Science - March 13, 2013

Tastes differ: The many faces of Wageningen research on food security

Wageningen researchers bring a shared pragmatism to research on food security all around the world. In other ways, however, their views and approaches do vary. Should we aim at raising production? Should we go for ecological diversity?Or for a powerful combination of the two?

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In 2050 the world population will have reached nine billion people, all striving to achieve western levels of prosperity. In a couple of decades' time we shall therefor need to produce roughly twice as much food as we do now. And we will have to find more sustainable production methods, since many of the fac­tors of production (good land, fresh water, artificial fertili­zer) are running out and it is generally accepted that the current burden on the environment is too heavy. Wage­ningen's 95th dies natalis is dedicated to this challenge.
That there is a challenge before us is something everyone in Wageningen agrees on. But when Aalt Dijkhuizen makes it the basis of a plea for intensive agriculture, Wageningen is up in arms. This is because there are several different schools of thought in Wageningen as to how we can reach the goal of food security for nine billion people. According to Maja Slingerland, a researcher at Plant Production Systems, Dijkhuizen represents the views of one of these schools of thought: that of sustainable intensification. This approach of Wageningen production ecologists assumes that farmers need to raise their production per hectare by making use of good seeds and adequate inputs. They also need to specialize in particular crops and animals in order to optimize their systems. In doing so they should minimize the environmental damage inflicted by not wasting artificial fertilizer and pesticides. Slingerland calls this the dominant Wageningen school of thought on food security.
More intensive production
One clear exponent of this approach is Martin van Ittersum with his research on the yield gap: the gap between actual and maximum possible agricultural production levels. Using models, Van Ittersum calculates the agricultural production could be raised all around the world if farmers made good use of their production factors. He can calculate the yield gap for one field of wheat, one thousand rice fields and the whole world. But the model gets complicated if it has to factor in the complexity of a farm and the farmer's decision-making, says Slingerland. This is because there are many farmers of various kinds who grow several different crops, sometimes simulta­neously and sometimes in rotation. Van Ittersum's model cannot cope with that.
Wageningen plant and animal breeding research programmes are part of the sustainable intensification approach too. The aim behind breeding sorghum and cassava varieties that are more resistant to drought, diseases and pests is to increase the productivity of African agriculture. The same goes for the breeding of robust and highly productive chickens in Ethiopia. Better breeds will raise production per hectare, preferably with less feed, water, artificial fertilizer and pesticides. Contrary to what is often suggested, scale does not play a role in this approach: intensification is important for both large-scale and small-scale farmers. But there are a few other principles underpinning the intensification philosophy. It assumes that farmers - big and small - own the means of production and have access to the market, enabling them to recoup investments fast. The economists of Wageningen UR are also part of the school of sustainable intensification. 'The economists see the market as the regulating mechanism for demand and supply,' says Slingerland. That is valuable, but falls short in certain areas too, in her view. 'The economic models can deal with specialized companies but not with farmers who grow a mix of five different crops.'
Ecological diversity
Where the variation gets too big for the dominant Wageningen model, another school of thought comes into the picture. This approach takes biodiversity as its starting point, says Slingerland. Rather than seeking to change the environmental conditions to facilitate higher production, the researchers make ecology their starting point. They want to understand how farmers come up with their various different systems in interaction with their environments, and how they can make use of the natural variation. Here Slingerland has in mind Pablo Tittonell's organic agriculture systems, Lijbert Brussaard's soil science research and Jan Douwe van der Ploeg's business styles. What these researchers have in common is a starting point that says; diversity is good, monoculture is undesirable. They are in a minority in Wageningen.  
Sietze Vellema of the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation chair group is among the supporters of the eco-approach. Together with phytopathologist Gert Kema and soil scientist Jetse Stoorvogel, he does research on Panama disease, which affects banana plantations all over the world. The standard approach is to develop a banana that is resistant to the disease. Kema, however, takes ecology as his starting point. The researchers want to understand the symptoms of the banana disease, how it spreads, and what role is played by the ecosystem. By analyzing the interaction between the pathogen, the soil and the plants, they hope to locate a mechanism with which Panama disease can be controlled.
In practice there are many grey areas between the sustainable intensification school and the ecological approach. Plant and livestock breeders may indeed favour intensification but they also stand to gain from ecological diversity. After all, that is the source of the material for selecting or designing a better plant or animal. There are also entomologists who study the biological interactions between plants and insects in order to design biological pest control methods. Here again, the ecosystem is the starting point and is used for pest control in one of more monocultures.
