Team:KU Leuven/Human Practices

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BLADEN Human Practices

human Practices


Given the foundational nature of our project, we knew it had the potential to support a wide variety of applications. From the onset, however, we elected to focus on those applications that could contribute towards an agricultural sector that can sustainably ensure food security. To explore potential use-cases and ensure the design of our technology could be adopted by the scientific community, we acquired feedback from pioneers in the field of plant physiology and molecular biology, industry leaders, legal experts, government officials and local farmers; constituting the four pillars that make up the technology transfer cycle – Academia, Industry, Government and Society.

”Research is the transformation of money into knowledge. Innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money.”

- Dr. Geoffrey Nicholson, father of the post-It.

The above quote perfectly captures the essence of technology transfer. Universities are fertile grounds for scientific innovations and technological advances. As such, they have spearheaded some of history’s most groundbreaking discoveries. This academic scene is where our iGEM journey is situated. While striving to advance and improve modern society, universities must however, uphold their societal role and core purpose – education, research and dissemination of knowledge. Therefore, to successfully translate academic research results into benefits to society, universities must join forces with industrial partners. Their financial support, industrial expertise and available resources can enable novel discoveries to actualize their potential societal impact and generate streams of income, which in turn can be returned to fund research.

Aside from academic institutions and their industrial partners, two other stakeholder groups play a crucial role in the technology transfer cycle: governments and citizens. The former dictates the legal framework within which scientific innovations can advance, whilst the latter is responsible for demand. Both of which dictate the technology transfer cycle when it comes to synthetic biology given the often-strict legal framework for gene editing technologies and ethical reservations from members of the public.

Project launch

Towards the end of April, following numerous brainstorming sessions, breakout rooms, discussion and debates, our project slowly started to take shape. As we were putting together the various pieces of the puzzle, however, we soon realized the necessity for expert feedback in order to transform our project proposal into a concrete plan of action. To that end, a panel meeting was organized, consisting of professor Vitor Pinheiro, professor Filip Rolland and professor Koen Geuten. They helped us assess the feasibility of our project, locate potential bottlenecks and identify possible pitfalls as well as work out how we could realistically approach these obstacles.

Proper stakeholder engagement is what makes a project go from theory to useful real-world application, that is why we wanted to get it right. We consulted with Mathias Vissers, iGEM alumnus from the KU Leuven 2017 team and founder of his own digital start-up Netic, on how to go about approaching industry contacts and making a project that is viable and attractive for investors. Alongside this, we sat down with Citycubes, a professional marketing agency to get pointers on how to make an attractive brand and get maximum engagement from stakeholders at events and other times of contact.


Once launched, we started wondering how we could turn our project into a viable technology for both the academic and industrial scene: Were there elements we had overlooked? What problems could our technology provide a solution for? To answer these questions, we spoke with professors who themselves had discovered pioneering new technologies in the field of plant molecular biology and subsequently developed these into startups, bridging the gap between the academic and industrial world.

Em. Prof. Marc Van Montagu & Prof. Dr. Dulce de Oliveira

Em. Prof. Marc Van Montagu is a pioneer in the field of plant molecular biology. Together with Jeff Schell, he is best known as the discoverer of the Ti-plasmid and inventor of the Agrobacterium tumefaciens transformation technology. For his work, he has received numerous prestigious awards, chief amongst which are the Japan Prize for Biotechnology and Agriculture (1998) and the World Food Prize (2013), often considered to be “the Nobel Prize for Agriculture and Food Security”. On top of his academic successes, Van Montagu also co-founded two plant biotech companies: Plant Genetic Systems and Cropdesign. Despite having retired in 1999, Marc Van Montagu remains an active advocate for the role science can play in ensuring food security and reducing the environmental impact of the agricultural sector.

Prof. Dr. Dulce de Oliveira was professor and head of the Laboratory of Plant Molecular Genetics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, she directed several research projects in the field of Fundamental and Applied Plant Molecular Biology, particularly: plant-pathogen interaction, abiotic stress in plants, development of virus resistance in transgenic plants and plant flower development. Since retiring from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Dulce de Oliveira has been a visiting professor at IPBO where she supports Marc Van Montagu in his activities to promote science-based global agriculture.

