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The Netherlands: new blue, or rather, green zone?

Transforming the Netherlands to a Blue Zone - this is what KeyGene in Wageningen wants to contribute to in the field of vegetable cultivation. The new research greenhouse with associated laboratory facilities is a step in that direction. It was officially opened last week. New varieties and cultivation methods must eventually ensure that Dutch people live longer, healthier lives. Just like in the so-called Blue Zones where a higher-than-average number of old, healthy people live. After an afternoon of lectures, people experienced the Crop Innovation Centre in virtual reality. They then had the opportunity to visit all the high-tech facilities.

See the photo report here. 

, KeyGene's Director, Arjen van Tunen

In the run-up to the official opening, everything revolved around the ‘Blue Zone’ theme. Three speakers were introduced by chairperson Katja Berkhout, after welcoming coffee and tea. But not after Arjen van Tunen started things off. He expressed the will to use KeyGene to transform the Netherlands into a new Blue Zone. Proper nutrition and eating sufficient amounts of vegetables are essential conditions for this. This is something that KeyGene is continually doing research into.

Michel Poulain

One of the researchers behind the Blue Zone concept, emeritus professor Michel Poulain, further introduced the Blue Zone concept in his lecture. It could just as well have been called a Red Zone, he said. This is because, as he told an amused audience, he was using a red marker to indicate where remarkably old people live. Poulain explained that many factors contribute to the creation of a Blue Zone. Nutrition is an important one of these.

Anneke van de Kamp

Vegetables are, of course, an integral part of this. It certainly was during Anneke van de Kamp of Rijk Zwaan's lecture. Rijk Zwaan is a Dutch vegetable breeding and seed production company. Van de Kamp openly admitted to not knowing about the Blue Zone concept until recently. She realized that breeders play a vital role in this. The challenge for breeders is to develop vegetables that meet the needs of the local population. They must also be popular so enough of them will be eaten. Van de Kamp used the sweet pointed pepper, the Palermo, as an example. These are currently enormously popular. Yet, ten years ago no-one was interested due to the spicy taste associated with peppers up to that point.

It got a lot of laughs when one member of the audience asked if potatoes could be considered as a vegetable. After all, the daily recommended quantity of 250 grams can easily be reached.

Koen Joosten

One of the speakers was a pediatrician, Koen Joosten, of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam. As chairman of the ‘Food for a Better Life’, he reiterated the importance of nutrition in the education of children. Vegetables are, as it were, a pharmacy full of good substances. Joosten also said he could envision that, in the future, children could visit KeyGene to learn about nutrition. Keystone's Director Arjen van Tunen said this was tried in the past but the idea did not really get off the ground. He is not adverse to trying again. KeyGene is also involved in the World Food Center that will be opened in 2021. The focus here will undoubtedly be on children and nutrition.

Anker Sørensen

After the three lectures, it was time for three shorter pitches by researchers at KeyGene. Anker Sørensen said they were busy doing research into the diversification of the banana sector. This is because here there is, very noticeably, only one variety. The variety is the Cavendish. By going back to the 'grandmother of varieties', the Gros Michel, it should be possible to create diversity among bananas, such as color, and shape.

Martin de Vos

After this, Martin de Vos revealed a glimpse into the plant doctor's future. If De Vos is to be believed, it will not be too long before a drone with medicine will be along to 'heal' plants of diseases. Or someone on a bicycle, to help crops grow better. Actually, just like the current cultivation advisors, only in people's homes who grow tomatoes themselves and do not have to deal with cultivation problems, whether or not in mini high-tech greenhouses.

Wladimir Tameling

Rice was the central theme in the last pitch. Wladimir Tameling described the worldwide arsenic problem and rice's role in this. Arsenic, as a toxic substance, has been inextricably linked, as a healthy nutrient, to rice. However, by genetically modifying varieties, Tameling sees opportunities to keep as much arsenic as possible in the rice plant's root system. In this way, less arsenic will end up in the rice grain itself.

Opening in virtual reality
After the lectures and pitches, it was time for coffee and tea. And then, Hans de Boer, chairperson of VNO-NCW, a Dutch employers' federation, performed the official opening. But not before he expressed his concern about the potentially limiting consequences of the European Court's ruling about CRISPR-Cas this summer. De Boer said he would like to take action on behalf of the VNO-NCW. He wants to do so if it seems that the work at research institutions, such as KeyGene and the SMEs, could be disrupted.

  The audience waiting in anticipation

Hans de Boer in action in Virtual Reality

Then the Virtual Reality goggles were put on. And the Crop Innovation Centre was opened, with the press of the button, in Virtual Reality.

  The opening in Virtual Reality

After that, groups of attendees were given a chance to take a tour through the new research greenhouse. 

Groups going into the research greenhouse

Explaining the different facilities, including digital phenotyping

Even dandelions are bred and examined

Of course, LED lighting and hydroponics is there

Among other things, a pocket-sized sequencer can be found in the laboratory.

Once out of the greenhouse, it was time for a cocktail party. See the day's photo report here.

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