News - April 5, 2012

Going up overnight

Beijing asked DLO to develop an agricultural suburb complete with greenhouse horticulture, agriculture and green space for 60,000 residents. They wanted the plan on the table in four months.

Artist's impression of greenhouses and agriculture in Beijing's planned Eco Valley. This agricultural suburb is intended to set an example for other parts of China.
Forget the way the Dutch greenhouse horticulture and fruit-growing sectors grew to their current proportions - over a century after starting with a single market gardener. Beijing wants to create a combination of the Dutch Westland and Betuwe districts, but starting from scratch and including housing for the 60,000 people who will work there.
The plan is an expression of Beijing's ambition to grow more of its own food. Currently almost all the fruit, vegetables, dairy produce and meat needed to feed the city's population of around 20 million is brought in at night. In the winter it takes five days to transport fresh vegetables from South China to the capital: a massive daily logistical operation. The Chinese also want to be able to trace the origins of their food. After the scandal of the baby formula polluted with melamine, confidence in food safety is at a low ebb.
Eco Valley
So Beijing is planning a whole new suburb full of greenhouses, fields and orchards. It will house 60,000 people who will produce the fruit and vegetables for Beijing. To this end, the mayor of Beijing has allocated a tract of land three by three kilometres in area, forty kilometres south-east of the city centre.
The new ‘Eco Valley' is to be developed by Cofco, a Chinese food company comparable in size to Unilever. Cofco asked Wageningen UR to draw up a plan. The company wanted to know which fruits and vegetables can be grown in the local climate and with the available resources and market. Other questions are: how do you establish those greenhouses and agricultural fields? How do you make sure growers meet standards for pesticide use, manure production and CO2 emissions? And how do you make sure Eco Valley is an attractive place for 60,000 people to live?
The design has already been delivered to Cofco. It consists of a complex of greenhouses for growing tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and aubergines. Cabbages are a suitable crop for the open fields, and the best landscape for the residents is thought to be a combination of indigenous forest, parkland and a few gardens. 
‘An unusual assignment'
‘This was an unusual assignment for Wageningen UR in more ways than one', says project leader Willie van den Broek. The Cofco request made demands on several of Wageningen's areas of expertise. So Van den Broek called on experts from the agricultural economics institute LEI, Food & Biobased Research, horticultural research organization Praktijkonderzoek Glastuinbouw, PRI, Alterra, Van Hall Larenstein and Wageningen UR's Beijing office.
Cofco also wanted to be flexible and not tie everything up in contracts made in advance, as is customary in the west. This made things a bit tricky at times, for instance when Cofco decided halfway that it did not want pot plants but open-field flowers. Van den Broek: ‘Then I go off to another business unit, with the budget. But the first business unit has already budgeted and taken the risk. The second unit has not planned for the assignment, but now has to carry it out.'
So there is a down side to Wageningen's great strength, its many different kinds of expertise, says Van den Broek. ‘All the more because it had to be done so quickly. We gave a quote in November, we got the assignment in December and it had to be done by March.'
Moreover, one of the project leaders was always on site at Cofco. Van den Broek and his co-teamleader Xiaoyong Zhang, consumer researcher at the LEI, took it in turns to spend two weeks in Beijing. ‘That worked out well. You get more insight, and faster, into their wishes and the ideas underpinning them. Especially since Cofco was not sure yet exactly what they wanted. We have learned from previous projects that working from a distance and delivering interim reports often leads to misunderstandings.'