Science - February 16, 2006

Tailor-made technology goes mainstream

He’s been saying for years that simply transplanting technologies from ‘here’ to ‘there’ leads to irreversible social problems. If technology is to work ‘there’, it must be developed ‘there’. Most of the time he seemed to be preaching to the converted, but finally Guido Ruivenkamp is noticing that the tide is turning.

The Indian government is putting fifty PhD students to work on the research programme led by Professor Guido Ruivenkamp, of the Technology and Agrarian Development Group in Wageningen. ‘The deadline for submitting research proposals was 15 February,’ says Ruivenkamp, who will be coordinating the project himself. ‘The first selection must be made in June, and we want to make a start this year.’
Ruivenkamp’s term ‘tailor-made biotechnology’ is a central theme in the project. The aim of the AIO projects, for which the Indian government is putting up about seven million euros, is to develop technology that will enable small farmers and food producers to move forward on their own terms.

‘We have always emphasised the importance of small-scale technological solutions that are adjusted according to local conditions,’ says Ruivenkamp. ‘We felt that we were a voice in the wilderness, but finally there seems to be a change.’
This change was evident in the speech that the Dutch prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende made on 18 January during his visit to India. He referred to Ruivenkamp’s project as an example of a ‘partnership’, that ‘in the field of biotechnology’ showed ‘that the Netherlands and India can help each other, as equal partners’. Another indication of the change is that the Dutch minister of economic affairs, Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst, has pledged to provide an extra attaché at the Dutch consulate who will oversee the project.
India is developing rapidly into an economic superpower, with which the Netherlands is keen to build up good relations. This is one factor that has given Ruivenkamp’s approach an impulse. The other is the doubts about the suitability of Western agro-industrial biotechnology for India. The fast-growing clusters of life-science businesses in India also make it painfully clear that India no longer has any use for Western know-it-alls.
‘The Wageningen approach not only involves looking at the technology, but also at the way in which a society develops and uses it,’ explains Ruivenkamp. ‘The approach in which technology is developed by the society itself is very worthwhile in a country like India.’ That the idea of ‘tailor-made biotechnology’ is becoming mainstream is also evidenced by Ruivenkamp’s appointment as professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam in April 2005. Ruivenkamp intends to use his appointment to further develop his ‘science in society’ approach.

‘What I mean by this is the same as what Martin Kropff calls co-innovation,’ continues Ruivenkamp. ‘Large areas in the world are not interested in technology that we scientists dream up for them, whether we are in a life-sciences company or in a research institute. People in these areas want technology that we develop together with them. Technology developed in this way will be better adapted to the conditions where the technology will be put to use.’
The way this works in practice is illustrated by the project approved by Inref in October 2005. Inref is the Interdisciplinary Research and Education Fund, Wageningen University’s research programme for assisting food production in tropical areas through small-scale projects.
In the new Inref project, social scientists from Ruivenkamp’s group are focusing together with plant scientists and nutritionists on three crops: lupine in Ecuador, mung bean in India and cowpea in West Africa. Lupine is a crop related to the pea. In mountainous areas it is an importance source of protein, but the beans also contain high levels of alkaloids, which have to be destroyed before lupine can be eaten. ‘At present the local people soak the beans for six days in water,’ says Dr Daniel Danial of the Plant Breeding group, one of the project partners. ‘This way the alkaloids dissolve. But because water is scarce, they often use bad quality water and as a result pathogens develop in the beans. This is why we are working on developing a lupine variety that contains fewer alkaloids.’

Eating habits
The three crops have in common that they are all under pressure from the encroachment of Western eating habits, tells Professor Tiny van Boekel, whose group Product Design and Quality Management also participates in the project. ‘Young people in Benin are starting to eat more rice and fewer traditional products made from cowpea. At the same time you can also see that the Western snack culture is on the rise in Africa, and this is also pushing out cowpea products. If you look at the nutritional value of rice and cowpea this is not a desirable trend, as cowpea is a good source of protein and minerals. We are thinking of developing new products based on cowpea. We’ll do this together with local producers of course, so that we are sure of developing something that there is real demand for.’
Another problem that both plant scientists and nutritionists are working on is the presence of phytates in the crops. Phytates inhibit the uptake of minerals. Breeding or modified preparation techniques could help reduce the amount of phytate, the scientists hope.
The role of the social scientists in the projects is that of intermediary between the scientists and members of the local population who indicate what the technological needs are. ‘The social scientists bridge the gap between the parties,’ says Danial. ‘We now see the importance of local knowledge. We understand why the farmers do what they do. These are aspects that plant breeders largely ignored in the past.’

Willem Koert