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, two of our fully vaccinated members were able to visit Marc Van Montagu at his house in the suburbs of Brussels. To their surprise, they were greeted by not one, but two experts in the field of plant physiology and molecular biology as Marc Van Montagu was joined by his close colleague professor Dulce de Oliveira.

The interview started off with a presentation explaining what our project was about. Throughout the presentation, professor Van Montagu and professor de Oliveira asked numerous questions and helped us identify important aspects of our project such as the characterization of our technology with respect to the occurrence of off-target effects, the mutation rate, growth rate of the cells... that we had not yet considered.

During the conversation following our presentation, we discussed the major issues currently affecting the agricultural sector, the societal acceptance of GMOs as well as how to turn academic research into a successful spinoff. Regarding this last point, Marc Van Montagu also explained how he went from his discovery of the Ti-plasmid to the launch of his own company, Plant Genetic Systems. He highlighted the important role use-cases had played in that, as well as societal acceptance to secure financing.

Prof. Van Montagu explained to us the importance of characterizing a product. Knowing exactly how your product works and having the data to support it makes it easier for other companies to use your tools. Therefore, we decided to characterize the growth rate of our BY-2 cells. The resulting growth rate measurements were included in the in silico model for in planta continuous directed evolution (CDE).

Van Montagu also pointed out that patenting CRISPR-based tools can be difficult sometimes. Even more so for our project, which uses an already existing and patented tool (EvolvR). He suggested that we should look for ways to patent use cases we created with our CDE toolkit rather than the toolkit itself.

Prof. Dr. Luis Herrera-Estrella

Prof. Dr. Luis Herrera-Estrella is professor at CINVESTAV, Mexico and an internationally recognized authority on the physiology and metabolic engineering of plants. He published the first paper describing the successful transfer and expression of a bacterial gene in plant cells and pioneered the development of dominant selectable markers and the use of reporter genes for plant systems. Luis Herrera-Estrella was the founder of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity at CINVESTAV, Mexico, and the Institute for genomics for Crop Abiotic Stress Tolerance at Texas Tech University in the US. More recently, he has focused on his startup company centered around a system enabling the selective fertilization of crops, allowing a reduction in the use of fertilizers and herbicides to achieve high crop yield.

For a non-European perspective on our project, Marc Van Montagu referred us to professor Luis Herrera-Estrella. Luis is a former associate of Marc that has since grown to become a recognized authority in the field of plant physiology and metabolic engineering.

Given the distance between us and professor Herrera-Estrella, we met up on Zoom. After presenting our project, Luis gave us his thoughts and helped us select viable use cases. His primary remark regarded the single-celled nature of our project. Whilst he accepted the advantages of selecting at the single-cell level, it would nonetheless prevent us from pursuing a wide array of traits that operate at the systemic level. Furthermore, our current technology is limited to a narrow 150 bp region because of which an in-depth characterization of our target beforehand would be required. Finally, regenerating plants from protoplasts is something few plants are amenable to. Nevertheless, he was intrigued by our project and did recognize its potential.

Following the professors’ feedback, we discussed his most recent research, the legal framework of GMOs outside of Europe, the viability of GMO-based startups in today’s society as well as Luis’ experiences with regard to his own startup company. During this conversation, it became clear once again that climate change is a major threat to the agricultural sector. Especially the droughts and extreme temperatures that accompany climate change threaten to have a significant impact on crop yields.

One of the problems that Luis pointed out was that our project would produce GMO crops. Producing GMOs is not really a technical issue, he said. It’s more about the political side of it all. Namely, GMOs are still not allowed in regions such as Europe. And not all farmers are willing to grow “unnatural” food. He suggested a similar approach as Pim Van Lindhout gave us to circumvent this problem. First, find a bunch of mutations using our BLADEN tool. Then, find the same mutations but in naturally occurring variants. Introducing mutations that can happen in nature anyway is not considered to be a GMO approach in regions such as Brazil, allowing us to innovate crops in those regions.


The fruitful translation of academic successes into benefits to society often requires industrial partners. The financial support, industrial expertise and available resources these bring to the table, can enable novel discoveries to maximize their societal impact. In order to assess the viability of our project as well as its potential impact, we spoke to industry leaders who evaluated our project and introduced us to the industrial plant biotech world.

