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Ernst Van Den Ende – Technology, Ecology, and Science Based Thinking can Solve the World’s Agriculture Conundrum

Jul 8, 2020

Between 1982-2015, the world’s population grew from 4.5 billion to about 7.5 billion while land under agriculture remained the same. More food was produced on the same amount of land but climate change and the resultant rise in the extreme weather events pose a serious challenge to the world’s food production. Is the time now ripe for a second green revolution?

Ernst Van Den Ende, a leader in dutch agriculture innovation, explains that there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve the world’s agriculture woes but a focus on a combination of technology and ecology can make agriculture more productive, efficient and sustainable.

Based in the Netherlands, Ernst Van Den Ende is a renowned plant scientist and the managing director of the Plant Sciences group at Wageningen University, one of the world’s top agriculture educational, research and technology hubs. He leads a group of nearly 1,400 agricultural scientists, various corporate partners, and hundreds of start-ups in the agro-food domain, to tackle the most pressing challenges facing the future of food.

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Borna (ClimateAi) 0:03
This is Agriculture Adapts by ClimateAi. Every week we speak with industry leading executives, farmers and academics to get a 360 view of how the agriculture sector is innovating to stay ahead of a changing climate. I’m your host Borna Poursheikhani and I am your co-host Himanshu Gupta. We’re a team of climate scientists and agriculture entrepreneurs trying to make farming more resilient, profitable and equitable as we transition to a new age of agriculture. This podcast is our journey as we explore the hurdles and opportunities that lie ahead for the industry that feeds the world.

Hello, and welcome to another exciting episode of Agriculture Adapts with us today we have Ernst Van Den Ende, the Managing Director of the plant sciences group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. For our American listeners, it’s written out Wageningen, but it’s pronounced Wageningen, which I had difficulty with at first, I asked Ernst for the the pronunciation there. So the Dutch are an absolute powerhouse when it comes to agricultural productivity, efficiency and sustainability, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity today to dive in and uncover how a country that is 270 times smaller than the US can be one of the top three agricultural exporters and producers in the world. Lots of learnings for anyone interested in sustainable agriculture, precision AG, both of which tie into climate change mitigation and adaptation. Much of this Dutch advancement can be attributed to the work done by Ernst and his colleagues at Wageningen University, which has consistently ranked as one of the top agricultural research, education and technology hubs in the world, Ernst, thank you for joining us.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 1:41
Yeah, glad to join you.

Borna (ClimateAi) 1:42
So Ernst, tell us a little bit about your story, your journey through the world of agriculture and what you and your colleagues are now up to at Wageningen?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 1:50
Ill start about myself maybe. So when I was in secondary school, I loved to be around with plants, which was not the most popular thing to do. Most most kids wanted to be a police officer or wanted to work in the fire brigade. And I said, No, I want to study plants, which was something strange at that time. And I didn’t have a bit of an agricultural background. My father was a teacher Dutch in the secondary school. So I went to bar hunting. And at that time bar hunting was called the Agricultural University in the Netherlands. And it was the only place in the Netherlands where you could study plant diseases, plant pathology, and that was my study. I’m a specialist in plant plant pathology. And during my study, I really get got more and more excited about working with plants. And I saw that we could have a great impact in the world. Because a lot of the demands from society and the big challenges that we face, they all relate back to agriculture. So if you we need to feed the world. We want to improve the situation of the poor smallholder farmers in Africa and in Asia. It all goes through improving agriculture. And that mindset is really something that is very special, or at least I think is very special, inviting. I think the mindset environment is really to be of impact in the world and trying to work. So we say today we work on the Sustainable Development Goals. And we want to offer solutions that can be of influence in creating a better world, a better environment, and food for everybody healthy food for everybody. So there was a very inspiring atmosphere, I could say, when I was a student. And then I started my professional career, and I was a scientist for a long time in the applied research institutes in the Netherlands. So we had a few research institutes that were very near to farmers, and they were highly specialized. So you had a, for instance, the Applied Research Institute for flower builds. And as you know, tulips are quite important in the Netherlands. So there was a strong focus on improvements. Have sustainable production production of flower bills. And I worked as a scientist I worked as an entomologist and as a plant pathologist in flower bulbs in cabbage in nursery stock in fruits. And after a few years, I was lost for science and ended up in management roles. And nowadays, I’m leading an institute with 1400 employees. All scientists, part of them are related to the university. So that’s more or less half of the people. And the other half work in we call it a contract research organization. And it would be for the United States it would be more similar to a USDA or something that is, so we effect we have the university and USDA on the one management umbrella. So if I have to explain to friends what I do the whole day then I always say half of my buddy is a dean related to the faculty of plant sciences and the other half is commercial manager. For, you could say business units that work on plant research, very often in relation to the industry

Borna (ClimateAi) 5:06
got so you you kind of got your own research going on the university, you have collaborations that you’re doing with industry and then you also have like some startup activity that’s going on as well. Right. Within bottling.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 5:14
I’m the chairman of start life which is a our organization, focusing on startups in agriculture. And to be honest, we were lagging behind for a long time. We were a very traditional European University. So we only started in 2012 with startup companies, but nowadays we have over 350 startups in portfolio and they are in the agro food domain. Maybe it’s good to to just give you a little bit of an insight in biohacking and what are the important science groups that we are having. It’s a very specific university so we are not we always say we have green Life Sciences is really all about everything new learning. That’s it. Our core. And what we do is that we have, we call them science groups, we have five different science groups, and they all deal with a certain aspect of green Life Sciences. So we have the environmental science group, the animal science group, the food sciences group, this social sciences group, because social sciences also very important in green Life Sciences, and plant sciences. And every science group has this same structure of being University and contract research together. And they’re all led by director and together with the executive board environment. And we tried to come up with all kinds of interdisciplinary solutions for the great demands that are coming up from from society and industry. And you can imagine that for a lot of the research questions, you really need these different disciplines. So we try to come up with research programs where we involve social scientists and food scientists and people from Plant Sciences and that office, really build them building blocks for industry and society to solve the big challenges that we face.

