Innovations for a sustainable food and agricultural sector

Nominees for the Herman Wijffels Innovation Award 2016 in the Food & Agriculture Category

A thin film that keeps flowers and hard-skinned fruit varieties fresh longer; a system that transforms rainwater and groundwater into nutrient-filled H2O used by greenhouse growers; and a data platform that facilitates precision agriculture: these three inventions have been nominated for the Herman Wijffels Innovation Award 2016 in the Food and Agriculture category. The winner will be revealed on 3 November.

The idea for Liquidseal – an innovation that extends the shelf life of flowers and certain types of fruit – was quite literally born during a neighbourhood get-together, as it so happens that the four initiators (two business owners, a scientist and a banker) all live on the same street. One of the business owners, who runs a haulage firm, was looking for a solution to increase the shelf life of the flowers and plants transported by his company. When the scientist came up with an idea, the other three decided to get on board. The first seal was tested on lily bulbs, followed by experiments with roses, and since early 2016 Liquidseal is also used on hard-skinned fruits such as mangoes, papayas and avocados.

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Extended freshness

‘The seal layer both prevents the fruit’s juices from evaporating and reduces oxygen levels, which extends the fruit’s shelf life,’ Liquidseal’s Victor Monster explains. Depending on the fruit variety, freshness may be prolonged by anywhere from three days to a full week. Monster: ‘We are proud to say that our product has had a massive impact in the fruit and flower industries. Take India, for example, where a staggering 30 to 40 percent of mangoes never even reach consumers, simply because it takes too long to get them to their destination and there’s a lack of decent refrigeration in transit. This means the fruit ends up rotting and needs to be thrown out. We also ran a number of hands-on tests in Brazil, which demonstrated that Liquidseal reduces the amount of discarded fruit from 35 percent to just five percent.’ An added advantage is that this, in turn, also reduces the need for pesticides. ‘Liquidseal enhances flower bulbs by improving the strength of the bulb. This enables growers to reduce their usage of crop protection products by no less than 80 percent.’

Triton

One of Liquidseal’s competitors on 3 November is Triton, a solution designed to combat problems relating to root diseases in greenhouse horticulture, including a disease known as ‘crazy roots’. This condition is caused by a multiplication of bacteria, which in turn causes roots to grow out of control, weakening the plant as it stops growing and, in some cases, ends up withering. Between roughly three to fifteen per cent of these plants do not survive, with tomato and aubergine growers having been hit the hardest by the disease. Aad Wubben of Aqua-Terra Nova, one of the inventors of Triton: ‘Growers have been trying to fight the problem by using chemical or organic pesticides, but chemicals are bad for the environment and also damage the “good” bacteria, while organic pesticides have proved to have little effect.’

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Healthy soil life

The solution turned out to be improving water quality using environmentally friendly methods. Wubben: ‘Water quality is one aspect that greenhouse growers have been known to overlook. They use groundwater or rainwater and disinfect it, which means they end up with water that doesn’t contain any real, valuable nutrients for their crops. In fact, it’s a miracle that it makes the plants grow at all.’ The Triton Bioreactor uses a carefully balanced combination of filters with water and oxygen to extract any unwanted organisms from the water. ‘This provides the foundation for a healthy soil life where plants become less vulnerable and can thrive.’ The benefits are obvious, he explains: ‘It eliminates the need for chemical pesticides and reduces the need for crop protection products, and since you don’t have to throw out nearly as much as you do without this type of protection, your revenues will actually end up increasing too. The bonus is that your water system is always clean, which reduces the amount of maintenance needed and prevents contaminated water from seeping into the substrata.’

Data is everything

The last of the nominees, Amsterdam-based technology company Skylab Analytics, adheres to the belief that ‘It’s all about the data’. The company collects data from a variety of information sources, aggregates this, and then merges it into a single source, which farmers and agricultural businesses can then access so as to learn how to treat their soil and crops, concentrating on specific areas and working with a high degree of precision. The company uses big data and measuring data generated by sensors installed underneath state-of-the-art tractors and agricultural machines. In addition, they use environmental sensors and drones equipped with spectral cameras. Thomas Schouten of Skylab Analytics: ‘We use technology that was pioneered in the aerospace industry. The camera measures colours, chloroplast and similar elements – data which tells you something about the plant’s condition.’

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‘Traffic light’ system

Skylab Analytics collects and analyses the data before presenting it on a clearly designed dashboard. The company aims to combine this method with a treatment plan based on a ‘traffic light’ system. Schouten: ‘Farmers should be able to see for each plot of land or crop whether they have a need for water, fertiliser or pesticides, and in what quantities.’ He adds that this provides numerous benefits. ‘The findings of a study conducted by Wageningen University showed that crop yields increase by 10 percent, costs fall by the same percentage, and the use of fertiliser, crop protection products and water is reduced by 20 to 50 percent.’

Additional information

Further information about these innovations is available on the Liquidseal, Aqua-Terra Nova and Skylab Analytics websites. The winner will be announced on Thursday afternoon, 3 November 2016 during the Herman Wijffels Innovation Event at CineMec in Nijmegen. Admission is free. For more information, please visit the Herman Wijffels Innovation Award website.

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