Five years ago, we visited the outstanding horticultural company Koppert Cress in Monster near The Hague in the Netherlands. Then already, general manager Rob Baan told us that horticulture should concentrate on fresh produce for a healthy diet; with ingredients that help overcome diseases like cancer, obesity and diabetes 2. But health claims are supposed to be outside the scope of agriculture and horticulture. According to European law, health comes exclusively from medication.
What changed since five years ago? ‘We enlarged the company quite a bit, we bought some companies around, greenhouses that we will gradually fill up with our products. We also have branches abroad, licensees as a matter of fact, among them a very large one in Japan.’
‘The diet of the future is personalized, adapted to one’s personal DNA. Vegetables will be an important ingredient of it. Recently we organized a ‘DNA-dinner’ for a hundred guests, each one having an individualized menu. Individual portion sizes, with personalized vegetables for each containing relevant ingredients, taking into account weight as well. Our ideal is that food will become healthy and personalized to such an extent that we can do away with medication. The diet should conform to the 80/20 rule: 80% vegetables, 20% meat. Those 80% vegetables should again consist of 80% seasonal vegetables and 20% other. In the early days of mankind, we already had this diet. It is sustainable and healthy. In the 170,000 years of our existence these requirements have not changed.’
‘At the moment we grow some 30 edible flowers and leaves, and 35 cresses, young sprouts, and each year we add new ones. Next year we will total 80. We produce for good-looking plates. Restaurants (literally: repair shops) are our most important clients. And we enrich our plants on their ingredients. In order to defend themselves to being eaten, plants produce special ingredients that are toxic to insects but not to us. Sprouts excel in this area, compare the malting of barley. Broccoli sprouts for instance are full of sulforaphane. This is one of the so-called second phase antioxidants. The body resists this substance and produces antibodies; these antibodies turn against cancer cells in the making. In Europe we are not allowed to sell this little plant as a medicine; but in Japan we are.’
‘We humans go at great lengths to keep our animals healthy, in our ‘human husbandry’ we should do the same. Some 80% of our diseases are lifestyle conditions. But we don’t cure them by changing our lifestyle. In the Netherlands, government and stakeholders recently concluded an agreement on the prevention of diseases. But it falls far short of being effective. VAT on vegetables and fruit will be raised. We ourselves cause our illnesses. There is every opportunity for a healthy diet; but we let the multinational companies inform people on it. Agriculture and horticulture should take this up, they should much more advertise themselves. The supermarkets also fall far short of what they should do; as a result the population is ill-informed on healthy diets. I used to have a stall on the Rotterdam central market, to sell our products. On the opposite side there was a donut stall, their trade was always bigger than ours. In Japan they are much more advanced, in this respect. There we are allowed to claim health benefits for our products. Our licensee over there is three times our size.’
‘We are a very sustainable company. Two years ago, we were awarded the King William I prize for the most sustainable company in the Netherlands. Next year we will become CO2-positive, as we will start heating our greenhouses with geothermal energy. We have solar panels on the roof, diffuse glazing that causes better light diffraction in the greenhouse, heat recovery, hot and cold storage in the underground, and led lighting. We can supply our geothermal heat to the city. Hot water will enter at 90o, that’s much too hot for our purposes. It will return at 40o, perfect for heating the greenhouse. In the summer we generate heat on top of that, that we store in the underground, in order to use it in the winter.’
Which product do you like most? ‘I always like people’s reactions when they taste our Sechuan Buttons. These little flowers have an ‘electric’ taste. It starts with a champagne-like sensation on the tip of the tongue, followed by a tingling and stupefying feeling in the mouth with an avalanche of saliva. In China, it is looked upon as a medicine.’
‘We would like to turn the Netherlands into the healthiest delta in the world. We feel that could be done in a country that hosts nine medical universities and Wageningen agricultural university. The healthy city is our ideal. That is the force with which we empower our employees. One will not motivate today’s youth anymore with good pay; we motivate them with meaningful work. Our products make sense, that lends a sense of direction in life.’ Says Rob Baan.