Tackling the big issues

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It is fascinating to see how thousands of students and researchers at Wageningen University & Research Centre devote themselves to studying the major societal issues of today. Their projects are concerned with the sustainable supply of food and resources, the development of biological materials like fibres and bioplastics, finding an appropriate balance between various forms of land usage, and understanding the major processes which affect our planet, such as climate change and shifts in biodiversity. In other words, they are working on the ‘bio-based economy’, a society in which the majority of resources we use are derived from nature. The bio-based economy is inspired by the cycles seen within nature itself.

The mechanisms of problems and their solutions are unravelled, resulting in knowledge which forms the basis of new technologies and new responses to key societal issues. Enthusiastic young people from many different countries can be found on the Wageningen campus every day, all year round. There is a marked air of optimism. That optimism is welcome, and indeed essential, in a time which seems dominated by sombreness and prophecies of doom which have been prompted by shocking national and international events of recent years. Perhaps such pessimism is understandable, but it stands in the way of progress. Moreover, it is entirely unjustified. We can see countless areas in which we are now faring far better than in the past. By any measure, the quality of life throughout the world has risen. In recent decades we have even managed to slow and offset the worst of our environmental problems.

This is because science and technology have not stood still, which is in turn due to ongoing cooperation between governments, the education sector, the research field and industry, all of whom have joined forces to seek responsible solutions. Standing still is not an option, and neither is attempting to return to some idyllic notion of the past. That is not to say that we should ignore the past altogether. There are positive aspects which ought to be retained or restored: compactness of scale, human involvement and pride in professionalism, for example. Our challenge - the pursuit of the bio-based economy - demonstrates what is possible through the application of modern technology in combination with shared human values. Digitisation, robotics and the use of drones will greatly enhance the efficiency with which water, nutrients and crop protection methods can be used in food production, while also improving health and safety for workers. Consumers will be able to ascertain the exact source of the food they buy and how it was produced. The impact of such innovations will be felt throughout the world, and not only in the industrialized West. Within a few years, African farmers could well be leading the way in precision agriculture, just as they are already leading the way in the use of mobile communications to support production efficiency. Opportunities to create new employment both within and beyond the agrifood sector will emerge and must be exploited to the full.

We cannot always rely on technology but we can rely on human ingenuity and the younger generation’s thirst for knowledge. Despite the pessimists’ claims, we have yet to reach the bounds of our capabilities. Today, the majority of our students attend campus full-time. New interactive online technology will enable us to share our knowledge with the entire world, unfettered by time or location. Our first two online courses in food technology and plant sciences have already attracted no fewer than forty thousand students.

This is just the beginning. It is interesting to speculate about the future of higher education: what form will our universities take ten or twenty years from now? It is even more interesting to speculate about the solutions that are likely to make the biggest impact on the quality of life of the world’s population, which is projected to number over nine billion by the year 2050. One thing is certain: Wageningen University & Research Centre and its many-faceted alumni will make a major contribution in every field.

Louise Fresco
President of the Executive Board, Wageningen University & Research Centre