The Future of Horticultural Science and Education: A European Perspective
By: Roderik P. Bogers
Horticulture is a blooming business. Not only is it of great economic importance, but it also fulfils an important social function. The horticultural industry is facing several challenges and opportunities that result from globalisation of the market and technological advancements in the production chain. To meet tomorrow’s expectations, the maintenance of an adequate knowledge base and close contacts between educators, researchers, governments, producers, processors, distributors and retailers are essential. A conference on 22 November 2006 in Brussels, organised by the BeNeLux Society for Horticultural Science with the support of the European Economic and Social Committee, the Flemish government and EURAGRI, was the first that brought together all these parties to discuss the future of horticultural science. This article summarises the presentations and conclusions of this meeting.
THE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL FUNCTION OF HORTICULTURE
Horticulture is of great economic importance in Europe, as evidenced by the large value of the production industry and the many employment opportunities that horticulture offers. However, the market in Northern and Northwestern Europe, and also in the new EU member states, is now ruled by large retail chains.
Horticulture plays an important role in the public’s wellness; it contributes to a large extent to the maintenance of food security. Furthermore, ornamental plants and the rural areas needed for horticultural production embellish our landscape and fulfil a social function because they serve as recreation areas. Consumption of fruit and vegetables can prevent or slow down the onset of chronic diseases. Despite these benefits, consumers are generally unaware of the origin of their food and the role of horticulture.
DEVELOPMENTS IN THE MARKET AND THE PRODUCTION CHAIN
In order to maintain its strong position in the world, horticulture has to adapt to several changes in the market and the production of horticultural products. These developments include globalisation of the market, an increasing production in developing countries, and a growing influence of the retail sector. Regarding developing countries, especially China will become a major producer of horticultural products.
Developments in the production of horticultural products will be characterised by a decreasing number of growers, while the area used for production remains the same. Growers will also form more alliances and intensify the co-operation with retailers. The increasing production in developing countries may lead to the disappearance of some producers from Europe.
REFORM OF MARKET REGULATION
In Europe, a reform of the market regulation for fruit and vegetables is underway. The sector is facing several difficulties, including a negative trade balance due to high imports, trade negotiations, strong pressure from retail and discount chains, a low to average fruit and vegetable consumption, and market crises due to sudden increases in low-priced imported products and production within the EU. The objective of the reform of the Common Market Organisation (CMO) is to create the best conditions for the EU’s fruit and vegetable producers to compete and produce in a sustainable way. The European Commission has not yet adopted the formal reform proposal. There are indications that it would be appropriate to maintain producer organisations in the new CMO, as they are the key tool of the fruit and vegetables CMO. Further, the current schemes for fruit and vegetables intended for processing should be aligned with the new Common Agricultural Policy, and processed products should be introduced in the Single Payment Scheme to make producers more market-orientated and competitive.
EXPECTATIONS AND CONCERNS
The ambitions of producers are to expand their market share, strengthen the position of European horticulture in the world, beat the competition with market-driven enterprise, and improve the position in knowledge areas such as green genetics. The EU can support this by supporting entrepreneurship, creating the right conditions for the playing field and providing funds. These ambitions and developments underscore the necessity of sustaining an adequate knowledge base and a high level of education. This education should not only emphasise traditional horticultural science, but should also focus on knowledge about the market and logistics.
Processors and distributors are concerned with strategy to meet expectations. Their vision is to build long-lasting relationships with leading retailers in managing the daily fresh-produce supply by negotiating long-term sourcing plans, logistic excellence and providing solutions in convenience food. Long-lasting relationships with growers and retailers, as opposed to operating as a spot-market player, could advance mutual profit for growers and the retailers.
The expectations of the produce industry lie in the use of new areas and regions, new cultivars, harvesting and post-harvest practices, logistics (packaging, transport, cold storage, increasing shelf life, and traceability of products) and marketing (consumer research, promotion and communication). Innovation is needed from horticulturists, but the pool of educated people is decreasing.
The consumers’ interests and the way consumers decide to purchase food now involve the concept of authenticity: consumers want their food to be trustworthy and produced with consideration for ethical values like fairness in the supply chain and care for the environment. Consumers’ trust is very much influenced by the response of the producers to their concerns, and thus not only by food safety and associated risks. Consumers look for value for money. At the top of the consumers’ expectations are taste, which must be consistently pleasant, and convenience. Health considerations only play a minor role, because health effects are hard to determine for the consumer, due to inconsistent expert information about food and health.
