News - June 5, 2014

Who will save our applied research?

Albert Sikkema

Wageningen UR’s applied research is going through a sticky patch. Funding for the applied research stations for agriculture and horticulture is uncertain now the product boards have been abolished. Will new organizations come forward to invest in applied research and innovation in agriculture and horticulture?

Secretary of State Sharon Dijksma was a guest at Wageningen UR’s pig farming innovation centre at Sterksel on 12 May. She was presented with a vision for the future of the pork sector and talked about the innovation agenda for pig farming with farmer organizations, the meat-processing industry and animal feed manufacturers. Nothing very exciting about this for applied researchers, usually. But this time it was different because the people Dijksma was talking to had just set up the Association of Pig Farmers and the Chain Platform for Pig Farming. And these clubs will play a role in determining the fate of applied research. 

New ideas

The future of applied research has been uncertain since the lower house of the Dutch parliament decided a few years ago to scrap the product boards. The MPs thought it outdated that farmers and market gardeners had to pay a compulsory levy to these public institutions which represented the production chains for dairy, meat, arable farming and horticulture. The product boards spent that compulsory levy on food safety and promotion, as well as on applied research. Now the product boards and the money they raise will be gone at the end of this year, Wageningen UR’s applied researchers have a problem. Who is going to fund their research? Already this year, the Plant Sciences Groups announced a reorganization of its applied plant research, with about 50 jobs under threat.

Yet new ideas are springing up on all sides in agriculture and horticulture. Dairy farmers and companies, for example, are setting up ZuivelNL op, a chain organization which will invest in knowledge and innovation, among other things. The potato sector, too, is forming a new club intended to pursue innovation. And then there are the initiatives from pig farmers represented at Sterksel. These organizations can step into the shoes of the product boards and finance research carried out by the Wageningen applied research centres.


Now that farmers and horticulturalists are having to reinvent the wheel to strengthen the innovative capacity and competitive edge of Dutch agriculture and horticulture, the DNA of the various sectors is being exposed. Individualistic horticulturalists, for instance, don’t want to hear anything about collectivism. The Horticulture product board always financed applied research in Lisse and Blieswijk to the tune of about 10 million euros, but many horticulturalists turned against the compulsory fee. So Nico van Ruiten, chair of LTO Glaskracht, does not think all horticulturalists will support a successor to the product board. ‘I think what we’ll get is business collectives that fund research on tomatoes, paprika and chrysanthemums on a voluntary basis. But it is going to be a lot harder to organize research that covers several different crops, such as research on plant health or water and energy consumption. That more strategic research will not get off the ground with a voluntary contribution from the horticulturalists.’

Dutch dairy and crop farmers, on the other hand, are keen on cooperation. Crop farmers want to set up a branch organization through which all companies make a compulsory contribution to research and innovation – just like the product boards. This possibility exists, says Mathé Elema of the Crop Farming product board. ‘EU legislation offers scope for setting up a branch organization on a compulsory basis, so that not just the members have to pay a contribution but also other crop farmers who are not members. This is a complicated route to take, however, and requires a good support base among the crop farmers. A majority of them would need to join the branch organization. Then it would have to be recognized by the ministry of Economic Affairs (EZ). ‘We are now waiting for a letter from the ministry of EZ,’ says Elema. ‘That should set out the framework for the recognition of an association like this, and for which issues the association is allowed to have a say in. The expectation is that research and innovation are on that list. I also think the ministry will ask for an assessment of the support base in the business sector.’

Less money

The rules of the game need to become clear soon as the funding from the product boards will dry up at the end of this year. Around that time the successors to the product boards need to be in the starting blocks. ‘The big worry for applied research is: how do we get through 2015?’ says Geert van der Peet, theme leader for Sustainable Livestock at Livestock Research. This year there was already less funding for applied research from the product boards, which were actually using up their savings. Next year the portfolio of assignments for the applied research centres will collapse if new financiers do no show up fast.
Whatever happens, the applied researcher will have to get even closer to the market, says Nico van Ruiten. ‘All the applied research  will be not just demand-driven but also cost-efficient, because the growers’ groups will be giving assignments and then keeping a close eye on the research,’ expects Van Ruiten. In the crop farming sector as well, there will be less money for applied research in the coming years than there used to be, expects Elema. And he too thinks the research questions will come out of the field more and be formulated by the entrepreneurs themselves.
At Livestock Research, van der Peet is already anti­cipating the new funding of applied research at Sterksel. Small and medium entrepreneurs such as shed constructors, abattoirs, suppliers and clients of the pig farmers can become partners of Sterksel for 500 euros per year. What they get in exchange is a series of network meetings where they can learn from each other. Van der Peet: ‘Because innovations in the pig sector no longer come only from research; a lot of them come from small and medium enterprises. Companies learn from each other when they cut down on antibiotic use, use new kinds of sheds or set up a chain network for sustainable pork.’

By linking them up, Van der Peet can also help them submit joint research projects. And that is where Wageningen applied researchers come into the picture again. Because there will always be a need for risky research into complex problems which pig farmers are not going to experiment with on their own farms. For example, a study of tailbiting is now going on at Sterksel. ‘We are doing that with innovation managers from Sterksel, as well as with researchers from the university, DLO and Den Bosch University of Applied Sciences. Tailbiting is a tricky business. In experiments it can easily go wrong, so you can’t just start experimenting on a pig farm. For that they need VIC Sterksel.’

Wageningen UR applied research centres

Sterksel – pig farming
Dairy Campus Leeuwarden – dairy farming
Hengelo – environmental research in dairy farming
Lelystad – crop farming, field production of vegetables, and green space
Bleiswijk – greenhouse horticulture  
Lisse – flower bulbs and trees
Randwijk – fruit and trees
Westmaas – crop farming (on clay soils)
Vredepeel – crop farming and field production of vegetables ( on sandy soils)

Valthermond – crop farming (on peaty soils)