“A summary? We do research here from mouth to arse”

“A summary? We do research here from mouth to arse”

What is happening at Campus Venlo?

23-11-2022 · Reportage

The ambitions are great: the Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo is to become the place to be in the field of safe, healthy food and sustainable agriculture. The Future of Farming Institute is about to move into a new building there: the Brighthouse. A two thousand square metres greenhouse complex will also be built on the campus grounds. But what is already going on in the field of research? For the answer, we need to be in Villa Flora. Time to take a look.

“Welcome to my living room.” Remco Havermans, endowed professor of Youth, Nutrition and Health (Jeugd, Voeding en Gezondheid) enters a room on the first floor of Villa Flora. The building was used as an exhibition space during the world agricultural exhibition Floriade in 2012. Today, it is part of the Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo. Havermans’ ‘living room’ looks very neat: carpet on the floor, an old-fashioned standard lamp, dining table, upholstered chairs and framed photographs of children on the wall. “They belong to employees.” A young Havermans is included as well. This is where he welcomes test subjects whom he serves various dishes – depending on the experiment. The same occurs in a soberly furnished space with only some chairs and tables separated from each other by a partition. The contrast couldn’t be greater. “For some experiments, you don’t want people to be influenced by their surroundings.”

Havermans is fascinated by the psychology of food. Why do people become bored, for example, if they always eat the same food? How do patients with large intestine cancer experience taste? And what about people who have the lung disease COPD? Although he has of a large, well-equipped kitchen, he never stirs the pots. The meals are often bought ready-made. “I heard from a colleague that a box of lasagne from Jumbo’s is quite tasty, a recommendation if you can’t or don’t want to cook.”

Start-ups

Although Villa Flora still reminds one of a gigantic greenhouse because of it glass roof, considerable renovations have taken place. The floor with the UM laboratories was not here in 2012. “This area was covered in plants,” says Havermans. He remembers how he and his colleagues were allowed to give their thoughts on the reorganisation some six years ago. “In my lab, where it is all about taste, no smells from outside may infiltrate the space, which is why an extra door was installed.” Looking back, what would he have preferred to have done differently? “Toilets on the first floor. These are now only on the ground floor. That is awkward especially for test subjects.”

Villa Flora is a shared business building with all kinds of (mostly agrifood-related) start-ups, Brightlands offices, catering, even a location for cooking workshops for children. Maastricht University has relatively few square metres in use here. According to Havermans and nutritional scientist Alie de Boer, who is head of the Food Claims Centre Venlo (and also giving Observant a tour), there are a total of about fifty employees from UM connected to the campus, including support staff such as technicians.

Excrements

It is very quiet this Wednesday afternoon. No test subjects visiting, no students in the special skills training labs. There are only a handful of PhD students around. In the Human Intervention lab of Freddy Troost, associate professor of the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences and an expert in the field of nutritional innovation and health, a treadmill and an exercise bicycle stay untouched. It is the same in professor Koen Venema’s microbiological lab, no sign of anyone. The lab is out of bounds, so nose against the glass door and take a peek inside. “The freezers contain excrement samples,” says Havermans. Excrements? Microbiologist professor Venema is researching digestion using a self-developed artificial stomach-intestine model. “He is looking into how healthy or unhealthy certain nutrients are.”

InnerBuddies is a spin-off from UM, where everyone who wants to do so (at a fee) can order a test kit and then send an excrement sample off to Venema’s lab. Here, in Venlo, the excrements are tested for the presence of all kinds of bacteria. Ultimately, tailor-made nutritional advice follows. “For instance, you could be given the tip to eat artichokes more often. Or leeks. By adapting your nutritional pattern, you can change the composition of your microbiome [intestinal flora] within two to three days,” Brightlands reports on its own site.

Fake pieces of chicken

De Boer is in charge of the Food Claims Centre (the fourth research line alongside those run by Havermans, Troost, and Venema); she doesn’t have her own lab in Villa Flora, “we don’t need one for our type of research”. The ‘home base’ for her team is the UM building in the city centre of Venlo, which is where teaching takes place. Within the Food Claims Centre, three aspects of nutrition are studied: safety, health, and sustainability. These include topics such as claims made about food (‘this product contains fibre’) and health claims (‘this is what vitamin C does to your body’). Product designation is another important theme, for example, in the case of meat substitutes. According to De Boer, names often run the risk of being misleading. ‘Kipstuckjes’ from De Vegetarische Slager (The Vegetarian Butcher), are not made from chicken, as the name suggests. Cultivated dairy is a debatable term too; are you allowed to call something dairy if it is not from an animal? And what do people think about an insect burger? Because they can be quite delicious, she says, but people are still hesitant. “The question is then how to sell the product.”

Havermans and De Boer leave Villa Flora and walk in the direction of the Brighthouse, a new building for – among others – the Brightlands Future of Farming Institute (BFFI), where construction work is still ongoing. There will be labs, offices, a lecture hall and classrooms. In BFFI it will be all about themes such as plant genetics and circular agriculture. An addition to the already existing, yes, well how shall we summarise that? “We always say: we do research here from mouth to arse,” Havermans laughs.

Education in Venlo: for the ‘green’ student

At the moment, more than three hundred students are doing a UM study programme in Venlo: the bachelor’s of University College Venlo or one of the two master’s programmes of Health Food and Innovation Management, and Global Supply Chain Management and Change. In September 2024, another bachelor’s will be added, Sustainable Bioscience, as will a third master’s: Crop Biotechnology and Engineering.

Thomas Cleij, dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, has already said in the media: in ten years’ time, Venlo will have more than a thousand students. Some will live on campus, he is still convinced of that fact.
He is a man of visions, he likes new things, to build, but is a thousand students not a bit over the top? Where will they come from? Who wants to go to Venlo – when you can also choose Maastricht or another university city in the Netherlands? “Venlo is interesting! Venlo is not Maastricht and should not want to be. But the argument that Venlo is far away, I think is nonsense. It takes an hour to travel there. University campuses abroad are sometimes so large that it takes you an hour to get from A to B as well.” Point of attention: “You have to plan the logistics well.” So, please, not a bus that only goes once an hour (as is the case now). “First you have to have the masses, then you can start talking to the bus companies.” In Venlo, Cleij also wants a “different type of student, someone who is not getting what he or she wants from other Dutch universities, not even from our own faculties in Maastricht”. Venlo is for the ‘green student’ who is interested in sustainability, “who takes lunchbreaks in the woods or who wants to become a member of a gardening club”.

Author: Wendy Degens

Photo: Loraine Bodewes

Tags: venlo, villa flora, sustainability, future farming, BFFI, health, food, foodclaims,instagram

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