Johan Schut pulled a folding knife from his hip pocket, inserted the tip into the base of a bright, crispy head of romaine lettuce and severed it in two.
“See there, the little brown specks with black legs?” He lifted one of the busy beasts onto the tip of his blade. “It’s a family of aphids. This is a non-resistant lettuce.”
Mr. Schut is the chief lettuce breeder at Rijk Zwaan, one of the leading seed companies in Europe and a principal player in Food Valley — a public-private cooperative community aligned with Wageningen University. Food Valley’s 40-plus members range from genetic research start-ups to global food and chemistry conglomerates like Nestlé and Danone.In a Europe where conservative attitudes to farming are entrenched and the hostility of consumers and ecologists to genetically modified crops is sometimes obsessive, Food Valley is different. Its entrepreneurs and scientists are trying to use all available techniques, including genetic modification, to improve agriculture around the world.
Since its creation in 2004, Food Valley has set itself multiple missions: responding to the increasingly dire threats of famine in Africa and Asia; reducing agriculture’s reliance on chemical pesticides, and using genetic science to increase the nutritional value of farm products.
For example, Henk Schouten, of the Plant Research Institute of Wageningen University, is trying to use genetic engineering to fight scab disease, a major threat to apple trees. Mr. Schouten uses a technique called cisgenesis to implant scab resistance genes from wild apples into table fruit, short-cutting conventional plant breeding processes by decades or even hundreds of years.
Mr. Schouten’s resistant apples, however, have remained confined to the laboratory by European Union regulations against genetically engineered products. In contrast, Food Valley’s work on keeping aphids out of salads is one its best success stories. It began at a company called Keygene, founded by Arjen van Tunen, a pioneer of the community.
Like many plant breeders, Mr. Van Tunen knew that aphids did not attack certain wild strains of lettuce. The problem was that aphid-resistant wild lettuce tasted bitter and tended to suffer from “leaf senescence,” in which the inner leaves wilted and rotted early.
During an interview, Mr. Van Tunen pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a diagram representing a wild lettuce chromosome.
“Here at this bend in the chromosome,” he explained, “is where we found the sequence that repels aphids.” Then he drew two red lines on either side of the bend. “Those red lines cause the leaf senescence and they are almost always linked to aphid resistance.”
Mr. Van Tunen says it took more than 100,000 greenhouse pollen crosses to create a lettuce plant that resisted the aphids without carrying leaf senescence. As daunting as that sounds, however, making the crosses was not the problem. The bigger challenge was to distinguish useless plants from good ones, an identification task solved by using a genetic fingerprinting technique called Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism, or A.F.L.P..
Developed by Keygene 20 years ago, the technique has since been licensed for a wide array of applications — including the comparison of crime scene evidence with genetic material from suspects — and license royalties now support many of Keygene’s other projects.
Researchers used A.F.L.P. to identify a handful of promising disease-resistant lettuce seedlings — about 5 percent of all produced —which could then be crossed back into existing varieties to develop new commercial strains.
Nearly all European lettuce varieties now carry aphid resistance, but trouble has popped up again. A mutant aphid variety is breaking through this resistance gene, prompting a call for researchers to find a solution.
To beat back the aphids and avoid pesticide spraying, Mr. Van Tunen’s team is heading back to wild lettuce to find more resistance.
Some fungal diseases, like downy mildew, are even more aggressive than insect pests like aphids and require new plant strains to be developed every two years. The scientists face an unending need for resistant plants to combat evolving predators. Global climate change promises to intensify that battle.
Keygene and Genetwister Technologies, a neighboring start-up, are working to develop dozens of plant varieties — from tomatoes to bell peppers to cucumbers — that rely less on chemical pesticides than existing varieties and stay edible longer after harvesting.
Because of E.U. regulations, none of them use genetic engineering for now; but Mr. Van Tunen says that engineering, carefully controlled, will one day be recognized as essential to meet the mounting pressure on the world’s food supplies.
On current estimates, at least a third of farm produce rots before it reaches the consumer, and in India, Mr. Van Tunen says, 50 percent is lost.
Two reports published this autumn from the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, or F.A.O., in Rome, project huge crop failures in coming decades, with global rice yields falling as much as 18 percent and wheat as much as 34 percent. To avoid intense famine in large parts of Africa and Asia, the research institute projects that global farm production will have to rise by 50 percent. The F.A.O. says a 70 percent increase will be needed by 2050.
To meet this challenge, every tool needs to be deployed, Mr. Van Tunen said. “It is silly to think of one solution,” he said. The need is for “better logistics; better agronomics; better irrigation with precise watering of your crops; better fertilization; and also more land put into cultivation. And then the other option is bio-technology. It’s a very important option.”
Like most of his colleagues, Mr. Van Tunen came from Wageningen University, where he was director of the Plant Research Institute in the 1980s. He and others describe it as a dark period in the school’s history. Enrollment was falling. Dutch government investment in agricultural research was being cut, and by the mid-1990s, the university itself, the Netherlands’ agricultural flagship, was in danger of disappearing.
“We faced three choices,” said Rudy Rabbinge, who headed the university’s School of Production Ecology and directed its crop research at the time: “Fade away, transfer our departments and merge with other universities, or revisit and reformulate ourselves as an international research university.”
Mr. Rabbinge fought to turn Wageningen into a multidisciplinary school that formed joint operating institutes that crossed the gamut of the food industry.
“We merged 22 different research institutes in agriculture, food, nutrition and health with thirty agricultural experiment stations while strengthening professional ties to the private sector,” he said. One result is that nearly all the university’s 1,400 food and farm science doctoral students now get to work in a private-sector research lab before finishing their degrees.
Another is that much of the basic science done at the university is financed privately, rather than by the government, although university rules require that all findings be published in scientific journals and be made publicly available.
The diversity of the research stretches far beyond traditional agricultural science. A collaboration with a vegetable processing company uses waste vegetables to create new juices and food colorings. A potato breeder has used genetic sequencing to identify potatoes that absorb less fat during frying.
A Food Valley collaboration between a Dutch dairy giant and medical researchers at the nearby Radboud University Nijmegen is trying to identify the genetic coordinates of cows whose milk produces protein peptides associated with lowering blood pressure. Chicken breeders are working jointly with Maastricht and Wageningen Universities to identify the molecular characteristics of eggs with desirable cholesterol characteristics.
“This was a famous university,” said Roger Van Hoessel, the managing director of the Food Valley organization. “It’s always had an orientation of how to benefit farmers, but that’s become much more complicated now. You have to build a bridge to the world of medicine. It’s not enough to know food technology, but you have to understand the nutritional side too.”
This degree of public-private cooperation has raised concerns that research may be bent to the needs of the food industry; and outside the Netherlands the broad cooperative model, often involving corporate competitors, leaves visitors more than a little puzzled, Mr. Van Hoessel said. He cites the case of Keygene, which was jointly founded by three of the Netherlands’ largest seed competitors.
Kees Reinink, the managing director of Rijk Zwaan, said Keygene made money for them all. “In America, they say the aim is to destroy your competitor,” he said. “Here the aim is to create a win-win situation.”