Intelligent breeding in greenhouses can increase the percentage of high-value compounds in plants. This has potential for companies that use plants as source materials, consumers interested in enriched products, and horticultural firms looking for market opportunities in the Biobased Economy. Are greenhouses the pharmacies of the future?
One of the greenhouses of Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture in Bleiswijk has clusters of tomatoes ripening in tubes. “Cuvettes,” scientist Caroline Labrie explains. “These LED tubes allow us to control how much light the fruits are exposed to. We know that intelligent lighting can double the level of vitamin C in tomatoes and we are now looking for the best lighting method to achieve these increases. The next step will be to implement the method in applicable cultivation systems for growers.”
Growing plants for the Biobased Economy
Other highlights in the greenhouse include orchids for tea with beneficial compounds and Stevia, the plant that produces a natural sweetener. Tests are also being performed with monocultures of algae for high-value applications. All these plant tests are part of the The Greenhouse Pharmacy (Kas als Apotheek) initiative by Wageningen UR in cooperation with the Kenniscentrum Plantenstoffen. Together with interested parties, Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture is carrying out research to cultivate plants with an increased level of high-value compounds. These plants are an interesting source material for the Biobased Economy.
Components with market potential
“We can get much more value from plants than they currently produce,” says Labrie. “By using the right varieties in combination with intelligent lighting or fertilisation or other ways of cultivation, we can realise a considerable increase in the percentage of healthy compounds. We focus on compounds that have market potential. The trend from ‘synthetic’ to ‘natural’ offers opportunities for items such as natural colouring agents. For fresh produce, we focus on compounds for which health claims are permitted, such as vitamin C. One can also consider herbs with antibacterial properties. Herbs are processed in animal feed, for instance, to increase the resistance of the livestock. It would be great if we could thereby enable that animals need fewer antibiotics.”
Standing out in the crowd
Growers have shown interest says Labrie. “Many growers are having a difficult time as margins are very slim and they see this initiative as an opportunity to work on products with a higher economic value. ‘Healthy and natural’ products are increasingly important to consumers. The market can address this trend by offering products that stand out from the crowd due to their enriched compounds. The next step is to breed high-value compounds for industrial partners.”
Research into consumer acceptance
To create value, you first need customers that see and care for that value. Labrie admits. “We believe that there is a category of consumers who are interested in tomatoes with extra vitamin C. But we have to check. This is why we are performing consumer research in cooperation with LEI to find out how consumers respond to enriched products. What do they associate them with? And how large is this target group?”
Companies that want to be part of The Greenhouse Pharmacy initiative can always contact Labrie. “We would like to meet with interested parties to see if we can jointly develop enriched plants that add value to the entire Biobased Economy chain; from enriched tomatoes to natural aromas, colouring agents and flavourings.”