Borna (ClimateAi) 7:06
Yeah, I think that’s a really smart approach. Because I mean, it’s, I guess it’s like, it’s almost naive to assume that like one field would be able to solve a problem because no problem is isolated to one field. It’s always a connection of a variety of things. So if you want to solve the root issue, you have to bring in all these different mines. I like that approach. So one thing that stood out to me when we first started working with, for us, it was Dutch seed companies, but they were kind of they kind of gave us exposure to the Dutch world of agriculture in general. And we ended up sending out some folks to come visit you, among other people in the Dutch agriculture community. And the thing that stood out to me was the sheer efficiency and innovation with which Dutch agriculture operates. You guys are top producer for a number of crops, despite your relatively small size. So what makes Dutch agriculture so efficient? Can you speak a little bit more to kind of the efforts that are focused there?

Unknown Speaker 7:55
To start with so many if you read articles about the Netherlands, then very often, it says ohh the Netherlands are the second largest exporter of agriculture in the world. But I think it’s true to say that that not only relates to production. So the Dutch are famous for being traders

Borna (ClimateAi) 8:15
the D, not traitors, right? We like the Dutch.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 8:21
And so that is the little secret behind the saying the Dutchs are the second larger exporter, we have a very big harbor. So we import a lot of foods and then they are exported again to all the countries in Europe and all over the world. And it all counts for export. Yeah, so there is a funny joke. We are the biggest exporter in the world of mango, but we don’t produce mango at all. They are important in a lot of them and then they are exported again. So that is part of it. But you’re absolutely true. That in certain crops, we are highly specialized. And we produce really at a very high level and at the same time time in a very sustainable way. And I think it always relates a little bit to the fact that we don’t have enough space, we are a very small country. So we need to intensify per square meter. And we have put a lot of technology into agriculture, which makes it very efficient. And I really like the example of tomato. If you go to Spain, which is also a country in Europe in itself, they grow tomatoes in an open field situation, you will end up with four kilograms of tomatoes at the end of the growing season. If you do the same in a Dutch high tech greenhouse today, then at the end of the growing growing season, you will end up with 80 kilograms of tomatoes per square meter, which is 20 times more. So it’s a highly efficient way of using your space you could say, but it’s not the best part of the story. The best part of the story is that this amount of of tomatoes produced with four times less water in comparison to the Spanish situation. So we are very efficient in what to use. We hardly use any fertilizers, which is all it’s optimized. So you only provide the fertilizer that is needed for optimal growth. Most of the crops are on the biological control, because of course, it’s a contained cropping system. And you have you have these greenhouses. So we use a lot of biological agents to control pests and diseases in in greenhouse crops. So it’s a very, not only a very efficient but also a very sustainable way of producing your food. And that makes us really proud. So, to be honest, I don’t like a lot the saying we are the second largest exporter,

Borna (ClimateAi) 10:47
but it sounds good.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 10:49
That sounds good. Sounds good. But what I like is that we are world champion in sustainable production, and we have a lot of knowledge that we can provide to other countries to other industries. You could produce food in a sustainable way in such a way. We always call it more with less fat that we produce more per square meter, but at the same time, lose less. use less input.

Borna (ClimateAi) 11:11
Yeah, produce more Don’t break the bank and do it in a way that’s better for for the world. And so are, you know, is the way that you’re getting these higher yield? Obviously, there’s certain ways that you’re growing the crops specifically, but are you also operating with massive vertical farms? Is that is that how you’re doing this? Or what are actually like what’s actually going on in the greenhouses that allows you to get such a increase? Yeah, it’s

Ernst (Wageningen University) 11:31
really a combination of a lot of things. So if you look at it. Today, if you go to a greenhouse in the Netherlands, you will see for instance, that they use carbon dioxide as a fertilizer and this carbon dioxide is a waste stream from the petrochemical industry. So you use a waste stream and carbon dioxide, which is really the basis of plant growth in photosynthesis. If you use that as a fertilizer to speed up the growth of plants, so it’s a common and but if you look at the for instance, The coating on the roof it’s with a lot of nanotech to optimize the use of the lights. And if there is a surplus of light we we transfer it into energy. So these greenhouses are not only used for growing plants, but the surplus of a meat and is used as an energy source. So you get a very efficient circular system at the end of the day. For vertical farming, you address vertical farming. Yeah, that’s a that’s a new development and you see a lot of vertical farms in cities today. But part of it will be used as a technology in the commercial big greenhouses outside of the cities. And then you have multi layer production of crops using LED lights, which is a very efficient way again, of optimizing plant growth in relation to space to available space you have

Borna (ClimateAi) 12:58
Yeah, you were explaining this Last time we talked and it blew my mind. So you were saying that part of the light that comes in gets used by the plants and an entirely different spectral band gets absorbed by like these solar roofs that the greenhouses have cracked and some of the more advanced ones. And and is that like what portion of the energy of the actual greenhouses that using? I’m trying to get a sense for, like costs for all this things? Like, are these greenhouses just fully self sufficient once you get them going?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 13:24
No, not yet. And what you see is that we really do it in a combination of a few things. So what you sometimes see is that the surplus of energy is used by I think you call it in English care houses for all people use the surplus of heat from the greenhouse and give it another function in a nearby neighborhood. Sometimes we store the energy and there are lots of thermal applications. So we store the energy in the earth and then use it again with water pumps when you need the temperatures. So there is it’s really a combination of a A lot of different things