Dr. Jan Leemans

Dr. Jan Leemans received his PhD in molecular genetics from the Free University of Brussels (VUB) in 1982. The expertise he gained there, has served him well throughout his extensive career. Jan started off working at Plant Genetic Systems where he quickly became research director. Since then, he has served as a member of the board of Hoechst Shering AgrEvo GmbH, Nunza, the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology (VIB), CropDesign, Maize Technologies International, DevGen, Solynta, AgroSavfe and Misr Hytech Seed. This has not only provided Jan with technical expertise regarding plant genetics, but also vast insights in navigating successful business relations and legal settlements.

When academia and industry collaborate, they each bring a unique perspective to the table. As these alternative views can often help identify previously overlooked gaps, we were highly interested in the industry’s opinion on our project in addition to the academia’s. Luckily, Marc van Montagu shared our view in this regard and provided a helping hand by bringing us into contact with Jan Leemans. Jan started his career at plant genetic systems and has since become an expert when it comes to navigating the industrial scene.

Nowadays, Jan mainly resides in the South of France. Whilst many of us happily volunteered to go and visit him, the iGEM workload would not allow it and our conversation had to take place via Zoom. The meeting started off with a short presentation regarding our project after which Jan gave us his thoughts on both our pitch and our technology. He emphasized the importance of a sound use-case when pitching your technology. Not only does this help to illustrate the potential impact of your technology, it also transforms the abstract theoretical background of your project into a tangible approach to solving a problem. To guide us in selecting a use-case, Jan discussed what makes a good use-case and suggested various issues to have a look at. Jan also reiterated Luis’ remarks with regard to the single-celled nature of our project and the limits this would impose on our range of applications.

Dr. Pim Lindhout

Dr. Pim Lindhout has a background in plant molecular biology and genetics. After graduation from the university of Leiden, he initiated one of the first public research projects on the use of molecular markers in tomato breeding. Ten years later, Pim became an associate professor of plant breeding at Wageningen University. There he directed the Preduza project, which aimed at developing sustainable resistance to diseases in local crops in South-America, and coordinated the national tomato genomics programme. In 2006 Pim left Wageningen University and joined the business world. After leading the R&D department for four years at De Ruiter Seeds and Monsanto, he co-founded Solynta in 2010 with the aim of developing hybrid potato varieties with superior traits and performance through hybrid breeding. For his efforts he was appointed Knight of the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands on the 29th of September 2021.

Whilst Jan Leemans has extensive expertise when it comes to managing the financial and legal aspects of a company. We also desired the perspective of someone actively involved in research and development. To that end, we had the honor of talking to Pim Lindhout. Once head of R&D at De Ruyter Seeds, Pim now leads his own company, Solynta.

As Pim Lindhout spends the majority of his time near Wageningen, the Netherlands, we spoke with him via Zoom. Following a short presentation of our project, Pim gave us his thoughts on our technology. One of his main concerns regarded the single-celled nature of our project. Whilst regenerating plants from single cells is feasible, it is often a tedious process. Hence, we would need to consider the operational, practical and financial aspects of this approach. Furthermore, the use of our technology heavily depends on the existence of available molecular information. This would limit its applicability to only well-characterized plants and processes. Finally, a concern for GMOs in general, we would need to consider the willingness of farmers to cultivate GMO crops.

Dr. Lindhout was particularly critical about the fact that we would sell genetic data, and not a GMO itself. For many plants, it is really difficult to regenerate a full plant again from a protoplast stage. He made it painfully clear that we were leaving the hard work in the hands of the people who would use our optimized genetic data, namely regenerating the actual plant. He proposed it might be a good idea to work together with established seed companies. The seed companies would then use our genetic data to create actual plants, thus creating a product that’s usable of the shelf.

Benjamin Laga

Benjamin Laga received his master's in bio-engineering from Ghent University and went on to work at Plant Genetic Systems as a researcher. In 1999, Benjamin joined Bayer Crop Science where he steadily rose up the ranks from a scientist to Head of Trait Discovery and finally Head of Research Technologies. Following his 20 years at Bayer Crop Science, he joined BASF as Managing Director & Global Head Trait Research Operations eventually becoming VP Global Head of Trait Research and Managing Director. Recently he founded his own biotech company Protealis of which he is also the CEO. Protealis aims to develop seeds and seed technologies for legume crops that are adapted to local environments in Europe. Their mission is to make protein-rich crops such as legumes attractive to European farmers again, focusing first on developing high-yielding protein-rich soy varieties.

