News - June 9, 2011

Spotlight: Evert Jacobsen: a breed apart

For 35 years, he has worked at making potatoes better. He travels frequently to North Korea and is a fervent advocate of cisgenesis. But plant breeder Evert Jacobsen is first and foremost a man concerned about his fellow human beings and steadfast to his own principles. 'I want to make sure that the people have food to eat.'

He has just returned from North Korea after reaching new agreements about joint potato research and the training of North Korean PhD students in Wageningen. Why does he have anything at all to do with that dictatorship? 'This is the kind of reaction I often get', says Evert Jacobsen. 'What are you doing in that villainous country? In other words: leave those North Koreans to their own devices. To which I would answer: they are just normal people, and they can't help what's going on. We have a distorted image of North Korea. Because of one mean villain, the entire North Korean population has been cast aside. This is not fair. Science has to stand above politics.

Formerly, he is the scientific advisor of the Plant Sciences Group since 2005, but is in fact attached to the Plant Breeding group headed currently by his successor Richard Visser. Jacobsen has a free hand to do what he likes. 'I stimulate research and then let others do the work.'
That last visit to North Korea was his fourth. 'Its population was suffering from hunger this spring. The cold caused crops to develop twee weeks later than usual, and that led to problems straightaway. With potatoes, the population can get more calories per hectare than with rice. But phytophthora and virus diseases have destroyed 50-60 percent of the harvests. I want to do something about that. I want to make sure that the people have food to eat.'

Jacobsen is not worried about the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, but is concerned about the health of the research manager of the institute in Pyongyang, with whom he has worked for seven years. This man has Parkinson's Disease. Jacobsen frowns. 'It looks bad.' On his last trip, Jacobsen has again taken with him medicine against Parkinson from the Netherlands for this man, because such medicines are not available in North Korea. He does not really want to talk about this, but added as an afterthought: 'That man has a problem; I can do something to help. That's what it's all about.'
His acquaintances had this to tell about Evert Jacobsen: He has lost a brother to political correctness. He sympathizes with people who try to make something out of difficult circumstances. With them, he develops firm and long-term relationships. He is very dedicated, says a colleague at Plant Research International. Dedicated to his own beliefs, even though these do not produce results right away, and dedicated to the people who work with him. These include the tens of PhD students whom he has trained in the last decade. 'This dedication comes perhaps from the way I was brought up, but I became aware of it while I was in Germany, where I worked after graduating from the Max Planck Institute. There, my first wife was involved in an accident. The people at the institute were a pillar of strength for me, including the director. He gave me a lot of moral support and help, including finding a more specialized hospital to give her better treatment. I was under a lot of stress in those strange circumstances and others went out of their way to help us. That has influenced the rest of my life enormously. I was treated very well in other countries and I want to do something in return, especially for foreign researchers who come here, more than what the average Dutch would do.'
'I have been treated well in other countries and I want to do something in return'
Returning from North Korea, Jacobsen celebrated his 64th birthday on 20 May in Beijing. 'My old PhD students organized a party for me and flew in from various provinces. That's typically Chinese. They have great respect for their 'doctor father' and they show this for the rest of their lives. It's a pity that the Netherlands has lost this quality. Respect has become a very strange word in our country, and yet we are still very dependent on it.'
Jacobsen's contact with China began twenty years ago. 'My first Chinese PhD student is someone who is very good in communicating and soon afterwards became the vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. He introduced the potato in the Chinese government's new annual agrarian plans. He is now the vice-governor of a province.' Several of his other PhD students have also taken up major positions in China, and now help to facilitate joint research programmes.
'Many people follow trends, but few are steadfast. But it is this quality which will eventually take you furthest'
Carbohydrate potato
Jacobsen himself got his PhD degree in Bonn in chromosome duplication of the potato. His job at the Max Planck Institute had no provisions for a PhD degree but when his research results were presented, the director got him the degree via another circuit. Afterwards, as a researcher at the University of Groningen, he developed two different carbohydrate potatoes for potato cooperative Avebe. One of these, a mutant from special basic material, has since then produced varieties with a new kind of carbohydrate which has become a major raw material in the food and technical industry. The other, produced using genetic modification, has still not entered the market after sixteen years and many procedures.
But Jacobsen perseveres. Like when he researched into dominant resistant genes against potato blight in the early 1990's. 'That wasn't an in thing to do then; no-one wanted to finance something which didn't show promise. And yet, I went ahead. That led to a couple of theses which laid the foundation for DURPH six years ago, a large-scale resistance research programme against phytophthora. The funds started flowing in again. Many people follow trends, but few are steadfast. But this quality will take you furthest. You have to be a trendsetter, not a trend follower.'