Borna (ClimateAi) 14:01
Got it, so it’s primarily thermal energy. It’s not electricity. It’s not like solar roofing.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 14:06
Sometimes it is. But at the moment, most of it will be thermal energy,

Borna (ClimateAi) 14:11
Got it, so the industry standard is kind of reusing this extra thermal heat. But then there are more innovative ones that are starting to work with this kind of like solar translucent roofing technology. Okay, that’s very interesting. And so this 20 x increase that you guys are seeing from the tomato crop relative to Spain from four kilograms in Spain to 80 kilograms, and another lens This is all without vertical farming.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 14:34
Yeah, this is without vertical farming was just a normal commercial growth. But if you go to a commercial greenhouse in the Netherlands, and you can find lots of movies and pictures on on the web. It’s incredible. And these are really big farms. A lot of it a lot of the labor is a through robotics or automated labor. So it’s it’s it’s really It looks like it like a production facility. And at the same time, that is also sometimes a problem. Because people in society they don’t like the industrial industrial look of growing crops.

Borna (ClimateAi) 15:12
It looks a little odd. Yeah,

Ernst (Wageningen University) 15:14
like the romantic view of the open field situation in Spain. Yeah. But at the same time, there’s less sustainable than producing tomatoes in a greenhouse, in a very efficient and you would say, a very industrial way of producing food.

Borna (ClimateAi) 15:27
That’s really interesting. And I guess like what portion of the agriculture in the Netherlands is in these highly efficient greenhouses? Is it the vast majority of it? Is it just tomatoes and some other sensitive crops like, like leafy greens or something or

Ernst (Wageningen University) 15:40
I think if you look in the Netherlands, we have a few things market leaders in the world. And if you look at our greenhouse production, that is mainly vegetables so thing to think about tomatoes, cucumber, bell peppers, that kind of stuff. And we export a lot from these products into Europe. Flower industry is very important in greenhouses. So we produce a lot of flowers and they go everywhere. So there’s lots of flowers in the United States coming from the greenhouses in, in the Netherlands. Yeah. If you look in in the open field situation, we are baking onion and potatoes. See, potato is a very important export product in the Netherlands. Yep. And seats. You might already mentioned the breeding industry. But you could say that in vegetable seeds. We have a few companies in the Netherlands that are really big. So 40 to 50%. I think of them will, Margaret is in the hands of the Dutch breeders.

Borna (ClimateAi) 16:38
Yeah. Which was both a huge surprise to us when we first started working with seed companies. And it was also just made things a lot easier because they’re like, oh, we’ll take one trip to the Netherlands and, and we’ll be able to meet the majority of these companies that we want to be able to talk to. I’m curious, like, right now, if you’re potentially like one of our listeners might be an American grower who’s saying okay, this sounds pretty good, but how does the cost of This thing play out, presumably these systems that you’re setting up for these greenhouses that are highly efficient, require a fair amount of cost to go into them. So are they?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 17:08
Yeah, it needs a lot of investment.

Borna (ClimateAi) 17:10
Yeah. And is that is that subsidized by the Dutch government right now? Or how

Ernst (Wageningen University) 17:13
not subsidized? No, no, no. That really started with if you are an entrepreneur, as a farmer, and you want to grow big, then you go to the bank and you ask for a loan. That is really the start of the business. And so there is lots of investments going on in the greenhouse horticulture. If you are really interested into data, there are lots of reports available on the website of that. You can really find a lot of this background information on what are the costs of investment or what what are the investments costs of big greenhouse facilities and greenhouses are only important aspect of the Netherlands and we are famous for that. But once again, and the seed business is also really important, and we are We’ll Mark things over there.

Borna (ClimateAi) 18:01
Yeah, let’s go ahead and dive into that piece. So we’ve already mentioned there’s a huge amount of work happening within the Netherlands from seed companies, a lot of the biggest seed companies operate out of the Netherlands. And I’m just curious, before we dive into why that is, I would like to see what the what the kind of history is there like what, what caused all these seed companies to develop in the Netherlands? Like what was it by virtue of like acquisitions that ended up moving to the Netherlands? Or was it something happened in the Dutch history that caused them to become innovators in the seed front?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 18:33
It started with a couple of things. So the Dutch are famous for being not only traders with a dad. But there are entrepreneurial, especially in agriculture. So we have lots of entrepreneurs. The seed business is really a family business. And it’s very, if you look at the big companies today, they all started as a family business, and some of them are still a family business which is quite remarkable. That being a Milton national with a lot of so if you go to Black Swan, which is one of the big festival, breeding companies, they are still a family business. And that makes him very special. And they they are they are world market leaders in certain crops. They are all over the world, but it’s still a family business. And I think something special to the two big companies in in the Netherlands they are not on all of them are. So Enzo is also still a family business. Some of them are not anymore in family business. And it all started a little bit around the, you could say the beginning of the 20th century. And at that time, we were a country full of vegetables step we potato country and vegetables. So there were people in the northern part, especially if you go to if you fly into Amsterdam in the Netherlands, then north of Amsterdam. There is the so called seat Valley, which is a very small area but In this area, it’s 50 kilometres north of Amsterdam. It’s full of breeding companies. And it’s really the atmosphere of all these big companies together in an area where there’s lots of vegetable growth, which was done outdoors. And nowadays, axon is in, in the middle of the area where there are lots of greenhouses in the Netherlands. It’s called Best long. So it’s in the midst of the Netherlands. They had a strong our market because we had the vegetable growers, and they were very entrepreneurial. And it was a family business. And I think they were quite open to innovation.

