Our food has a massive environmental footprint: one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the food chain. An equally large share of all global food is wasted. Part of the key to a more sustainable food chain rests with data, says Dirk van Ledden, coordinator at the Fieldlab Smart Food Processing. “The agrifood sector can benefit a lot more from data to counteract major social problems, such as food waste.”
Data Driven Agrifood Future conference
“Data plays an indispensable role in analyzing and improving the agrifood chain,” says Jack Mikkers, mayor of the Dutch city of Den Bosch. From that vantage point, the second edition of the Data Driven Agrifood Future (DDAF) conference was organized earlier this month in his city, “the data city of the Netherlands.” The goal? To connect parties from the agri- and data industry.
Within the policy framework that deputy for Agriculture, Food and Nature Elies Lemkes-Straver developed, a major role is reserved for data and digitalization of the sector. “The agrifood sector in North Brabant has the ambition to be a leader in Europe. We are aiming for complete digitalization of all chains by 2030. We also want 100 innovative start-ups in the agriculture and food sector to have located themselves here by around that time.”
Data in action: local apples and personalized milk
The potential uses of data for a more efficient food value chain, are endless, says Van Ledden. For example, data can help sell more locally produced food. “It is known which apple comes from which country, region or even plot of land. But the consumer standing in front of the supermarket shelves has no idea. If supermarkets would communicate that data, consumers would be able to make a more conscious choice.”
Similarly, Mikkers sees an increasing need among consumers for transparency and personification. “We want to know where our food comes from, where it was produced and what additives were used.” This way, data can lift food out of anonymity.
What’s more, data can help combat food waste. Van Ledden: ” In supermarkets in China, people scan a carton of milk. The pack that has a shelf life of two more days, costs 25 eurocents and a pack that is still good for two weeks, costs 1 euro. There are already so many ways to use data in a smarter way.”
At the Food Techpark Brainport in the Dutch city of Helmond, Van Ledden, together with the province of North Brabant, is working on the innovation agenda Smart Food Processing and Future Foods aimed at providing concrete support to the food processing industry in the province. ” For example, together with a large number of partners, we are working on a future vision of Handsfree Food Processing. Currently there are fifty workers sitting at a long table de-crowning strawberries. It is much more hygienic and efficient if that is done by co-bots. Cooperation between humans and robots is very important.”
Ownership of data
As valuable as data can be for an efficient food chain, the ownership of it remains an important issue. “If a farmer has no confidence in the way their data is handled by external parties, then we won’t be able to make any progress,” Lemkes-Straver explains. “Platforms where data becomes available in a secure way and in which farmers themselves remain owners of their data are crucial for a data-driven food chain. There are also more and more European directives determining to what extent external partners are allowed to have access to the data.”
Farm of the future
Another major implication resulting from the digitalization and robotization of the sector is the disappearance of ‘old’, often physically demanding jobs. For almost all employees in the chain, the nature of their work is changing significantly as the role of data and technology expands. Lemkes-Straver: “Farmers nowadays need to have a completely different set of skills than twenty years ago. They are practically software experts these days.”
One of these software experts is Jacob van den Borne. He is the ownter of the Brabant Farm of the Future where technology now plays a key role. His farm is not merely a farm, but also a practical center for precision agriculture. All kinds of innovations – sensors, satellites, drones and new cultivation systems – are used there to cultivate the land as sustainably as possible. The practical center also provides information and training for farmers. For example, there is the Precision Academy: an educational program for farmers and their sons and daughters that prepares them for precision agriculture.
Support from the government
“These kinds of initiatives are extremely important for Brabant,” Lemkes-Straver believes. The province invests in initiatives like Van den Borne’s in order to create as large a connection as possible to the group that follows this innovative farmer.
According to Mikkers, the role of the government also entails facilitating cross-fertilization between various sectors. “We see all kinds of initiatives passing by and visit a lot of companies in the field. It is therefore also up to the regional government to offer parties a platform and bring them into contact with each other, such as at the DDAF conference.”
Van Ledden believes that the business community would also benefit from more field labs. ” These are the ideal places where the latest developments can be put into practice. And I’m not just referring to high-tech equipment; field labs also serve as a resource center where the sector can turn with all their questions and problems.”
The exchange and application of data in the agrifood sector does not stop at the provincial or national border, so international collaboration is important. Lemkes-Straver. “We are working on issues that are of concern all over the world. You can always want to invent the wheel yourself, but it is much more important that we learn from comparative regions.”
According to Mikkers, international cooperation is indispensable if the Netherlands wants to retain its current position in the food chain. “When I look at what our farmers and food companies are doing, we are fairly ahead in a number of aspects. But, we shouldn’t be fixated on the fact that we are doing so well at the moment. Data is an international language that we can only make the most of if we work together.”