24 October 2019

Rens Voesenek on tomorrow's menu

The future of our food

Rens Voesenek

We conduct a great deal of food-related research at Utrecht University. Five years ago, this prompted an effort to prioritise food-related research at Utrecht University and seek out structural interdisciplinary collaboration. These efforts have since led to the establishment of our Future Food hub. A hub is defined as a specific research area in which the university collaborates on societal issues with businesses and institutions.

'There's still so much research to be done when it comes to food', explains Future Food hub chair Professor Rens Voesenek. 'The imminent food shortage presents an especially serious problem. While we need to produce more food, we must also do so in a sustainable manner. Obviously, climate change is not exactly helping in that regard; extreme heat, droughts, floods ... There are clearly some major challenges ahead.'

Learning from nature

Voesenek's own research focuses on immunising crops against the extreme weather patterns caused by climate change. 'Once a potato has been underwater longer than 24 hours, it is no longer fit for consumption. If we can modify potatoes to the point where they can survive water for 48 hours, we'll have made a major breakthrough. We do so by carefully examining natural processes, learning from nature. Various existing plants flourish in underwater or desert environments. Which specific qualities allow them to thrive in those circumstances? Could we ultimately introduce these to our food crops? Our researchers recently described a new mechanism that could lead to the development of flood-proof crops.

The resulting article has been submitted to a renowned scientific journal. We've spent six years on the project so far, and we'll have our hands full with the next steps for years to come.

We've made great strides in terms of genome editing.
Rens Voesenek

Still, many of the solutions developed by biologists tend to make people a bit uncomfortable. Industrially grown cucumbers, genetically modified strawberries, lab meat, insect proteins. 'There's still a lot of ignorance and scaremongering in that respect', Voesenek suspects. However, he also admits that the scientific community could do better in terms of communicating with the general public.

'I think biologists could have done a better job of explaining what they do. For example, we've made great strides in terms of genome editing. We can now insert specific genomes with great precision, which is far more reliable than traditional cross-breeding. There's also no scientific evidence that genetic manipulation is harmful to the global ecosystem or human health. Explaining that narrative carefully is absolutely crucial.'l.”

From soil to plate

However, plant physiologists are not the only group of researchers collaborating in the Future Food hub. 'All our faculties are taking part', Voesenek explains. 'The hub has evolved into a genuine academic community. Our programmes focus on issues that affect the entire food chain, "from soil to plate". Ultimately, we aim to achieve that seventy percent increase in food production by 2050.’

Rens Voesenek

Voesenek mentions the example of grasslands, a dominant landscape element throughout the Netherlands. 'They might look nice and green, but those meadows are basically biodiversity deserts. The associated lack of insects is causing a dramatic decline in meadow bird populations', he explains. 'We submitted a grant application to the National Science Agenda in order to study whether more herbaceous grasslands would improve the climate for insects and birds. Existing evidence suggests that more diverse vegetation can improve the grasslands' tolerance for stress. For example, this would make it easier to survive the kind of drought we experienced last year. There's also evidence that it would considerably improve the health of grazing cows and the quality of their milk.' This is just one example of interdisciplinary collaboration that would not have been possible without Future Food.

Consumers are more aware

So, will we hit that seventy percent target? Voesenek is optimistic: 'Our ability to solve new problems is part of human nature. I think we're on the verge of a global transition. We don't really have a choice; we'll destroy the planet if we don't change course. Thankfully, our food has become far more diverse and healthy over the years. Manufacturers and retailers are contributing to these processes in response to popular demand. Consumers are also far more aware of their diets these days. People are choosing more vegetarian alternatives and watching their carbohydrate intake, while large segments of the population have sworn off industrially farmed chickens. Thirty-five percent of global food production is currently wasted, even though it could have been used to feed a lot of hungry people. Greater awareness of that fact will inevitably lead to different production and consumption patterns. We'll have to develop social innovations as well as technical and product-related ones.'

'Our appetite for quinoa salads means we have to import these grains from developing countries.'

Future Food Lab

Obviously, the freedom to eat vegetarian meals twice a week is somewhat of a luxury. Many segments of the population have no access to food whatsoever. 'Our appetite for quinoa salads means we have to import these grains from developing countries. The soil they're cultivated on should probably have been used to grow food for the local population. Shorter food supply chains will therefore also play a role in the necessary solutions; as part of this effort, Future Food has joined forces with Sodexo to set up an experimental restaurant in the Educatorium. This Future Food Lab offers us the opportunity to test lots of new processes and products.'

Interdisciplinary

In short: the food problem is so great that it cannot be solved by one discipline or university. More than ever, cooperation is necessary. Voesenek: 'That is precisely the reason why we work with so many disciplines. Not only within the university, but also transdisciplinary. We work together with Wageningen and other universities, but also with many large and small companies, ministries and social organizations. Only in this way can we achieve the desired transition.'

Professor Laurens Voesenek studied Plant Ecophysiology at Radboud University Nijmegen and obtained his doctorate with a thesis entitled ‘Adaptations of Rumex in flooding gradients’. He has served as professor of Plant Ecophysiology at Utrecht University since 1999. Voesenek serves as vice-dean of the Faculty of Science and as chair of Future Food, a hub within the strategic theme Pathways to Sustainability.

This article appeared in alumni magazine Illuster.