Borna (ClimateAi) 20:38
It wasn’t like some event or a war that like cut off their food suppliers, or was there was there some sort of like historical trigger point? Or was it just the fact that they were innovative and were big on vegetables and they needed to kind of build that up and they were entrepreneurial?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 20:52
I think there are a few reasons for of course, we had a second world war and we had a problem in Europe with food and We had a policy within Europe after the war, supported by money coming from the United States that we wanted to be big again in our own food production net and no hunger anymore. That was something that was really important to have in the Second World War. But I think another very important aspect was even earlier. So in the 1800s, somewhere 80s, so at the end of the 19th century, at that time, there was a big surplus coming of grains coming from the United States, very cheap grain. And some countries in Europe. They closed down to boards because they were afraid of all this cheap grain and they said, Oh, that really disturbs our own home market and we want to keep away so they closed the borders. The Dutch did something else. They opened up the boards, and they said, Okay, that’s the cheap grain. So come on with all the grain. We will not grow grain anymore. And we will specialize Yeah, and we will specialize and open up our borders and go From innovation and then go for the trade. And we specialize in. And we specialize in certain aspects. So not anymore. embolic you could say that grain production is bulk, but in these highly specialized aspects of agriculture, like greenhouse production, and that also helped in creating a setting where we were a very open country, we were very focusing on on export, opening up and making, you know, making choices to go for the highly specialized their agriculture. And of course, the seed breeding industry. The production of seed is also something very highly specialized, and a lot of knowledge to do it right.

Borna (ClimateAi) 22:43
So we have a sense now of like the history behind these seed companies now I’m curious to get your take on because you do interact with these seed companies a fair bit there. A lot of them are partners with the university if I’m not mistaken. So what is what is fun of mine for them like these are companies that are creating, developing breeding seeds. That are then fueling the entire world. What is the focus for them? Are they? What are the key challenges that they’re trying to address in these breeding programs?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 23:10
I think, of course, in the beginning, it all started with yield. So getting more out of your seat and you had this whole development of one’s hybrid, hybrid seeds.

Borna (ClimateAi) 23:20
We’re talking decades decades ago, correct?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 23:22
Yeah, happened decades ago, but that was really the start of the, you could say the flourishing of the seed breeding industry. And of course, all those new cultivars, they were focusing on getting higher yields per square meter in the beginning, but later on, new demands came in and you can imagine that for instance, disease resistance is a very important one. If you want to go for sustainable production without using pesticides, you need resistant cultivars. So that is a big issue now within the breeding industry to come up with new cultivars that are resistant to pests and diseases in such a way that you are not If you grow these cultivars, then they will not be there they will not need pesticides to control these problems. And now due to climate change, we have another one. And now we are looking for a biotic stress factors. So what you now would like to have are cultivars that are more resistant to drought, or flooding or all these extreme weather conditions. So you see a shift now, where people are really looking for cultivars that have door tolerance or salt tolerance. A lot of areas in the world get problem with the salty soils. So if we are able to come up with cultivars that are more tolerant to salt or to draw that would be a solution for all the climate problems that we face.

Borna (ClimateAi) 24:46
Yeah, just so people get a sense like what what portion of this is being done through genetic modification and what portion is being done through typical like old school breeding. I know that’s a difficult question to answer, but do we have some sort of

Ernst (Wageningen University) 25:00
The vast majority of vegetables are bred through traditional breeding methods and called classical breeding methods. And of course, there isn’t a huge development in in breeding methods. So because they work in a world market, they work. They focus a lot on countries where GMO cultivars are not allowed. So they focus on cultivars that fall out of the GMO regulation. And that that is mainly traditional reading.

Borna (ClimateAi) 25:28
I’m curious to get your thoughts on whether you think that typical breeding can move fast enough to deal with the impacts of accelerating climate change.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 25:38
Today, there are a few new methods available to speed up breeding. And some of your listeners will have heard about CRISPR cast as a new way of creating mutations in plant material, but also in It’s also used in animals and in the health sciences. But there are some methods available to speed up the process. And I think we need a discussion with everybody about the ethical aspects of having these technologies available. Because the demands or the challenges I should say are such, these aren’t really great challenges. If we need to come up with solutions in order to mitigate or the climate effects we want to get rid of, of pesticides in agriculture on a global basis, we need to speed up breeding and we need to come up with new methods that are perfectly safe to the environment that don’t harm people and that at the end of the day, results in products that are resistant to be other awry, biotic stress, and can help in securing food for all the people in the world and at the same time. Make sure that you don’t destroy the environment.