Consumers’ purchasing decisions for food are based on noticing, buying, consuming and liking food. The liking or not liking can be remembered or forgotten. Repeated purchases occur when food is recognised and remembered as liked. The second purchase is important in the long term: if it is liked, the consumer remembers this purchase, and gets “hooked”. Therefore, it might be a better strategy to let consumers buy good products only, rather than attempting to provide the product the year round, with varying quality.
The horticulture industry can support the consumers’ interests in various ways: it should provide tasty products with no unnecessary risks, provide local produce (as far as climate and season allow), provide variety throughout the year, allow consumers more control, and demonstrate responsiveness to consumer feedback.
DYNAMIC MODELLING FOR INCREASING PROFITS
Mathematical models can be employed to enhance profit in the whole chain. Dynamic modelling is a technique that combines information on consumer behaviour with production, logistics and marketing strategies. For example, sweet peppers are harvested in batches of different quality, and the ripeness of the fruit at harvest determines how much of the product is lost due to over-ripeness and how much the product is liked by the consumer. Because of this variation in batch quality of fruit and vegetables, profit can be gained from vertical co-operation. Although it may sound counterintuitive, more profit can be made in the chain as a whole if the retailer and the trader share the costs. Profit can also be enhanced if the trader pays for the waste due to over-ripeness.
Horticultural science combines the various sciences needed to develop and implement this technology. Since the success of dynamic modelling depends on good data on product quality and consumer behaviour, the scientist who creates this information will be important. However, before dynamic modelling can be implemented, chains need to get organised in a better way.
THE FUTURE OF HORTICULTURE IN ACADEMIA
Horticultural science within academia is facing problems due to a diminishing number of students and the merging of horticulture departments into more general plant-science departments. To receive input from a wider audience on what contributes to the diminishing number of students and how to reverse this, an internet forum was launched by the International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS) and the American Society for Horticultural Science.
Generally, the dropping numbers of students who choose a career in horticulture may be explained by three factors. The first is the inability to define horticulture: is it a distinct science or the integration of a broad range of sciences; is it a science or a technology? The second factor is the stigma associated with applied horticultural research and the emphasis on competitive grants. Horticulture is not viewed as an attractive career by students. Furthermore, success in science is based on publications and grantsmanship in disciplinary research rather than applied research and/or the development of horticultural technologies and practices. Thirdly, there is a negative public perception of horticulture. Terms that come to people’s minds are pollution, dirty hands, long hours, low wages, unscientific, a hobby, not glamorous, and a non-lucrative career path.
The question is whether the decline in the number of students can be reversed. Several ideas were mentioned in the forum. Basically these ideas could be categorised as changing the emphasis of horticulture departments, marketing horticulture in the media as an attractive career, and using opportunities during early education to make pupils and students familiar with horticulture.
Finally, there is a debate going on about whether horticulture departments should retain their own identity. Two contradicting viewpoints exist, stating that merging would either result in irreparable harm or aid horticulturists in academic success.
CO-OPERATION IN EDUCATION
Since no single university can cover all areas of horticulture with excellence, co-operation between educational institutions creates opportunities to improve education in horticulture. The EuroHort thematic network is an informal horticultural network with the aim to co-operate in education on the MSc and PhD levels. EuroHort initially consisted of the CHAINS-iT group (Challenges in Horticulture: An INtensive program for European Students), the NOVA/BOVA Nordic/Baltic University Network, the Euro League for Life Sciences (ELLS), and the BOKU-TUM-Bologna MSc Network in Horticulture. EuroHort today involves 43 partners, including universities, research stations and horticultural organisations. The co-operation consists of various things, including mapping of scientific competencies and modules in horticulture among the partner institutions and promoting employability and modifying educational profiles. Ultimately, the goal is to create a European MSc degree in horticulture and make EuroHort a formal Erasmus Thematic Network.