Sietze Vellema suggests another way of categorizing Wageningen research on the food supply: the dominant Wageningen approach is based on a design, while others look at food production from an evolutionary point of view. 'The design-oriented researchers work on a limited package of solutions to world food supply issues. Even Dijkhuizen participates in the debate from the standpoint of a preferred solution. I am more inclined to take an evolutionary point of view. This emphasizes how farmers and other users of knowledge and technology select solutions in the course of their day-to-day practice. For that you need diversity, otherwise there is no choice and you may not have any options left for unexpected problems and tailor-made solutions.'
Food waste
Although the spectrum between the intensive and the ecological approach goes a long way towards categorizing Wageningen food research, there are disciplines which fall outside these categories. As a researcher at the Centre for Development Innovation, Marianne van Dorp focuses primarily on developing countries. She notes a strong emphasis on production in Wageningen, whereas there are other factors at work in food security as well. Such as food waste in the chain (40 percent of all the food produced globally goes to waste) and the quality of food.
She takes Bangladesh as an example: a country which has made self-sufficiency in rice production the corner­stone of its food security policy for many years. It has now achieved its goal. Yet a section of the population is still undernourished because the quality and diversity of the food they get is inadequate. Bangladesh is now focusing on diversifying food production by developing livestock farming, fish farming and horticulture. This is important for Bangladesh both economically and nutritionally, says Van Dorp. The principle is valid in nutrition too: variation is good, monoculture is undesirable.
Van Dorp feels there are issues that are neglected by Wageningen research. Such as the political aspects of the world food supply question. 'FAO statistics indicate that there is no shortage of food at the moment, but that it is largely a question of distribution,' says Van Dorp. 'Eco­nomic development is no guarantee of preventing hunger and undernourishment.' India, for example, is developing nicely economically but the number of undernourished people there is undiminished.
Maja Slingerland notices the lack of that political angle in the research on competing claims: competition for access to land and water among farmers, nature managers and businesses. 'In such cases we Wageningers talk about food, energy and nature. But power relations play a role in these negotiations too. Here we pay the price for not having a political science department. There are very few Wageningen scientists who look at food supplies from a political perspective.'
In their development-oriented research and consu­ltancy work, practical-minded Wageningers often run up against exclusion and political barriers. In such situations Van Dorp sometimes knocks at the door of the Dutch embassy. 'You hope then that they will be able to use their diplomatic clout to help solve a political problem. Because it is not always handy to get involved yourself, as a researcher.' This subtle approach is typical of the Wageningers who are aiming to improve food security in the world. Their prime focus is on the food production system.
And in spite of the different schools of thought, there is a genuinely 'Wageningen approach' to increasing food security. It lies in a tendency to combine the divergent points of view and disciplines of Wageningen UR. Researchers and consultants, for instance, often work together in multidisciplinary teams. 'We are very pragmatic,' says Maja Slingerland, who collaborates with technical and social scientists coming from several different schools of thought. Social scientist Vellema works with natural scientists all the time, too. Wageningen UR's research and projects aim at concrete results: a better crop, efficient water use, improved soils, a farmers' cooperative or a practice-oriented university. Is the world hungry? Then we must make sure more and better food is produced. With this practical attitude Wageningers can work in any country and political system towards improving food security.
Food for All
During the Dies Natalis celebration the university will present a new book about food security: Food for All; Sustainable Nutrition Security. A substantial and richly illustrated English-language book of 142 pages 'about the role of Wageningen UR in this major field,' says commissioning party and co-initiator Martin Kropff.
The books gives insight into Wageningen UR's scientific contribution to the search for solutions to the world food problem. It explains three aspects of food security, says the rector magnificus: the availability of sufficient food, access to food, and nutritional value. 'At present there is enough food to go round but it is not fairly distributed,' Kropff explains. 'We give examples, for instance, of what Wageningen research can contribute to solving these problems.'
Time and again, innovation and synergy between technological and socio-economic breakthroughs are at the heart of the matter, says the rector. In his view these are often minor breakthroughs, small steps towards removing a barrier to an adequate supply of healthy food. But bigger breakthroughs are on their way too, such as Wageningen's contribution to sustainable greenhouse horticulture through biological pest control and the use of greenhouses to generate energy. The book is intended, says Kropff, to inspire a broad public.
Food for All, sustainable nutrition security, editors: Martin Kropff, Johan van Arendonk, Huub Löffler.

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