Borna (ClimateAi) 27:02
Yeah, absolutely. Can you give our listeners a little bit of an explanation on what CRISPR is and why it’s different from other forms of genetic modification.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 27:12
If you look at the European regulations and and if we talk about GMOs, then very often we talk about using bits of DNA that are transferred to plants. So we call that transgenic plants. The CRISPR cast method is used to create mutations. mutations are very specific changes in the DNA that also happen in nature. If you grow a tomato plant in nature, it will be under the influence of ultraviolet radiation or other stress factors. And then the DNA will mutate which is a very natural process. We are now available in science to do this very specific to know the right spot to do it and to change a little bit DNA in the existing DNA of a plant. And that helps to create variation. And variation is the basis behind breeding. You need mutations to come up with new cultivars. And some people say yeah, but who shouldn’t do that. But you should realize yourself that, for instance, if you compare the genome of tomato so that the genome of tomato consists of 1 billion base pairs, which goes a little bit back to secondary school as people have biology in secondary school, then everybody knows that DNA consists of base pairs, and it’s all about the A’s, the C’s, T’s and G’s, these are the four bases used or that are the basis of DNA. So if you talk about to make it simple if you talk about a genome, which is the complete set of DNA in the tomato 1 billion base pairs then you talk about 500 books of thousand pages each full of letters. And every letter, if you compare a commercial tomato nowadays with a wild tomato, so where it comes from 10,000 years ago, then around 25 million base pairs during the normal traditional way of breeding and growth, they changed over that whole lifetime, or the time span of 10,000 years. 35 million minutes. That’s around 20 books, and all the levels in these books changed. We now have a method to only change one letter, which is far more precise. And we need to regulate it in the in the Europe as a GMO, and that makes it difficult because therefore we cannot bring diversity to the field. That’s far too expensive. And there are lots of things discussions in Europe about this regulation could because from a scientific point, it’s very safe. In the past, for instance, to create mutations in plants, people used radiation. And they bombarded plants with radiation that happened in the 60s and 70s of last century. And that is a line with the European regulations. That is a safe method to use. As a scientist, I say, well, that’s strange. You you use radiation, you don’t know what you are doing. You got a lot of different rotations in your crop. It’s not very precise, but it is allowed. And now we have a very precise method. And that is not it’s not allowed to use that outside of the GMO regulations. So that is considered to be a GMO. I hope it was a bit clear what I said. But uh,

Borna (ClimateAi) 30:54
yeah, that was really helpful. And when we were last discussing you were saying this topic was kind of coming to the fore. Front because of the Coronavirus, and you were mentioning that the US was able to use CRISPR and other forms of genetic modification to develop vaccines plants for vaccines, whereas the Netherlands and much of the EU would not be able to do that, could you speak a little more than that,

Ernst (Wageningen University) 31:17
we are able to do it, but we are not allowed to bring it commercially to the market. So there is a big differences. There are big differences in regulations within the United States and Europe. And it comes down to if you are in Europe using CRISPR Cass, all the regulations are on the process to come to a product. So if you use in the process, this method, then the product is considered to be a GMO in the United States. It’s product based. So they say if the product is a product that you also could get through traditional breeding, which is true if you use CRISPR class, then we consider this a non GMO. And that’s the big difference between the United States and Europe. And the same holds true for for other products like vaccines. What I mentioned to you is that what you see due to Corona is that at least in society, people look a little bit more positive to science. So I can imagine that in the discussion about the regulations that we have around CRISPR cast that science get more influence, and that we get a more balanced discussion, which was not the case. A year, two years ago, when we had this discussion in Europe, yeah.

Borna (ClimateAi) 32:27
How does the consumer who may not be so involved in the field they want to go read a dozen papers on this topic? How does it consumers they have to deal with this information?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 32:37
Yeah, I think that’s a that’s a big point, of course. And so if you look at the from a consumer perspective, sometimes it looks that Facebook or any other social media, people start to believe more in Facebook than in science and of course, which is for scientists that that is a challenge and scientists have been, in my opinion did also a pretty bad job over the last decades, because I think that scientists, they over promised a lot. You can’t say that that CRISPR cast is 100% safe. That is not true. And as a scientist, you always have to show the positive sides and the negative sides and have an open discussion with everybody. And take questions series that consumers are asking if people if they’re a dairy fear, any health risk or whatsoever, then take it serious and be transparent about the positive and negative aspects and be clear about it. And it’s a difficult aspect that Yeah, there is so much information available on the internet. And there is no fact checker around. And we know some people that use internet without any fact checkers, and it’s not only in the United States and also in Europe. And that’s the problem. I think some You need people that say okay Oh, oh, we need some real fact checkers over here to know what is real and what is not

Borna (ClimateAi) 34:08
or we have to turn you into a social media influencer on Facebook and Twitter and get you millions of followers. So you can be

Ernst (Wageningen University) 34:15
but then again, I will not be an influencer because I talk a lot about the new ones in in discussions and people like sometimes the black and white answer says so. Is it right now, Science, Science No, we we stay away from Right. Yeah. We say okay, maybe it can be right. And then you

Borna (ClimateAi) 34:38
I was gonna say i think that’s that’s also like one of the reasons that makes it so difficult is because people in general, consumers want things to be simple. Yeah. And it’s not simple.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 34:47
I can assure you it’s not simple.

Borna (ClimateAi) 34:49
And the reason why you can find arguments for both sides is because there are arguments for both sides and there are pros and cons. It’s a matter of picking the best path forward. So I think that’s a really important thing. For people to realize is that there are negative aspects to both. And so if you’re unsure about why people are saying certain things, it might be worth putting yourself in their shoes and digging into kind of what the pros and cons are of each side.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 35:11
We have a lovely saying in the Netherlands and it comes from Johan Cruijff, maybe some of you are familiar with him. But he was a very famous football player from the Netherlands. And this guy, he has a very typical way of using all kinds of sayings. And he very often says every disadvantage has an advantage. And which is I think, absolutely true. So, what I mean, every every aspects have has positive sides and there’s negative sides and you should be very transparent about and for us as a knowledge Institute. It’s a very important thing to link up with society. We call it the VA funding dialogues. We want to open up science to society. And when I say to scientists in my Research Institutes if they go outside and say the most important thing that you do is that you give people the overview of the knowledge that is available. It’s not your task to say what’s the right direction. That’s not a task of a scientist, you should give the overview of the knowledge that is available and we have an awful lot of knowledge available. And then people can make up their mind there is for instance, there is a big discussion about the we call it the nature inclusive agriculture. So combine agriculture with natural aspects and making sure that you have nature and agriculture together. Of course, that is a that is a way to go forward. But the negative aspects is that you will if you want to produce the amount of food that is necessary to feed the world, then you will need more agriculture more agricultural space, because if you combine nature and agriculture, the yields will drop down. So you need more fields. So you need to Get rid of more rain forest to create more agricultural land, what’s the best solution for making sure that you don’t destroy the environment that you don’t destroy nature? So this is a discussion. And you can make it a choice. And it’s all both choices. They have their negative and positive aspects. But you can’t say that one of them is the big solution.

