Wageningen UR’s biggest overseas branch is not in China or in Brazil, but in Chile. What is our link with that country and how did we end up getting involved there? ‘Chileans are serious people and they take the world seriously.’
The unremarkable office building in a quiet suburb of Santiago bears no comparison with the architectural showpieces on the Wageningen campus. But behind the concrete façade on the Santa Beatriz there is more going on than meets the eye. In the last two years ‘Wageningen UR Chile’ has grown into Wageningen UR’s largest overseas branch. There are 24 people working at the office and another 65 project staff linked with the organization. And Chilean researchers make regular visits to Wageningen as well.
Where many overseas initiatives get no further than good intentions, the Chilean adventure has been a textbook example of successful collaboration. It began five years ago with a visit to Wageningen by president Michelle Bachelet, explains Marian Geluk, director of the Chilean office. Chile is prosperous, thanks to the profits from the copper mines, but Chileans are well aware that this wealth will not last for ever. For sustainable prosperity, they will need to make the transition to an efficient knowledge economy. The government has therefore set up a network of expertise centres called ‘centres of excellence’, where work is done in collaboration with foreign partners in fields such as biotechnology or mining. For the centre of excellence on food, president Bachelet sought Wageningen’s partnership, and got it.
With funding from the Chilean government, ‘Wageningen UR Chile’ opened its doors in 2012. In no time, the centre had successfully put itself on the map. Last year it got one million euros’ worth of projects, and is expected to double that this year. And the centre of expertise is respected in Chile, says Marian Geluk. ‘We are in a thinktank with President Bachelet, and we are regularly consulted by the ministry of Agriculture.’
It is not so surprising that Wageningen feels at home in Chile. Spread out over 6000 kilometers, the country has all kinds of climates and soil types, high altitudes and a coastline with the cold Humboldt current. The country is the biggest exporter of fruit in the southern hemisphere. Salmon, avocado, grapes, blueberries and quinoa: Chile has them all. Moreover, in contrast to many other South American countries, Chile can be considered democratic and politically stable, and its economy has been growing by about 5 percent per year for a decade.
One of the Chilean researchers who comes to Wageningen to learn new things is Sebastián Rivera. He works on the production chain for grapes, among other things. ‘In Chile, the grape harvest accounts for 70 percent of the production costs,’ he says. ‘That could be improved enormously by using robots, for instance.’ Which is something he can learn about in Wageningen.
According to Rivera, his country has vast untapped potential. ‘Our seasons are the opposite to those in Europe and the US, which offers huge opportunities for export. And because of natural barriers such as the Andes, the country has been isolated from pathogens for a long time.’ But Rivera sees what can be improved, too. The use of pesticides needs cutting, for example, because the European market demands that. The quality of fruit needs to be consistent. And where fruit production is already up to export standards, that is not yet the case for vegetables. ‘Vegetables are mainly grown for local consumption, so the standard is much lower.’ There is also social change going on which could influence the production chain, says Rivera. Such as the strikes for better labour conditions in Chilean ports this year.
Where possible, Marian Geluk tries to involve Wageningen specialists in the projects in Chile as well. Frank Wijnands, a researcher at PPO, works for Chile for one and a half days a week. Wijnands works on food safety and hygiene with 400 small-scale vegetable growers around the capital, Santiago. ‘With this project we get the government and businesses around the table to work towards that shared target. This kind of public-private collaboration is really new for them.’ Chileans are open and eager to learn new things, he notices. So he foresees a lot of future opportunities for drawing on and expanding existing expertise. ‘We are building a network and conducting strategic talks with all kinds of partners in the chain. ‘Having a base in a country makes a huge difference,’ says Wijnands. ‘That’s what it should be like everywhere.’ He expects more demand for small-scale vegetable cultivation. ‘Now 90 percent of what is eaten in Santiago comes from the immediate surroundings. What will happen when the city grows? We are in dialogue about that with the government.’ Wijnands is very impressed by the Chileans themselves. ‘They are serious people and they take the world seriously. They are highly educated, erudite and concerned about society.’
So Wageningen UR Chile is rapidly building up a solid portfolio with Chilean partners. Projects with the PSG, the ASG and the CDI are already up and running, and there are more in the pipeline. Talks are going on about setting up a plant diseases service, for instance, for which Rikilt can provide expertise. But there is more to the collaboration than assignments, says Geluk. There is a central role, too, for scientific exchange between Wageningen and Chile. ‘A lot is going on in that area,’ says Geluk. Chilean scientists visit Wageningen and vice versa. Six Wageningen graduates have already done research at Wageningen UR Chile, and 10 Chileans have been to Wageningen. At the beginning of May, all the Food Process Engineering PhD students had a study tour to Chile, where they made grateful use of Wageningen UR’s local network.
In the coming years, Chile will focus not just on fresh food for export but also on high-value processed products. Neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Argentina go for bulk production, but Chile wants to develop its food industry with further innovation. Nestlé and Mars have established themselves in the country and Wageningen UR wants to tap into this trend. So there is enough to do in the years ahead.
Photo: The staff of Wageningen UR Chile welcome rector Martin Kropff. (Photo Guy Ackermans)