The future is bright: Why the next generation of researchers are critical to feeding the future

We spoke to John Doelman, R&D Director for Nutreco’s livestock feed business line, Trouw Nutrition, and Charles McGurk, R&D Director for its aquaculture business line, Skretting, on the importance of celebrating the next generation of young researchers as they find solutions to the agriculture sector’s biggest challenges.

1.      Why is celebrating and recognising young researchers so important? 

John: It goes without saying that the next generation of researchers is already driving innovation forward – and will continue to do so in the future. This innovation will be critical to achieving Nutreco’s purpose of #FeedingtheFuture , something we are all so passionate about. Promoting new perspectives, approaches and ideas is essential to creating new solutions and value in our industry – for the benefit of society, the environment, and the economy. Innovation comes in many forms, and supporting individuals who have both a technical perspective and a strong sense of purpose and credibility is exactly what we strive for at Nutreco.

 Charles: Although it’s a cliché that young researchers represent our future, it happens to be truer now than ever before. There are a great number of PhD and early post-doc projects that really bridge the gap between fundamental and applied research and offer leaps forward in knowledge that could transform the feed industry. At Nutreco, we are dedicated to making sure that young researchers receive due recognition for their achievements and are encouraged and supported in their work.


2.      What impressed you most when you reviewed this year's applications for Nutreco’s Young Researchers’ Prize? Was there a specific theme or potentially ground-breaking research methodology that stood out? 

John: The diversity of researchers and the topics they explored was amazing. The depth and ingenuity of some of the research projects was also impressive. The most noteworthy applications were those that took a strong hypothesis and connected it to a tangible outcome that could be applied in the real world – especially those that helped make our industry more sustainable.

Charles: I was also thoroughly impressed by the diversity of the projects and depth of knowledge and passion the candidates demonstrated. It’s really encouraging to get an insight into so many highly relevant research projects that could make a massive difference to our industry’s ability to supply enough food to feed the growing global population in a more sustainable way. It was clear that the applicants really had a grasp of their work’s potential and were fully engaged in making a difference. The hardest part of the process was to make a shortlist and pick a winner because the calibre of applicants was so high!


3.      What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the animal feed, food and agricultural sectors today? 

John: There's a clear disconnect between society's expectations, how people make decisions about the food they purchase and consume, and the realities of operating in our industry. Animal welfare, production practices, nutrient utilisation and the need to reduce emissions all pose challenges the industry needs to overcome. And we need to do this while dealing with certain narratives relating to our industry that people relate to and promote but which aren’t necessarily accurate or truthful.  

Charles: Meeting the growing global demand for protein as the population continues to balloon is placing a lot of pressure on our limited resources. We need smart, cost-effective and scalable solutions that can allow industries to grow sustainably, and ultimately meet global food demands. This is what Nutreco’s purpose is all about, and what drives us in all that we do. Simply replicating the same old strategies will not move us forward. There’s a need for innovation that builds on our already massive knowledge base – but also pushes the envelope on radical open innovation. We should not be afraid to take risks that will inevitably result in some projects failing. Failure is an important part of the overall process – in fact, there are no true failures in research, just learnings for the future.


4.      Is there an area you'd like to see more research in? Or a particular industry problem that needs an innovative solution? If so, is this something that young researchers may be particularly well equipped to tackle, and why?

Charles: I would like to see research done in as many areas as possible. Some aims are clear: supply of sustainable, nutritious protein sources at highly competitive prices and natural solutions that could reduce the use of antibiotics and risks of AMR. But we also need the breadth of creative innovative minds to push things forward in unexpected areas. We need a balance of projects, both high and low risk. And young researchers need innovative, visionary supervisors who have a deep understanding of the requirements of the industry, if they’re to progress and actively contribute to future solutions.


5.      What opportunities are out there for young researchers? Both in academia and industry?

John: It is a very strong market – young researchers have their choice of pursuing entrepreneurship (i.e., through start-ups, spin-offs, etc.), academia, industry, government or whatever they choose based on their preferences and ambitions. Their career path should be based on their ambition, capabilities and competencies, but ultimately, they should be focused on what gives them purpose and happiness!  

Charles: Young researchers who want to follow a research and mentoring or teaching path often think first of academia, but these things can also happen in the industry. In fact, by taking the industrial path you can play a role in addressing the biggest issues facing the sector. And you’ll also have the opportunity to use a research background as a springboard for other positions in companies, such as technical or marketing manager, or even roles in commercial and general management, to name a few. A research background is a solid grounding for many career routes.


6.      What can working for a company like Nutreco do for young researchers' careers? 

John: Businesses like Nutreco take a scientific approach to creating real solutions, offer valuable perspectives and are a direct conduit to making real differences in the industry – all things young researchers’ careers would really benefit from. Also, by working in a global business, you will gain technical and commercial experience by interacting with colleagues, producers and customers across the business, helping you build a more well-rounded understanding of the real challenges facing the industry.  

Charles: In some ways, a company like Nutreco provides the best of all worlds. There is the opportunity to build on previous skills, knowledge and expertise within a structure-focused organisation dedicated to innovation and business development. And, at the same time, there’s the opportunity to collaborate closely with leading academic partners on both research and published work.


7.      What would you like to see from the next Young Researchers Prize applicants? What advice would you give to them?  

John: Researchers should continue to demonstrate strong scientific thinking, but also consider how their research is connected to tangible, real-world value. I’d encourage them to talk to people currently working in the industry to learn more about how things are done in various companies and make the connection between a solid scientific concept and something that creates a demonstrable benefit for producers.

Charles: It’s important to be focused and really think about the message you want to convey. Imagine the classic “elevator pitch” scenario. How would you summarise the relevance of your project in no more than two minutes? Stick to this formula and you really can’t go wrong.