Borna (ClimateAi) 37:22
Yeah. So you’re saying if if we were to feed the world with farms that were built into nature, so a bunch of different crops put together, no massive fields of single crops, we would need a ton more land is basically what you’re saying.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 37:34
Exactly. What we try to do is we want to optimize food production in those areas that that really are very good in relation to climate and soil conditions. And if you then produce food as much as possible on that square meter without destroying the environment, then at the end of the day, you will at least spare the environment because you don’t need any more agricultural fields. Hey, if you look at data between 1982 and 2015, the world population grew from 4.5 billion people to 7.5 billion people. But the agricultural land that was available didn’t grow. So that is still the same. That means that during that period, we’ve seen a lot of intensification. So we were able to produce more food on the same area of agricultural land that we had. If we didn’t succeeded in that job, then we would have over the last decades, we would need far more agricultural land to feed that difference between 4.5 billion people and 7.5 billion people.

Borna (ClimateAi) 38:43
Yeah. Now I want to play the part of kind of a devil’s advocate. So what would you say to people who are saying Yeah, but you know, right now, the way that we’re doing things, you know, we have massive fields of single crop and a lot of places which requires a ton of and to get the yields that we want per acre. requires a ton of fertilizer, a ton of pesticides.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 39:03
Yeah, I think there are absolutely right to address these these points, because of course we don’t, we don’t want those negative aspects. And I think there’s also a responsibility at the consumer level. For instance, if you sometimes I show pictures, when I go to give presentations to lay people, I always start with the biggest option for getting a more sustainable food production starts with consuming less, and make sure that you don’t have food waste. That is something at consumer level. So there is a great responsibility. People would a lot of consumers in Europe, they want to have cheap food. And if we, if you are as a consumer, if you want to pay a little bit more for your food, then probably we are able to come up with an agricultural system that for instance, needs a little bit more labor because you need to identify if there are any pests or diseases around and if you look at bio Farming for instance, as an example, biological farming in general needs a lot more labor than the conventional farmers. So at the end of the day, the product will be more expensive. We can go for that one. And so but then we need to pay more for our food.

Borna (ClimateAi) 40:15
You can you can you distinguish the two for our listeners, it’s

Ernst (Wageningen University) 40:17
for me, there is no differences, but I can tell you that So, biological farming in biological farming you are not using any chemicals. So, you are always if you use inputs, they are of natural origin. You take care for the environment, you make sure that you have a lot of biodiversity around and in conventional farming or at least what you what we consider as conventional farming, then the inputs are allowed. I think the good news is that these two different approaches, and the best thing you can do is bridge bridging these two approaches. And what I would like to do is some of the good things that are happening in biological farming, that use that As an a very inspiring fold and as an input in into the conventional farming as that is already happening in a lot of places. So make sure that you go for the real sustainable option. And don’t be too dogmatic in saying that something should be very biological should be very conventional, just look at the output, the output should be no harm to the environment and making sure that we feed

Borna (ClimateAi) 41:27
will get because the trade offs are, it’s apples to oranges, it’s different problems that we’re addressing by being able to do each one. So there’s no

Ernst (Wageningen University) 41:33
right sometimes it’s a religion and that makes it also difficult. They have a kind of religious approach to I believe in biological so everything should be biological. Now I’m I’m so in my education I did a lot in biological production. And I believe strongly in the ecological aspects of agriculture. And I think that is a big difference. If you compare that to, to the last century, I think, a lot of the technology that we used in Africa Culture over the last century. That was that started out of the four that we need mono cropping. And it was all about mechanization of the process, and mechanization in agriculture. And nowadays, I think that the ecological principles are are limiting D innovations around technology. So we look what is ecological an ecological basis is needed to have a sustainable production of agriculture. And then we’ll, we’ll look what kind of technology we will use. Yeah, and that’s a different approach.

Borna (ClimateAi) 42:33
Yeah. And I think that’s, that’s kind of the main takeaway here is that you can you can operate at these large scales without having a negative impact, and a lot of people are doing it. And I mean, the Dutch are a perfect example of, I think the amount of water you’ve used for your key crops has reduced by like 90% since 2000. And use of pesticides in these greenhouses has dropped to near nothing if I’m not mistaken. So I mean, it’s a testament to the fact that if you set the parameters, right, you can kind of get these things done. In a way, that’s a win win win, we just have to frame the problem correctly.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 43:04
There’s a nice example last year we of course, we do a lot of international projects. And we build a greenhouse in the Middle East. So the results came out last year. And we were able to grow cucumbers in the Middle East and reduce the amount of water that was used in Cucamonga growing with 95%. That is, of course, water is a big challenge for the next few decades. So if you come up with with more water efficient systems, that is, of course a big solution for this challenge of having water available for agriculture.

