The opening ceremony for the academic year at Wageningen University & Research Centre, the Netherlands, included a number of speeches and presentations under the theme of future challenges. The event highlighted the importance of defining the right agenda to achieve a balanced, ecologically sound and sustainable food supply, across both plant and animal agriculture.

Future directions for both livestock and horticulture were discussed in the context of an environment that is set to become even more challenging and, while it was noted that each local, regional and national initiative contributes to the overall effort, the questions facing the various agricultural sectors transcend national and regional borders and need a global approach.

Predicting the future is always inexact, but looking at new initiatives is one way to glean an idea of where agricultural production is heading. New directions were certainly evident in the presentation of Dr. Martin Scholten, general director of the Wageningen UR Animal Science Group.

Under the theme of “science behind a prosperous livestock sector,” he detailed a number of initiatives underway in the Netherlands but opened with the simple fact that the world needs more food, particularly animal proteins.

Adapting to change   

By 2050, 4 billion out of a forecast global population of 9 billion will be middle class and have the demands for meat currently associated with this income bracket, he said. This requires a doubling of production in animal products and feed, from livestock, fish, crops and probably insects.

“Smart breeding, customized nutrition, animal care, modern housing and environmental technologies are the building blocks of efficient, precision farming,” Dr. Scholten said. However, he continued, society’s concerns about animal welfare, health and environmental degradation must be that weighed against these tools.

Two national advisory committees have build their advice on scientific advice from Wageningen, providing guidelines for the next generation of livestock farming that fit into the Dutch context. The livestock industry is now in the process of developing these guidelines into a national quality system while at the same time adapting to global standards for sustainable production and fair trade. This is being achieved with the support from Wageningen UR.

2011 saw the publication of a number of essays on livestock farming with care that comprised four main topics:

One Health – healthy and safe production for humans and animals

Customized – taking the perspective of the individual animal and respecting integrity

No Nuisance – adopting an environmental and societal perspective

Creditable – written from an economic perspective and developing a quality system for the production chain is now being drawn up based on these principles

Waggeningen is shifting its focus. Scientific support is being used less for policy development and collectives and is more often used to support a modern agribusiness approach.

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Working together   

Scholten continued that animal production has been designated a priority area – a Top Sector – by the Dutch government, and as a result, various public and private programs have been adopted in response to this classification. These are currently being implemented in the areas of breeding, feeding and One Health, as well as to support innovation in egg, meat and dairy production.

Early September also saw the launch of the Breed4Food consortium. The multipartner initiative aims to create a world-leading institute for innovation in livestock genetics and brings together the university’s Animal Breeding Genomics Centre, Cobb Europe, Hendrix, CRV and Topigs. There are now ever more opportunities to improve traits, such as resource efficiency, product quality and animal welfare, often thanks to developments in deoxyribonucleic acid sequencing, and bringing these various partners together should ensure that these opportunities are exploited.

Similar collaborative ventures are taking place between the Centre for Animal Nutrition and major players in the animal feed industry under the umbrella of the Feed4Food initiative. These efforts have been extended beyond the Netherlands’ borders; work is also being carried out with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, INRA, particularly about scarcity of protein.

Another new initiative is Healthy Livestock Farming, which aims to combine animal husbandry and veterinary approaches to animal health in the hope of finding alternatives to using antibiotics in livestock production.

Building a future that works   

As well as these new initiatives, there is investment in existing structures and facilities, which should help to take agricultural production forward.

In September, the upgrading of the High Containment research facilities at the Central Veterinary Institute in Lelystad was started. This upgrading should enable research institutes and life sciences companies to develop new vaccines and diagnostic tools for zoonotic diseases under the highly controlled conditions of level 3 biosecurity.

Much of the research is focused on the sustainable intensification of livestock production, Scholten explained. In order to make the right choices in sustainability, farm, chain or global level his team is working on the development of the next generation of Life Cycle Assessments, specifically based on a broad knowledge of animal production systems. This is being conducted as part of the European Sustainability Consortium.

“The grand global challenges of the 21st century – poverty, hunger, health, climate change and so on – are so complex, they cannot be addressed by isolated initiatives no matter how well-meaning,” summed up Ellis Rubinstein, president and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences. “Academia’s geniuses alone cannot solve them. Industry, academia and government must all work together to create the synergies required.”