Imagine how much greener and more efficient agriculture could be if we imported fewer soybeans and turned vegetable growers’ waste into meat substitutes. Amsterdam Green Campus, a network organisation of five educational institutions based at Amsterdam Science Park, is helping agri-food businesses with these and similar projects. Director Niek Persoon is determined to ensure that smaller growers, who might not feel confident about approaching academia, are also able to take advantage of the Campus solutions through applied science and vocational education. “There is a misconception that innovation only comes about through smart minds,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s also about practical implementation: just doing it.”
What’s special about what Amsterdam Green Campus offers?
The great thing about Amsterdam Green Campus is that the network includes expertise not only at university level (WO) but also from vocational (MBO) and applied sciences (HBO) institutes. The unique thing about that combination is that we can, from different angles, approach the whole value chain – from idea to marketing and production. Based on market demand, we can match projects with the right academic researchers and professors, and also with professors at HBO (called ‘lectoren in Dutch’) and at MBO (called ‘practoren’). In addition, our work is based on several UN sustainable development goals.
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What kinds of projects are you working on?
Well, right now we are focusing on locally grown beans [also known as Faba beans] as an alternative to imported soybeans. The aim is to develop a short, local chain, with local growers and processors (small-to-medium enterprises). Imported soy, especially if it’s coming from Central and South America, is far from sustainable. One of our students is now working out the Life Cycle Assessment of locally produced Faba beans in comparison to import Soybeans. How good would it be if we could create an alternative solution just around the corner in Flevoland and North Holland?
Another example: We developed within the university a process for the valorisation of residual organic waste from vegetables derived from growers and processors of the food industry. For instance, organic waste derived from VEZET (a cutter of vegetables), from growers of Bell peppers and from Kramer Zuurkool. Through a fermentation process, we could transform that vegetable cut-waste into a vitamin and flavour enriched powder for use in vegetarian products. That was a very nice integrated project and has resulted in a valuable patent for the University of Amsterdam (UvA). We are now working with commercial parties to market the product.
How does Amsterdam Green Campus fit in at Amsterdam Science Park?
The park is very important for us because of course we attract students from the UvA and the Amsterdam University College We also have a good connection with the Science & Business organisation and the Amsterdam Chemistry Network. And we have connections beyond the park. We get a lot of enquiries from government bodies and there are also many parties that feel too small to approach a university. For them, the threshold to come to us is lower, and then those other institutions come on board as well. We’re regularly at the table with the Greenport partnerships and the municipalities and the province, which is really nice. You don’t have to wait; you can work together on topics important for the region.
How do you see your relationships with partners developing further?
I would love it if we also started using the resources of Amsterdam Science Park to do things that would benefit small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). If we started working with the scientists here on applied solutions in our own backyard. The need is there. Things like robotics in greenhouse horticulture and plant physiology – we could do a lot by assessing plants in the field.
You would make use of the existing networks?
Yes. But the province also receives enquiries directly from SMEs, and some SMEs are looking for student input. We are approached from all sides. Currently Amsterdam Green Campus is mainly working on projects in the range of €40,000 to €1.3 million. We also want to be able to answer questions where you don’t immediately need to bring in PhD students, but where you deploy students or researchers from applied sciences institutes.
In the end, it’s all about the small steps that are needed to take the big leap towards a sustainable society. You have to realise how innovation comes about. I’ll put it bluntly: it takes one academic, five applied science graduates and 20 vocational education graduates. There is a misconception that innovation only comes about through exceptionally clever minds. Ultimately, it’s about practical implementation: just doing it. And that can happen here, precisely because we at the UvA have taken responsibility for setting up the Amsterdam Green Campus foundation. The bottom line is, grab all the universities and colleges you need to ultimately shape the transition, and do it together. And the Amsterdam Science Park can be a focal point for that.
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