Borna (ClimateAi) 43:36
Yeah, I want to touch on one thing that’s kind of tangential but definitely related, what’s the what’s the role of prosumers and kind of growing crops within cities and all of this, if people were making better use of their land if there was, and I only talked about this because I know this is kind of something that’s being discussed in another lens, I’m not sure the state of it in in the US and I think it’s a little less far along. And most most places here, but I know there’s a lot of push to grow more in cities and have people grow their own crops in the Netherlands, what is the role of all that in sustainability?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 44:10
What I what I like about this situation is and there are two, there are a few, a few aspects that are worth mentioning, growing your crops in cities that will connect people more to what it is in fruit production. Nowadays, a lot of people that live in cities, they don’t know how crops are grown. So it has a it has at least an aspect of education that people see how crops are grown, and I think that’s a good thing. The second thing is that we see it also as a social cohesion. So in the big cities, if you have these areas where you have your vegetable gardens and you do it with a neighborhood that really creates a social cohesion in your new neighborhood, so people are in the weekends. They are all joining to winging the crops, which is great, it gives a little bought me a little bit of community thinking then, and there’s also a positive aspect, you see a lot of vertical farming, you already mentioned it in cities. So you see a few of these developments that really speed up the thinking about vertical farming. And what will happen that is my opinion, what will happen is that a few of these innovations will be picked up by the commercial farms outside of the cities. And that will transfer the you could say the conventional conventional way of producing crops in greenhouses. So it’s also a kind of innovation motor, you could say, it’s nothing It has, in my opinion, it has nothing to do about sustainable food production very often. It’s not the most sustainable way of producing your food

Borna (ClimateAi) 45:52
because you’re inefficient with the amount of like input putting in an experience.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 45:56
Yeah, of course you are inefficient with your inputs and it deficient in water and as an example,

Borna (ClimateAi) 46:02
and there’s just not enough land probably to create any sort of actual dent.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 46:06
And I think it also people, like you will see in your cities is vegetable growing, but it’s of course a niche. And if you look at the things that people consume on a daily basis, then vegetables are only what is it? Three or 4% of the total amount of food you get during the day. And of course, the majority is grains, cereals and so on. You will not be able to grow grains in the city or or you will not see any rice, big fields in the city to feed the city. That’s, that’s impossible. So it’s only a niche. It’s all about vegetables, and that’s okay. And it has very positive aspects and I already mentioned it, but it has nothing to do with feeding the world. Not at all. Yeah.

Borna (ClimateAi) 46:57
And that is something that’s interesting though the component of just Getting people to be more in touch with, with agriculture in general, because I think that it that that has a lot of trickle down effects in people just having no exposure to agriculture or gardening at all. I think a certain level of exposure, even though like less quantifiable would have a lot of positive impacts on things like food waste, and on things like better understanding what goes into make their food. And I saw that my own case, when they were in primary school, and I live in a city in the Netherlands, when they were in primary school, they all have their own garden. And of course, being kids, they don’t like vegetables at all. They didn’t grow them themselves. They are delicious. Interesting,

Ernst (Wageningen University) 47:40
and that’s really a funny thing. If you just connect people back to what it is to produce your own food. That was this was also a very positive aspects. And a good advice to all those parents that struggle with little kids that don’t like that.

Borna (ClimateAi) 47:55
So we’ve talked a lot about these topics earns Plant Breeding, increased use of fertilizers. pesticides that have led to higher yields in the past few decades. But we still have a lot of problems in the world. I think we have 100 million people undernourished 2 billion people, food insecure, either moderately or severely. And 30% of the world are obese or overweight, some of which are actually the same ones that are malnourished. And so the last time we talked you were talking about this, this idea of a new green revolution. Now, can you tell us about what that entails and what the future is for food?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 48:30
I think you’re absolutely right. If you saw the first Green Revolution, which happened in the 60s of last century, that was all about creating yields, so creating more kilograms to feed the hungry people in the world. And Norman Borlaug, who was the father of the Green Revolution, he came from the USA, he got the Nobel Prize for Peace in the 1970s because he offered smallholder farmers in in Asia, new cultivars that were able to produce more per square meter. So that was all about yield and to produce more food. And of course, that was very helpful in combating hunger at that time because many people suffered from hunger nowadays and you were absolutely right nowadays. If you look at the figures and it will, it will change, it will have a big change due to Corona. But, say a year ago, we had around 800 million people suffering from hunger on a global scale. But 2 billion people suffering from malnutrition, again 2 billion people suffering from obese so it’s more about healthy foods Now then, people are taking more calories than they are needing that then they need so it’s not the new thinking is we should produce healthy foods that have a positive effect on on health issues. It is a fault that is also advocated by Roy Steiner, who was the CEO of the Rockefeller Foundation. And he says we have to go for healthy diets in a healthy planet. And I think that is a very inspiring thought. And we should work on creating a more healthy food. And at the same time, make sure that we don’t destroy the environment. So make it sustainable to production. Make sure that we don’t need a lot of inputs, and that we use a lot of technologies to come up with healthy foods for people. And I would like to be part of the second Green Revolution and make sure that our scientific outputs will play an important role in that.

