More data, more food

Embracing the opportunities provided by technology, data and new algorithms benefits everyone in the food and agri chain, from farmer to consumer. 'This move to a smarter food system is already taking shape', says Justin Sherrard, Food & Agribusiness Research strategist at Rabobank. ‘Our food systems are getting smarter and more sustainable. Now they need public support to become a permanent success around the world.’

Building a smarter and more sustainable food system

The 'internet of things' is all around us. Internet technology and computers translate information into real-time decisions that make our everyday lives easier and more comfortable. For instance, climate management in modern homes and offices, traffic management, assisted driving. And the food production industry uses these new technologies in all sorts of ways:

  • Global positioning systems (GPS), plant and soil sensors improve the efficiency of water and chemicals used in irrigation systems by as much as 80%.
  • Drones are increasingly used to monitor and enhance livestock and crop production and to measure pasture and grass growth.
  • Modern greenhouses for growing peppers and tomatoes use modern sensor technology to manage the climate and growth.
  • Dairy equipment, such as milking robots, use sensor technology and data to monitor and manage the cow, its behaviour and milk yield.
  • Tractors in many countries use GPS and other wireless technologies when driving on farm land for ploughing, sowing or harvesting.

Data-driven technologies are designed to raise productivity and reduce costs. As Justin Sherrard’s report ‘Building a Smarter Food System’ shows, technology automates processes, big data tell us what’s going on, and algorithms convert data into decisions to add speed and precision to how food is produced, processed and distributed.

Tackling the global food issue

Sherrard is convinced that the use of technology, data and algorithms is crucial if we want to tackle the global food issue. 'The current system is successful in many ways. But because there are ever more mouths to feed, we must make more efficient use of natural resources, get better at meeting consumer expectations, and make the food chain more profitable and more resilient. The use of new technology, data and algorithms will change how we take decisions and how fast we take them.'

Connecting innovators and investors

We are already moving in that direction. Rabobank is financing farms that use data-driven technology. In the United States, Rabobank is involved in 'FoodBytes!', an event that matches food innovators with potential investors. The 'Money Meets Ideas' events in the Netherlands give innovative entrepreneurs the chance to pitch their ideas to informal investors. Sherrard: 'Established companies in the food chain and other investors have to be willing to invest for long-term success. These new approaches and technologies do entail new risks but also bring opportunities.'

Farmer-owned data cooperative

Another key success factor is collaboration within the food chains, for example between supermarkets and food processors, or between supermarkets and farmers. Sherrard: 'Success will depend on greater connectivity between buyers and suppliers, sharing data and making joint decisions in real time.' For example, using drones to collect data in orchards can improve crop forecasting, which helps growers and retailers optimise inventory management and pricing. Sherrad: 'This will create a win-win situation along the supply chain.'

A well-proven model could help: the cooperative. Farmers currently provide their data to databases that are often owned by a single processor or supplier. Which doesn’t help when it comes to data integration. Sherrard: 'Why not create a data cooperative owned by farmers, an anonymous database where farmers input their data? This cooperative would provide access to data for companies that develop data-intensive solutions, including peer data, market transparency and support for farmers’ marketing decisions.'

Public support vital

Will consumers, especially in Western countries, accept these technology-driven ways of food production, farming, plant and animal breeding? Sherrard: 'Consumers like simplicity when it comes to food production. It’s important to understand and take account of possible consumer concerns. The idea of small-scale, natural farming is inherently appealing, but is not how modern farming is actually done in most of the world. In order to feed the world efficiently, things need to change. And public support is vital to build a smarter and more sustainable food system.’