Jan Leemans and Pim Lindhout provided us with the viewpoint of a managing director and that of a head of research and development. Whilst both provided us with valuable feedback, we also desired the perspective of someone in the early stages of a startup company. To that end, we spoke with Benjamin Laga who in March of this year founded his own biotech company Protealis.

Despite his busy schedule, Benjamin was willing to free up some time and meet us via Teams. We started the meeting by briefly presenting our project. In the conversation that followed, Benjamin helped us improve our pitch both by identifying missing elements as well as demonstrating his own pitch. He explained to us how what investors look for in a pitch, namely (1) uniqueness and novelty, (2) market competitiveness, (3) intellectual property rights, and (4) the team behind the startup; as well as how to intrigue and persuade investors to invest in your startup. We concluded our talk with Benjamin by briefly discussing his own company Protealis and how he acquired the necessary funding to launch it.

As the head of a real company, Benjamin made many remarks about our pitch. One of the things that was missing was the reason why our approach was so much better than the currently existing approaches to optimize plants. He then went on to explain to us how the current biotechnology applications can only optimize or edit one (or at most a few) genes at a time. Your project, he said, has the potential to optimize many more complex traits than the currently existing techniques. We went on to use this fact in our pitch and present it as a selling point for our technique.


Governments dictate the legal framework within which scientific innovations can advance. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the field of synthetic biology. Both academic experts and industry leaders continually cited the stringent regulatory framework within the European Union as one of the main roadblocks to the widespread implementation of GMOs. To explore this potential hurdle, we talked to experts who explained us the situation, both on the national and European level.

Jannes Maes

Jannes Maes stems from a family of dairy farmers. In 2015 he joined the European council of young farmers (CEJA) as a member of the board of directors where he was subsequently elected vice-president. In 2017 he was elected president of CEJA, becoming reelected in 2019. In Januari of this year, he relinquished his position at CEJA and joined the cabinet of Minster Crevits where he serves as an advisor for matters related to agricultural sector and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union.

To better understand the position of the Flemish government regarding GMOs, we contacted the cabinet of Minister Crevits. There, we were greeted by Jannes Maes who enthusiastically answered our questions and was even willing to look up additional information for us regarding the European legislation. The most important questions are summarized below.

Is the presence of GMOs in food intended for human consumption monitored? If so, are these inspections the responsibility of the federal or Flemish government?

The primary mechanism through which the absence of GMOs in food intended for human consumption is ensured, is through trade agreements. Nevertheless, inspections are carried out by the federal government to verify compliance with these trade agreements. Novel gene editing technologies have, however, made it difficult to near impossible to discern GMOs crops from crops obtained through traditional plant breeding methods. This complication is also reflected in the recent study from the European Commission on new genomic techniques [1].

Is the Flemish government in favor of relaxing European legislation on the cultivation and use of GMOs?

Given the untenable nature of the current legislation, the Flemish government would be in favor of a relaxation. In addition, this would also allow the full exploitation of modern gene-editing technologies, of course within a given regulatory framework. Most important will be to establish a well-defined and sustainable policy of coexistence

In Belgium, GMO crops are not cultivated except for scientific research. Is there any federal legislation prohibiting the cultivation of GMOs?

Formally, there is no ban on the cultivation of GMOs in Belgium, nor in Europe. Cultivation in the European Union is, however, strictly regulated (EU 2001/18). The imposed prerequisites are very stringent. The drafting of an application requires expertise and resources. And on top of that, following the risk assessment (criteria are strict but clear), a final political decision has to be made at level of the European Union. The result is that up until now there has never been a qualified majority either for or against (with the exception of MON810 whose approval preceded the strict legislation). The permission, if granted, does in principle apply to the entire territory of the European Union.

It is important to note that in terms of releasing GMOs into the environment, a distinction is made between field trials and commercial cultivation. Field trials fall under part B of the above-mentioned legislation while commercial cultivation falls under part C. Authorization for commercial cultivation is a European matter whereas field trials are national matter.

