“Big data will have a huge impact on agriculture”

Cosun is working on replacements for fossil resources

The name Cosun probably won’t ring a bell with many people, but the brands carried by the group certainly will. Van Gilse sugar and Aviko chips are household names to Dutch consumers. In a sense, Cosun is the best-known unknown brand in the Netherlands.

Cosun was founded in 1899 when a group of Dutch sugar beet growers decided to work together. The cooperative they set up now has roughly 9,000 members with the business operating around the world. Nowadays, Cosun not only produces sugar and potato products, but also fruit and vegetable purees and concentrates, food ingredients such as inulin and products from renewable resources for non-food use.

Meeting place for innovators

New Business Director Gert de Raaff joined Cosun in 1995 and is – in his own words – ingrained with it. He is responsible for driving innovation as well as new business. “Cosun takes innovation very seriously,” he says. “The innovation center constructed in 2017 next to our sugar factory is proof of that.”

The center houses Cosun’s corporate R&D department and carries out research into new products and processes based on renewable resources. It is also a meeting place for colleagues and students at nearby universities working on innovative developments.

“We are looking into sustainable options for our raw materials, among other things,” De Raaff explains. “For instance we extract something called arabinose from beet pulp. This is a saccharide which has significant health benefits according to scientists as it helps balance blood sugar levels. We also extract inulin from the roots of the chicory plant. That is a fibrous substitute for sugar and fat and gives a better flavor to food.”

Innovation man: Gert de Raaff, Cosun

Big data increases revenue

The growers that Cosun works with are looking for high-value applications for their crops. “Beet pulp also provides us with cellulose fibres. These can be added to thin liquids to give them a less watery composition. It is already being used in the detergents sector.”

The work with beets is part of Cosun’s research into fossil fuel reduction. “Transitioning to a society that is no longer dependent on fossil resources is the biggest challenge facing us today,” according to De Raaff. “That is where the opportunities lie for us. The agricultural sector is still mainly focused on food, but we are already seeing a shift towards renewable resources as a substitute for plastic, building materials and fuel.”

De Raaff predicts more changes in his field of work in the coming years. “I think that big data will have a huge impact on agriculture. Growers will have detailed information about every plot of land - what was sown when, how much rain fell, what the soil structure looks like, what the soil composition is, when and which crop protection agents were used, what the previous harvests were like, etc. That allows them to create the best possible growing conditions, to choose the best time to harvest, to gain the highest yield per hectare, and to produce quality products with more nutrients.”

“Big data will have a huge impact on agriculture”

- Gert de Raaff, Cosun

Next level weeding

De Raaff is convinced robotization is another promising area for agrifood. “Farmers transitioned to chemical crop protection agents in recent decades, something that is fortunately being reduced now. A typical pre-WWII image was of people in the fields, hoeing out the weeds. I can see that coming back in the coming years. Only it won’t be people doing the weeding, but robots. They carefully navigate the fields and can unerringly identify the crops and the plants that don’t belong, and remove weeds and unwanted organisms. Next level weeding, if you will. As a result, the role of chemical crop protection agents can be pushed back even further.”

A company must continuously adapt and improve its products and business operations, in the opinion of De Raaff. That is why innovation is high on the agenda at Cosun. De Raaff explains, “There is a lot you can do on your own, but the chances of successful innovations increases when you work with others and share ideas. That was the reason we decided to participate in Rabobank’s F&A Next. We got in touch with a couple of interesting start-ups and we are planning to collaborate with them in the future. It’s all very inspiring. It helps to bring new insights and fresh ideas, which is exactly what we need in these fast-changing times.”