consumers. The first series of mini-performances will be held on 12 and 19 May on the market square outside the Grote Kerk church in Wageningen. Read more about this activity.

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