Does the Flemish government take all stakeholders in the GMO debate into account? If so, how does the Flemish government engage with the various stakeholder groups?

Decisions regarding GMOs are always made in consultation with the various stakeholder groups, e.g. via open questionnaires. Additionally, the Minister is also in contact with various agricultural organizations, environmental organizations, etc. so as to ensure that the concerns and findings of these organizations are taken into account in the decision-making process.

Currently, European legislation has unintentionally created a situation where only large corporations have the financial capacity to conduct the necessary safety tests to get their GMOs approved. Are there any European, Belgian or Flemish initiatives to support startups in this regard in order to prevent startups from going bankrupt or having to hand over substantial shares of their company to larger corporations that are able to shoulder this financial burden?

It is also the opinion of the Flemish government that the reticent position of the EU, stemming from a justified concern regarding the concentration of power, has actually facilitated the concentration of power. The Flemish government is aware of this concern and as such, offers far-reaching support to startups.

René Custers

Dr. René Custers is the regulatory and responsible research director at the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB). The VIB is a non-profit research institute, with a clear focus on groundbreaking strategic basic research in life sciences and operates in close partnership with the five universities in Flanders. René’s area of expertise concerns the European GMO legislation and regulatory framework, as well as ethics and scientific integrity.

For this interview, we met with René Custers, an international expert in -among many others- biosafety, -ethics, GMOs, and their (EU) regulation. René works at the VIB, a leading research institute in the life sciences worldwide, as their regulatory & responsible research manager. In addition to this, he is the current secretary for the European BioSafety Association after being a board member since 2015. Mister Custers often advises politicians and other government officials on regulations, laws, and public affairs pertaining to his expertise.

At the start of his career, René mostly worked around regulating GMO’s and biosafety. Whilst these are still very relevant topics, his work has expanded to other areas such as genome editing. Not only is he an expert in the juridical aspect of the conversation, but also in scientific communication around GMOs.

In June 2018 the European Commission (EC) made a statement on mutagenesis and on how it should be interpreted for new genomic techniques like CRISPR. As a consequence of this, the European Commission decided that organisms from New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) are part of GMO laws. The European Council gave the task to the European Commission to do a new study on the legal status of NGTs under EU law. At the end of April 2021, this study was published, questions around this study will be the main focus of our interview.

Do you think there will be new relaxations in the law because of novel emerging techniques?

Yes! The study provided an overview of the current legal framework and the scientific situation around GMOs as well as an overview of the opinions from different stakeholders in the debate. Based on this report, the EC concluded that the current legislation is inadequate and should be revised. For this purpose, the EC started the procedure to adjust the legislation. The result of this procedure however will not be here for quite some time. After completing the parliamentary procedure, a final proposal for legislative amendment will be drawn up by the European Council, European Parliament, and the European Commission. However, to which extent this will include a relaxation of the current legislation, remains to be seen.

If these laws would be there, would member states have any freedom in how they would implement this?

No. The current law is based on a part of the European Treaty regarding the functioning of its internal market. Member states have no freedom when it comes to the implementation of these kinds of directives. There are other guidelines where for example minimum standards are enforced, in which case member states have the possibility to enforce stricter standards themselves. If the current guidelines are only changed content-wise, they will stay as guidelines. If the EC decides to make a separate piece of legislation, it could be the case that it would turn into a regulation. A regulation is immediately valid in all member states.

When contacting stakeholders, consumers and farmers, do you have any tips for us on how to bring this sensitive subject of GMOs forward?

Farming associations are familiar with what GMOs are. We have to think about whether we present our project as GMOs or as genome-edited organisms. There is often discussion as to how we classify these. Genome editing is often seen as encompassing techniques such as CRISPR, but actually, we can apply genome editing in multiple ways. You can use CRISPR for small mutations, but also to edit entire genes and include new genes in the genome. There is a difference in public perspective between what can be reached with classical breeding and techniques that go much further than that. The discussion is not about the latter, which will always stay under GMO laws, but about the former. Communication towards organizations should be from this perspective.

What is the opinion of the government on initiatives like iGEM?

