Located in Flanders, Belgium’s vegetable heartland, the Research Station for Vegetable Production has 60 years’ experience in translating academic research into practical knowledge for greenhouse and open-field growers. Fred Searle speaks to its director Els Berckmoes about the challenges for producers and what the non-profit is doing to help

What are the main challenges facing vegetable growers in Belgium at the moment, and what are they coming to you for research on?

Indoors it’s mainly Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus (ToBRFV) and energy, which is a common issue for all greenhouse farmers. And then if you go outdoors, it’s about fertilisation, pests, and plant protection. There is a tendency in outdoor crops for farmers to pay more attention to monitoring both pests and beneficial organisms. They want to know the effect of pesticides on those beneficials so they can better implement and adjust their strategies because if less and less products are available to them, they need to use them in a more effective way.

There’s a longer-term danger in the requests that supermarkets make because they are requesting that producers use only a couple of active ingredients. This is opposite to the best-practice strategy you should use for resistance management because if you use only a small selection of active ingredients, pests are more likely to develop resistance and you will decrease the lifespan of those products.

When it comes to the EU’s Green Deal, which environmental targets do you think are realistic for the Belgian horticulture sector to meet and which are less likely?

Farmers are facing a series of environmental goals to be met by 2030. When you consider them all separately, they are already ambitious but might be achievable. The real challenge lies in meeting all of these goals by 2030. 

Together with the farmers, I see us making progress, but achieving them ultimately depends on a lot of things. For example, I still see scope to reduce pesticide use, both in indoor and outdoor crops. We are developing IPM strategies to better control pests and diseases, and the use of chemical pesticides comes in last place. We are seeing very nice results there, but it all depends on a variety of parameters. For example, how will our strategies be impacted if we keep experiencing warmer summers? Will we see new pests emerging? Of course, we’ll do our upper best to control them using fewer pesticides, but it’s not so easy. It always takes some years to have them under control. 

When it comes to CO2 emissions, we will do our best to meet the required reduction of 44 per cent by 2030. We have research projects up and running to investigate pathways towards this reduction. We still see quite some potential there, but farmers will have to invest. And following two years of economic crisis, that might not be so easy. The cost of energy, raw materials and labour has increased a lot over the past two years, so margins might be low for those companies. 

What is the Belgian government doing to support growers at the moment?

I cannot go into politics, but I see that they are providing funding for innovative growers. A business can receive funding of up to 40 per cent if they want to implement a very innovative technology at their farm, which is a great measure. Each year, growers take advantage of that. Furthermore, the government has provided extra support for research initiatives within the framework of a potential EU Blue Deal [on water sustainability], to make farmers more resilient to drought, for example.

On the other hand, from time to time legislation is made that is very severe and sometimes reverses decisions that were made in the past. For example, combined heat and power (CHP) units were for a long period considered the best practice to heat a greenhouse. It was a very nice method for heating the greenhouse while at same time producing electricity at an acceptable cost. 

Farmers have made a huge investment in CHP technology and had intended to continue relying on it for another 8-10 years. But now the government is reversing the promises it made. Up until now, for each megawatt hour produced a grower has received a certificate with a specific index, but now the government might change that. Farmers have been calculating their costs on that basis, but now the cost benefit of the technology might become unsustainable.  

How is the role of horticultural R&D changing in Belgium as the sector evolves? 

The average age of our farmers here at the station is 57, so by the time we reach 2030 a lot of them will have retired. You see that the farmers of the future are fewer, younger, and the companies are totally different. They have a much bigger scale, they have more staff, their processes are more automated, and they are taking a totally different approach. Also, these younger farmers are facing new challenges. For example, by 2050 their farms will have to be climate-neutral, in line with the EU Green Deal.

Our station will strive to meet the needs of all vegetable farmers, but in time we must evolve towards the needs of the younger and newer farms, so that we remain a valuable partner for them. If we want to serve these farmers, we have to do research that they need, and are convinced of, but much in advance. We have to be two steps ahead.

I still see a lot of potential in robotisation because I don’t see a lot of robots running around in the greenhouses yet. I expect that within five years there will be robots performing all sorts of tasks for greenhouse growers. 

Meanwhile, in outdoor crops, I think there is potential for more GPS-automated technologies. Drones offer a lot of possibilities and can collect a lot of data but as it stands, we are not allowed to fly a drone without having somebody out there in the field. If this changes in future, it might open a window to new opportunities. Where I see a role for us is that we can support the grower to set up these technologies, train their staff to use them, process the data for them, and tailor it for them to use.