“The relationship between plant genetics and the environment is vital”

He knows everything there is to know about potatoes—he earned a PhD in the subject. Since then, the scope of Jan van den Berg’s work has widened. The new professor of Plant Envirogenetics studies the relationship between plant genetics, growing and storage conditions, and quality factors such as nutrients and taste.

Van den Berg’s field of research is paving the way to a circular future for society. In line with his vision, the Brightlands Future Farming Institute (BFFI) is currently being established at the Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo. “We still know relatively little about the envirogenetic regulation of consumer characteristics in vegetables, so more research is needed.”

Brightlands Future Farming Institute

The importance of vegetables for the future of food is hard to overstate. Vegetables can feed the world sustainably, and a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables plays a vital role in disease prevention. But in times of climate change and public-health crises, finding a sustainable way to produce vegetables that appeal to consumers is essential. BFFI researchers will collaborate to this end with other experts on campus in the fields of nutrition education and plant-based food innovation.

Van den Berg is a man on a mission. “It’s clear that we can’t continue to exploit the Earth as we have been doing. The future of food is plant-based. In times of global warming, we want to find out how we can grow food in a responsible and sustainable way. We study plant genetics as well as growing conditions and the post-harvest journey of vegetables, including packaging, processing and storage. We’re looking at the whole chain.”

The big picture

Van den Berg studied agronomy in Wageningen. “It’s a multidisciplinary programme that encompasses the natural, economic and social sciences as they relate to agriculture. I specialised in crop cultivation and became interested in plant physiology and genetics. After interning at Cornell University, where I did my PhD in potato research, I joined BASF’s vegetable-seeds business.”

At BASF, he focused on R&D in seed technology and molecular breeding. “I’m now manager of strategic alliances and partnerships, connecting with research institutes and other companies active in plant genetics, cultivation and post-harvest physiology.”

Envirogenetics

Vegetables are increasingly seen as an effective means of preventing disease and promoting a healthy lifestyle. The new BFFI will have a broad scope. “I coined the term envirogenetics to describe the complex interaction between genetics and the environment. For example, we’re studying the effect of blue light on carotenoid production in spinach and tomatoes. In addition to finding significant genetic differences, this kind of research allows us to adapt the environment and genetics to each other. It will help us develop vegetable solutions with a positive impact on health and even on the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. But it’s not just about nutrients; it’s also about factors like taste, colour and freshness. Or consider crops that are not only nutritious, but also resistant to drought, heat or particular pathogens.”

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Resistance

Van den Berg is aware of the public concerns about crop production and breeding techniques. Food is one of our basic needs; it must be responsibly produced. Today, breeding for natural resistance using related species has reduced the need for crop-protection products. With growing in greenhouses now also ‘cleaner,’ he sees no cause for concern.

“People have been crossbreeding crops for centuries. Introducing DNA from wild species is nothing new. Besides, the EU is rigorous about food safety. There’s absolutely no need to be afraid. I have no qualms about buying vegetables from the supermarket, even though I have my own vegetable garden,” he laughs. “Breeding techniques, like gene editing using CRISP-CAS, are developing rapidly. Products bred using those techniques are not currently available on the European market, but it’s important to have an honest and nuanced discussion about them. This will be incorporated into the BFFI curriculum. It’s important for students in nutrition-related fields to have at least a basic understanding of how plant-based food is produced, which includes some knowledge of plant breeding. That way they can form and share well-informed opinions.”

Academia and practice

Van den Berg enjoys having one foot back in academia. “It allows us to exchange knowledge and expertise. With all the startups on campus, research is leading to business opportunities here in Venlo. Bringing together education, industry and the authorities is fruitful; it creates a stimulating learning environment that encourages entrepreneurship. I want my research to go somewhere. Applicability is important to me. It’s inspiring to realise that vegetables grown from BASF seeds reach half a billion people every day, and that many other Dutch companies make a significant contribution to feeding the world.”

 

Text: Ludo Diels
Photography: Arjen Schmitz

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