In general, they are very positive about initiatives like iGEM which bring together groups of students from all over the globe. I know that the competition takes a lot of care around safety and responsibility. I am a member of the Belgian Biosafety Professionals and from the European Biosafety Association and we ourselves have been in contact with representatives from iGEM who are responsible for topics such as safety.

How does the EU control for foods containing GMOs which are being imported from countries outside of the EU with more relaxed legislation?

In most parts of the world, they already have their own GMO laws. Besides, if you want to sell food in Europe then it must comply with EU regulations. Checking this is done on the level of the member states themselves, for example in Belgium this is the FAVV. Multiple times per year they go to supermarkets and get food that they suspect might contain GMOs, such as soy. There are 3 official testing centers for this in Belgium. When talking about genome-edited organisms, then it gets more complicated. In Europe these fall under GMO laws, but in many places outside the EU they don’t, resulting in a kind of evasion of the EU regulations. How the EU checks and counteracts this is a quite complicated process now. This is one of the reasons why the law must change since we have such difficulty enforcing it.

What would be the consequences of GMOs being planted without permission?

I don’t think that people around the world will start planting GMOs illegally. The biggest problem is the difference in laws between countries. Europe struggles controlling imported plants since the laws are stricter, those plants can be seen as totally legal in the exporting country.

Right now, big companies have more of a chance of being able to produce GMOs and bring these on the market due to the heavy up-front cost to comply with proper EU procedures. What is your opinion on this?

I think that this is a correct analysis. The dossiers needed to complete are so large and the legislative follow-up so vast that only big companies can afford to look into this in detail. NGOs have pushed to get very strict GMO laws. They generally are also against globalization and the power of multinationals. We created an ironic and perverse situation whereby making the laws so strict, there is even more power in the hands of multinationals who are now the only ones able to even enter the playing field. With genome editing, we now have an opportunity to change the law in a way where smaller companies have the opportunity to develop things and bring those on the market. We now see this already in countries where GMO laws are less strict. Multinationals mostly focus on big crops, but this way smaller companies can also focus on smaller and more local crops.


Despite the fundamental nature of our project, we thought it important to consult with those stakeholders that were likely to come into contact with products derived from our technology, namely farmers. Therefore, we contacted and met up with local farmers covering a wide variety of agricultural activities: horticulture, floriculture, orchards, vineyards... to learn about the obstacles they face in dealing with climate change, pests and diseases, the desire to reduce pesticide-dependency... Furthermore, we also wanted to get to know their views regarding genetically modified crops and the potential these hold to ease some of the problems they mentioned. This provided us with deeper insights into the current issues faced by the agricultural sector in Belgium as well as potential use-cases for our technology.

Society summary

Having just experienced three extraordinary hot summers with very little rainfall followed by one of the wettest summers on record, with downpours leading to one of the worst floods, we realized the unlikeliness that plants would be able to adapt to these extreme fluctuations. We became aware that to tackle agriculture roadblocks, there wasn’t a need to go abroad. With climate change and the drastic fluctuations in weather that it brings with it, farmers in Belgium are facing an uphill battle.

Paul Vleminckx – Viticulture

Paul Vleminckx and An Lefever run their own winery. Going from vine to bottle, they produce Chardonnay Meerdael, a high-quality sparkling wine that owes its name to the nearby Meerdael forest.

Throughout his many years as a cultivator, Paul has experienced several significant problems affecting the quality of his grapes that he has tried to combat with various interventions. He has for instance encountered mold infections (mildew) that he addressed with fungicidal prays, which is labor-intensive and could cost up to 4000 euro per hectare. His biggest enemy over the past decade is intermittent frost, which could result in a total crop loss, and which he tries to combat with multiple field heating systems. Additionally, the past year’s extreme flooding reduced the number of leaves that could cause his profit to drop by 50 %. With these examples, Paul was able to stress the role and impact of the climate on his company along with the necessity for quality interventions. Although he is aware of the cost and labor intensity of the chemical and mechanical interventions he is currently applying, he was doubtful about the implementation of genetically modified crops in the wine industry. He said he would consider using such crops, but he is skeptical because the quality of the grapes’ taste could decrease, because of the GMO stigma under the consumers, and because of the actual efficacy of the modified crop toward the cultivation problems.