TRENDS AND DEVELOPMENTS IN SCIENCE
Can exogenous and endogenous trends in horticulture be combined? Exogenous trends include temporal and geographical variations in the diet (including fruit and vegetable consumption), an increasing emphasis on food safety and quality, mechanisation of production systems, and changes in climate. As a result of the latter, changes occur in plant phenology (e.g., time of pollination and harvest) and the life cycle and epidemiology of pests. This has many implications. For example, plant cultivars that are resistant to diseases and drought have to be designed.
Endogenous trends in science are a shift from high-throughput analytical biology towards integrative biology. Integration can occur at various levels and aspects of horticulture, e.g., integration of data on genes and functions of plants, integration along plant development and horticultural cycles, up- and down-scaling across organisation levels, and comparative approaches across species.
At INRA (France) the exogenous and endogenous trends are combined; there is no separate horticulture department but there are a few multidisciplinary research centres focusing on horticulture. In addition there are multidisciplinary expert groups that deal with the whole chain of fruits and vegetables and ornamental plants. These expert groups map the research system and identify research programmes and projects. Trends and needs that are identified generally are an increasing emphasis on product quality and safety, and more attention to environmental aspects. The question for the future is whether horticulture as an autonomous scientific and academic topic is fading away.
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES OF FP7
There are opportunities for horticulture in the European Union’s seventh framework programme (FP7). Although the horticulture chain as such is not mentioned as a priority area, many of its constituting processes and industrial and commercial activities can be found in many places in FP7, especially under the headings of “life sciences”. In addition, FP7 offers a multitude of meta-scientific modalities (such as co-ordination actions, knowledge transfer and agenda setting) that are orientated to a better underpinning of the performance of the general knowledge base and are certainly accessible for initiatives from the horticultural sector.
CLOSING PANEL DEBATE
The main points made by the various presenters were summarised as follows: horticulture is important from an economic and social point of view, and there is a broad range of expectations from producers, suppliers, distributors and consumers, which is necessary to make horticulture fulfil its role in European economy. The knowledge supporting horticulture is based on traditional horticultural science, but there is much interesting threshold-surpassing research to be done. However, there is a lack of visibility of horticulture as a coherent science, and global competition will be difficult without an adequate knowledge base. The key question is: how to proceed? The themes brought up by the audience concerned the visibility of horticulture for the public and students, the sharing of knowledge between commercial companies and universities, and the issue of how to achieve greater co-operation between all parties involved in horticulture.
Visibility of horticulture. Although it was observed that horticulture lacks visibility to the public, there were also encouraging sounds from the audience. Examples of the public’s interest in horticulture include people’s enthusiasm when they visit small farms and greenhouses in the Netherlands at the annual “Kom in de kas” (“Come into the greenhouse”) event. Each year this event attracts 350,000 to 400,000 people.
Sharing of knowledge. Successful co-operation requires that knowledge be shared among colleagues; exchanging knowledge is difficult, however. For example, as a result of confidentiality of commercial research it is hard to have students visit commercial companies. A possible solution is to make good consortium agreements that are useful for protecting and sharing knowledge. A “horticultural cluster academy” was mentioned, where leading persons in the field share ideas with their peers and also with colleagues from outside horticulture. In France, strong relationships exist between universities and industry, while student internships strengthen this link.
Co-operation. The conference made it clear that co-operation between all parties involved in horticulture is essential. Generic issues should be identified so that the whole industry can benefit. With respect to the knowledge base, horticultural science should do more work on logistics and retail. Co-operation can clearly be improved. It was noted that each part of the horticultural sector (research, industry, retail) organises its own conferences. Despite the strong need to bring all parties together, it had also been difficult to achieve this for the present conference.
There was agreement that one partner should take the lead and drag the other partners along. But who will take responsibility, and are all partners coherent in their wishes? There may be reluctance to let another lead. Various panel members were of the opinion that governments should listen to the horticultural sector and take the lead, but the current situation is far from that. For example, in the Netherlands, there is not even one person at the ministry of agriculture who is particularly concerned with horticulture. At the end of the debate the observation was made that serious advocacy of the horticultural sector is needed and that the sector should make its educational needs clear to the government. This was done in Norway for civil engineering, where the industry initiated a reform in education by making its needs clear.
To conclude, the conference has given a new impulse to intensify the co-operation between the various parts of the horticultural sector. The suggestion was made that the next conference theme should be “From Seed to Consumer”; the BeNeLux Society for Horticultural Science is certainly willing to contribute to organising such a conference.