In the DURPH programme, Jacobsen shows himself to be a big advocate of cisgenesis - the introduction of closely related genes from wild potato varieties to protect the potato from potato blight. In the last five years, he has been actively involved in the public debate on GMO's.
'I worked for 15 years in Cogem, the advice bureau which evaluates risks of genetic modification. I'm familiar with the major objections to gene technology: the use of dissimilar genes combined with antibiotic resistance genes as a selection marker. At that time, very little thought was given to whether GMO legislation should be modified concerning the genes of the plant itself, the cisgenes. Currently, antibiotic resistance genes are not necessary any more, and modified plants can be obtained with only cisgenes. I feel that cisgenetic plants are way within the safety margin of conventional plant breeding and should therefore be exempted from GMO legislation. But that's not making any headway. The discussion has reached a stalemate; all of us are swimming in a vicious circle. I left Cogem to get a move on.'
Does Jacobsen feel at ease in the political arena? 'I am not a political animal, but I have to find my way in it. I can't do that if I dislike politics. Without political decisions, we wouldn't be able to get far in the development of biotechnology.'

He is just as critical about Monsanto - 'company interests above everything else' - as he is about those who oppose gene technology. 'The importance of food security for society should come first and foremost. This means that genetic materials of plants have to be made available easily. In addition, GMO legislation has to be greatly simplified. Gene isolation is becoming easier and cheaper by the hour. You can develop a GMO in two years. And yet, this costs more than developing a normal variety, which takes twenty years. The high costs are the result of excessive laws which play into the hands of environmental organizations, as well as multinationals.'
Together with Kees Karssen and Ab van Kammen, he set up in Wageningen the Graduate School of Experimental Plant Sciences, where fundamental bio-sciences and more applied plant sciences are combined. 'We are still reaping the fruits of our labour. Plant sciences are getting more attention from external financers, while cooperation among the disciplines has led to many new developments.'
'I feel that cisgenetic crops are way within the safety margin of conventional plant breeding'

'Afterwards, I was asked to reorganize the Department of Plant Sciences. During the reorganization, I spoke to all its employees. I carried out 264 interviews, and I must have been the only one who did that. That was a big investment, but I got a lot of trust in return. They had thought me to be difficult and blunt, but found that I wasn't that bad during those conversations.' During that period of management, he had to put the chair group aside temporarily. 'That was necessary as I needed to operate impartially. I had agreed to do the job, but that in fact turned out to be too much of a sacrifice. I didn't have much time left for the PhD students and I lost touch of the research content. That hurt. Luckily, after ten years of management work, I could get back to research in the chair group. I now have a more flexible role and that feels very good actually. No complaints whatsoever; I try to keep my glass half full.'
Throughout his management job, he had continued to keep in touch with his PhD students. 'I am interested in people, in each as a person. Is that just a researcher or something else? That's what I want to find out! I feel that such social supervision is crucial so that people will think about their future. It's not like squeezing a lemon. They're too precious for that.'
1974 - graduated in plant breeding in Wageningen
1974 - 1978 worked at the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, got his PhD from the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Bonn
1978 - 1988 Researcher, University of Groningen, Genetics chair group
1988 - Professor in Plant Breeding, Wageningen University
1993 - 1999 Co-founder and director, Graduate School of Experimental Plant Sciences
1998 - 2001 Director, Department of Plant Sciences, Wageningen University
2001 - 2004 Research director, Plant Sciences Group, Wageningen UR
From 2005 - Scientific advisor, Plant Sciences Group