NL: foreign visitors in awe of the seed sector

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Discussions about the future of the agricultural sector in the Netherlands, particularly the greenhouse horticulture sector, often highlight the country’s global reputation for innovative strength. However, this strength is sometimes underappreciated domestically. A day spent touring with an international delegation can provide a refreshing perspective.

The ISF World Seed Congress, provided an opportunity for such a tour. Buses departed from Ahoy in Rotterdam for company visits in four regions, and all were fully booked.

On Wednesday, a bus tour specifically for the international trade press took place. The itinerary included visits to the tomato facility Tomato Vision by Syngenta in Maasland, a presentation by East-West Seed at the World Horti Center, and a lettuce breeding site by Rijk Zwaan in Dinteloord.

Organized by Plantum, the aim of the trip was to showcase the strength of the breeding sector and emphasize its importance for global food security.

Harvesting Robot
At Syngenta in Maasland, journalists from Germany, Denmark, Serbia, Brazil, and other countries could not avoid the topic of ToBRFV. The virus is a serious concern, as noted by the journalists, many of whom were not well acquainted with greenhouse cultivation. Once dressed in hygiene suits, they were allowed to taste plenty of tomatoes and observe the harvesting robot from Four Growers.

The robot was notably fast, at least according to the author, who had seen previous demonstrations of agricultural robots. Depending on the variety, the American-made robot can pick one fruit per second using vacuum technology. This process, which sounded like a much louder version of a household vacuum cleaner, was clearly audible. Syngenta has been using the robot in Maasland for almost a year and a half. This allows the breeding company to learn what breeders need to anticipate regarding the expected increased use of robots in greenhouses.

Besides the speed, the somewhat erratic movement of the suction mouth was also noticeable. To match the speed of human pickers, the suction mouth must quickly locate, analyze, and capture each fruit. During harvesting, the clusters shook quite a bit, but the ‘damage’ during the brief demonstration was minimal. A major advantage of using a robot for harvesting is that it can operate almost 24/7, as it is connected to a power cable.

Harvesting under LED lighting is also not a problem, assured Geoffrey Hibbs from Syngenta. This winter, the robot successfully operated under such lighting. The robot’s ability to illuminate the fruits itself helps mitigate the potential adverse effects of purple-pink light.

After a round of tomato tasting led by Lotfi Bani from Syngenta, the ‘breeding journey’ continued to Naaldwijk, where Maaike Groot from East-West Seed and Stuart Morris from the foundation associated with East-West Seed Knowledge Transfer were ready to present. Here, the focus shifted from high-tech solutions to cultivation in tropical climates in developing countries, where many smallholder farmers are active.

The breeding company, founded by Maaike’s father, Simon Groot, who is now 89 years old, is expanding and is currently active in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is also actively involved in providing training, which is the foundation’s focus. These trainings are crucial because “every change is a risk” for the farmers they work with. If something fails, the family income is immediately at risk.

While East-West Seed aims to make very small steps forward with farmers, thereby developing cultivation in regions for the benefit of the entire sector, Rijk Zwaan sometimes helps farmers make very large steps, such as transitioning from soil-based growing to hydroponics. The breeding location in Dinteloord, which was visited, is designed for this purpose.

During the opening of the congress last Monday, King Willem-Alexander pointed out that the world looks to the seed industry to solve many international challenges.

Peter Sonneveld and Bauke van Lenteren, representing the family business that, like the ISF, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, explained in the greenhouse in Dinteloord how lettuce cultivation is evolving and the role modern techniques play in this process. “Who has ever seen lettuce cultivation on water?” Peter asked. A third of the hands went up. The journalists were once again amazed.

Bauke van Lenteren and Peter Sonneveld explain while the assembled press took photos and videos wherever possible. A third of them had never seen lettuce on water up close before.

What’s special about the sector, as Elsbeth Ketting emphasized on behalf of Plantum, is that the sector represented by Plantum invests a remarkable amount of money in innovation. Breeding companies invest an average of 15% of their turnover in research and development. For some companies, this figure is even as high as 30%.

To add another number: although breeding companies span the entire world, a significant part of the workforce is in the Netherlands. Both at Syngenta (where 22% of the 2,500 employees work here) and at Rijk Zwaan (where 1,650 of the 3,900 employees are based in the Netherlands). The seed sector works closely with growers and retailers to continue innovation.

“I speak on behalf of the entire sector,” Jérémie Chabanis of Syngenta emphasized at the beginning of the day. “We are all ambassadors.”

The delegation of international journalists with some Dutch colleagues and the author.

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