Organisation - April 13, 2015

‘Our gateway to Wageningen’ is in trouble

Albert Sikkema

Swingeing cuts are necessary at Wageningen UR’s Swine Innovation Centre in Sterksel. There is longer work for eight of the centre’s eighteen employees; this became clear last week. Since the abolition of the product board, trade and industry has been funding far fewer innovation projects. The newly established Pig Farmers’ Cooperative (POV) is intended to save the centre’s field-based research.

‘It’s our gateway to Wageningen; it makes the translation from fundamental research to commercial practice.’ This is how research manager Victor van Wagenberg of MS Schippers, a Brabant-based company, characterizes the Swine Innovation Centre (VIC) run by Wageningen UR in Sterksel. He is responding to the news that the innovation centre is having to lay off almost half its staff due to a decline in its work orders from the pig farming sector. Van Wagenberg is worried. ‘Sterksel was good at that translation step. Pig farming must continue to innovate. We can’t afford to lose this innovation centre.’

MS Schippers in Bladel is a medium-sized company supplying equipment and services to the agricultural sector. Together with another 60 SMEs, MS Schippers is partnering VIC Sterksel. For 500 euros a year, these companies get a series of networking meetings at which Wageningen researchers and colleague companies impart their knowledge. While this is nice pocket money for the innovation centre, in no way does it compare with the research budget of the Product Board for Livestock and Meat. But that product board was abolished last year and as yet there is no successor in the pig sector to finance field-based research. This is why last week VIC Sterksel decided to reduce its staff.

VIC Sterksel will be reduced to a minimal staffing level of seven FTEs, says interim manager Han Swinkels. The centre will carry out fewer innovation projects, which means fewer animal handlers are needed. By contrast, VIC Sterksel will continue to act as a meeting place for companies, pig farmers, scientists, students and NGOs. Each year the centre attracts some 8000 visitors. ‘But if VIC Sterksel wants to fulfil its role as an innovation centre, industry and government are going to have to invest public-private research projects worth 2.5 million euros a year in it via Wageningen UR Livestock Research,’ says Swinkels.

Everyone agrees that Dutch pig farming must continue to innovate if it is to survive the competition from ‘pig countries’ like Germany and Denmark. Moreover, innovation is always needed, for example, in pen design and to improve environmental performance and animal welfare. The innovation centre is researching the detection of the unpleasant meat odour called boar taint. This work needs to be followed up and the centre is also keen to continue testing electronic ear tags. Another of Sterksel’s wishes is to run a programme on preventive healthcare in pig farming to further reduce the use of antibiotics. All highly relevant research projects with which the innovation centre in Sterksel is keen to stay one step ahead of what is happening in the field.

The big question is who is going to pay for this? MS Schippers and the other companies in pig farming spend between 200 and 500 thousand euros a year on research at VIC Sterksel. This tends to involve the testing and validation of innovative concepts whereby VIC Sterksel acts as chief inspector. But Van Wagenberg of MS Schippers foresees no growth in work of this kind. ‘It’s not that companies aren’t happy to contribute to the cost of research, but alongside them you need a government that invests. The problem is that Sterksel’s basic funding has dried up; the government is spending less on research.’ These days companies have to submit research proposals to the Agri & Food top sector. The one submitted by MS Schippers in cooperation with VIC Sterksel was recently rejected. ‘These things happen,’ says Van Wagenberg.

Similarly, Ad Kemps, director of Coppens Animal Feed in Helmond, has no ready solution to offer for the financing problem. Kemps chairs the group of companies, mainly SMEs and some large, that is partnering VIC Sterksel. This is a varied club that includes pen builders, consultancies and feed producers. ‘We have neither a common research question nor a pot of money to fund research.’ Nor do these companies have a leading figure that can act on behalf of the chain with regard to research and innovation. Slaughterhouse VION was for years the big noise in the pig sector, but now struggling to cope with disappointing results and reorganizations, the company has ceased to be the driving force in the pig farming chain.

‘Companies must take the initiative’
This lack of a leading figure is a hindrance to the pig sector when it comes to securing funds, tells Kemps. ‘We set up the partnership with VIC Sterksel so that we could jointly submit research proposals to the top sector. But this is not going smoothly. The companies have to take the initiative in submitting the proposals, but only the large companies employ specialists who know how to acquire a top-sector project. The large companies snap up 90 percent of the subsidies coming from the top sector.’ In short, the supply and processing industries in pig farming aren’t yet managing to keep the field-based research at Sterksel going. ‘I hope we soon find a way forward,’ says Kemps.

For the time being the SMEs are pinning their hopes on the newly established Pig Farmers’ Cooperative (POV). This organization has been set up specially by the Dutch Union of Pig Farmers (NVV) and LTO to take over the role of the product boards in the funding of research. NVV chairperson Ingrid Jansen also chairs the POV. The idea is that the POV will ask the pig farmers for money, say a contribution per pig, that can be used to fund innovation projects at VIC Sterksel.

Jansen does not want to promise too much. ‘We believe that coordinating and financing research and innovation for pig farming is a really important task for the POV, but we can’t take over this role from the product boards at the drop of a hat.’ The first general meeting of the cooperative was on 17 March, tells Jansen. As early as that first meeting the member pig farmers approved two research programmes at Sterksel, namely the ‘electronic nose for boar taint’ and ‘healthy pigs’. ‘At the next general meeting before the summer recess, further research programmes will be presented to the members,’ says Jansen.

‘So, as you can see, we are fulfilling our responsibility.’ Since the end of the product boards was announced and the top sectors were introduced there has been a party game going on in the agricultural sectors about who wants to invest more in research and innovation. It’s currently the turn of the pig farmers. ‘I think that the funding via the POV creates a broader support base among pig farmers for VIC Sterksel’s research,’ says Jansen. Before the end of this year it needs to be clear whether the pig sector can formulate and finance a substantial long-range research programme worth several million euros a year that will safeguard the VIC Sterksel’s continued existence. Until then, Han Swinkels will be managing Sterksel. ‘If that research programme materializes, the innovation centre can expand again and a successor for me will be sought.’ He does not mention the alternative: the closure of VIC Sterksel. ‘Fortunately, one of the POV’s ambitions is to coordinate joint research in the pig sector. And that’s vital – without innovation the pig sector has no future.’