Jelle Rogge – Arboriculture

Jelle and Luc Rogge run De Bel, a family-owned business for five generations. With an ecologically responsible approach to farming, they cultivate forest plants, shrubberies and landscaping plants.

At De Bel, various tree species have been cultivated for over 100 years by 5 generations of passionate farmers. Jelle Rogge, the youngest family member to join the company, has noticed a significant impact on the farm due to climate change. Whereas earlier generations tended to lose a vast number of seedlings as a result of freezing temperatures in late spring, current generations face intense sunlight and flooding as their main adversary for the survival of their seedlings. Furthermore, this intense sunlight boosts the growth of mold, more specifically mildew (right photo). By covering the leaves, mildew affects the growth rate of the plants. Currently, the infection is combatted by spraying biological agents which need to be applied on a weekly basis. Nonetheless, none of his seedlings this year met their required selling height. This noticeably affects the company’s profit margins. Despite these problems, Jelle is hesitant about the use of genetically modified plants at his company due to ethical reservations and the stigma surrounding the topic.

Luc Billens and Lea Van Laer run Fruit Billens – Van Laer

Founded in 1958 by Luc’s parents, the company has since expanded to 8 hectares on which they grow apples (varieties: Granny Smith, Braeburn, Jonagold, Jonagored, Elstar, Boskoop), pears (varieties: Conférence, Doyenné), strawberries and giant pumpkins.

Fruit Billens – Van Laer is a family-owned fruit and vegetable farm in Gooik, Belgium. The most common threat for them is hailstorms since these leave hard spots on the fruits which make them unfit for industrial use. In the last seven years, they have had four bad hailstorms which ruined a significant part of their profits. Currently, only one efficient solution exists, hail nets. However, these are at the moment too expensive. Another problem is intense sunlight. Due to the shadow it creates, hail nets could pose a solution for this too. Refinement in apple and pear trees takes around 5 years, this is why Luc thinks a faster process to improve strands would be beneficial. Even though he is slightly skeptical concerning the view of the public on GMOs, he believes that if it creates solutions for problems caused by climate change, 80% of his customers would say yes.

Tom Nijs and Ann Geys - Het Nijswolkje

Tom Nijs and Ann Geys run Het Nijswolkje, a dairy farm centered around the health and well-being of their sheep. Founded three years ago, Tom and Ann try to be as self-sufficient as possible, growing their own spelt, wheat, beans, alfalfa, clover and corn as animal feed.

Het Nijswolkje mostly focuses on sheep milk and products derived from it: yogurt, cheese, ice cream, pancakes… Research regarding the optimal composition of dairy sheep feed is very limited, there are also only 6 other farms like theirs in Flanders where they could ask for advice. Since the nutritional needs of dairy sheep differ from meat sheep, they decided that it would be best to cultivate their own products. The biggest problem they encounter is that every year the nutritional value of their produce varies due to the weather, and since they are a small company, they can barely experiment. If the nutritional requirements of the sheep aren’t met, their milk production will rapidly decrease. A crop that has a protein content fit for milk sheep and is easy to harvest, would be extremely useful according to Ann. They are convinced that their customers wouldn’t mind it if their sheep ate a GMO, as long as they could explain the reason why they chose to do this.

Filip and Koen Dewit - Viticulture

Founded at the beginning of the twentieth century, the fourth and fifth generation of passionate vignerons now run a modern-day facility spanning 7000m². In their greenhouses you will find both red grapes (Ribier and Leopold III) and white grapes (Canon, Hall and Muscat).

Druiven Dewit uses greenhouses to achieve the ideal temperature for growing their grapes. However, this costs a lot of energy and money, especially in colder periods, and it does not substitute direct sunlight. Especially the volatility of the weather is harmful, since grape trees take a long time to grow and adapt. In the past years, they also encountered new insects and diseases, a result of climate change according to them. The two main results of climate change are the size of the harvest and the taste of the fruits. One trait that he would like to enhance in his own plants is their versatility to changing weather circumstances. Right now, they do some refinement, however, this is still very expensive since it takes years until the results are visible. Filip claimed that he would be very interested to use GMOs to solve issues like his. He thinks that customers are buying more GMO products today than they realize, so he thinks that introducing other products to the market should be no problem.