Borna (ClimateAi) 50:41
How do you incentivize this, this healthy component because I mean, obviously you have some food companies that are trying to source for example, higher protein concentration in their beans, for example. A lot of these these new like pseudo meat companies are trying to source these high nutrition ingredients. But for I mean, if you’re going to the market to get produce, if you’re going to the market to get a snack, what are the systems that we can use to incentivize healthier food because right now, it’s mostly optimized around yield, right? As a farmer, a lot of times you get paid bushels per acre,

Ernst (Wageningen University) 51:19
I think it’s also start with with offering a diversity of products that are more healthy. So if you look at the consumption pattern in in the Netherlands, then we should eat more vegetables, and we should eat more fruits and make sure that we eat more plant proteins instead of animal protein, which is far better for the environment as an example. So it really starts with thinking about how we can change how can we change people to make other choices in the consumption? How can we offer a diversity of products that are healthy for people? Yeah, and of course, I know that there are big companies working on higher protein components in food. Or whatsoever. But it really starts with if you if you make the right choices, and if you go for a diversity of crops, we do need any vitamin C pills or we don’t need any extra ingredients in food, make sure that you have a healthy, healthy diet. And I think that’s a big challenge. Because it’s not only about technology in here, it’s not about but there’s a huge social component in there. And it’s all about changing behavior.

Borna (ClimateAi) 52:31
Yeah, absolutely.

Ernst (Wageningen University) 52:32
And if you look at the United States, just to share one of the data, we talked about obese people, diabetes to is related to obesity. And if you look at the health costs that are involved in diabetes 82 in the United States, it’s 360 $5 billion in the US. So these are health costs associated with diabetes, and we know there is scientific proof that is if you’re if you have a healthier diet, so if you eat more vegetables, that helps a lot in controlling diabetes too. So it makes sense to invest more in, for instance, in agricultural research, and in the diversity of crew crops to make sure that we don’t have these health costs and that we come up with with better diets.

Borna (ClimateAi) 53:26
Yeah. I totally agree with what you’re saying. And a lot of these a lot of like vitamins and the, you know, these these health supplements that people are taking is like trying to repair for having an unhealthy lifestyle trying to, you know, take vitamin D supplements because you’re not getting enough sun. You’re, you know, you’re taking these vitamins because you’re eating like four, four crops throughout your week only, some of which are ultra processed, which is adding to a lot of the problem. You’re not getting the nutrition you’re absorbing more of the calories. So yeah, I agree a lot of this stuff is is cultural and it’s it’s interesting to think about the junction between a lot of these social aspects and what part of it falls on industry to try to compensate to accommodate? And how much we can solve by by shifting culture? I don’t have the answer to that. But it’s a it’s an interesting question. I often think that if you’re able to shift culture, obviously, it’s gonna have a way bigger impact, but people resort to other methods because they see that as immovable. I want to wrap this up here, you’ve been extremely generous with your timers. But I want to see is there one key thing that you think is the silver bullet or the main tool that we can use to drive sustainability in agriculture?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 54:36
That a disappointing answer maybe for a lot of people is no, there is no silver bullet solution. I strongly believe in combination of solutions that will offer at the end of the day, the best solution, so we need to have interdisciplinary approaches. We need to think about bridging between biological and conventional farming to really design some stainable production, we need to combine data technology and ecology. At the end of the day, if people tell you as an example, GMO is the best solution to feed the world, that is not true. It can be a tool, and it can be a part of the solution. But it’s never the only thing. And if you look today in for instance, Africa and you go to the smallholder farmers, then the most important thing to do at the moment is making sure that they focus on on improvement of Agronomy. So make sure that you provide knowledge that they are able to produce their foods in a more sustainable way. That is purely capacity building, that is maybe the most important step to take. Then you should think about other aspects. If people are able to produce more food, but there is no market then it doesn’t work at all. So you also have to think about also old, old kinds of social aspects in creating markets opening up markets. And if we are able to do that and combine all these different solutions, then we are in the right way. And never believe people that had that say, Oh, I have the solution to feed the world because there is not one solution.

Borna (ClimateAi) 56:16
Yeah. Whereas I know you said you don’t want to be a social media influencer. But I think he would have made a great one. And I look forward to following you on on Twitter and seeing what you found. How can people support you your work, Wageningen University? Anything that you’re associated with?

Ernst (Wageningen University) 56:34
I think everybody, every citizen, has a responsibility to support in the sense that you have to raise the questions. And if you don’t agree with things that are happening in agriculture, raise your question, open up, share your information, share your ideas, not all the ideas are coming from science. There are also very good ideas in society and in an industry and what I really would like to have is a is an open discussion about the different ideas because I think the challenge is far too big to solve on our own. And we have as a marketing, university research, we have a strategic plan. And the title of our strategic plan plan is finding answers together. And I’m, I believe strongly in that. So we can’t do it on our own. And we need to connect with everybody, everybody to solve these big challenges that we face.

Borna (ClimateAi) 57:26
Yeah, I agree. And I think a big piece there is not being afraid to ask questions. And I just want to say to our listeners, if you if you ever have questions about a topic that we’re talking about, feel free to email them to us. I’ll include the email in the show notes. I would love to engage with you all and see what questions you all have and maybe Ernest can answer a few to if you if he has the time. I know he’s Yeah, I know. I know. He’s super busy with this Coronavirus business. But thank you so much for your time. I really learned a lot today. Yeah,

Ernst (Wageningen University) 57:52
I really like joining you.

Borna (ClimateAi) 57:55
Hey, everybody, thanks for listening. If you have any feedback or you’d like to add your own two cents, On the topic discussed today or if you’ve just got your own ideas about someone that we should discuss in the future, please feel free to shoot me an email at At its core, this podcast is just a way for us to learn and we want to share our learnings as we go. So we’re always open to building on these conversations and hearing new perspectives. Thanks for your support and see you next time.


Ernst Van Den Ende

Managing Director Plant Sciences Group of Wageningen University



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