Seeking regional solutions to regional challenges

Rabo Food Forward wants to unite the food chain

Who is best equipped to solve local challenges? Local stakeholders. That’s the view of Rabo Food Forward, a research and networking program fostering food chain innovation at a regional level. RaboResearch Analyst Lambert van Horen explains.

Listen to this story as a podcast (in Dutch), or read on for the English interview.

The foundations of Rabo Food Forward, Van Horen says, were laid several years ago when Rabobank reviewed its strategy. “We shifted our focus towards using our influence as a bank to improve the global food supply chain,” Van Horen explains. “We do so internationally, but our impact is particularly big in the Dutch market. Our small country is home to a disproportionately large food export sector and food processing industry, to which we are the preferred financial service provider.”

Unique regions, unique challenges

The Rabo Food Forward program approaches food supply chain issues at a regional level – and it all starts with hyper-local data collection. “We first analyze the situation in each separate region of the Netherlands, and then engage all the actors involved from one end of the chain to the other,” says Van Horen, who leads the analysis of the fourteen “regional scans.”

The Food Forward regional scan looks for answers to questions like: What kind of agricultural activity is there? How is that developing compared to the same activity in other regions? What kind of processing industry is there, and how does that impact the food supply chain? What are the consumers in the region like – urban or traditional?

“Each regional scan produces a huge amount of data, and that’s good”

- Lambert van Horen, RaboResearch

The scan assigns scores in four areas: Nutrition, Earth, Waste and Stability (NEWS). Waste concerns the treatment of waste flows. Earth covers air, water and soil quality. Nutrition is about the food products themselves. Stability looks at things like farmers’ incomes and crop failure risks. “The scan produces a huge amount of data, and that’s good,” Van Horen observes. “Facts are judgment-free, and having them heads off a lot of discussion.”

First up: Friesland

The first regional scan and Food Forward event took place in the Dutch province of Friesland in March of this year, and what immediately meets the eye is the dominance of dairy farming. Consequently, everything moves along with the milk price, and that has been lagging behind overall inflation for many years now. “There are different ways for farmers to respond,” says Van Horen. “Upscaling is just one of them. Some farmers go organic to fetch higher prices; some produce other more expensive varieties that consumers appreciate. In the German market, for example, there’s demand for GM-free milk. It’s not a matter of one size fits all.”

With the number of farms decreasing and the remaining farms getting bigger, other issues for Friesland are rural depopulation and social cohesion. “We encourage farmers to diversify into activities that breathe life into the community,” Van Horen says, “like opening a farm shop or offering bed and breakfast or camping facilities.”

Moderator Harm Edens with participants at Rabo Food Forward Flevoland

Organic farming in Flevoland

Flevoland was the second region to undergo scanning. Here, horticulture is the main activity, and, fueled by rising consumer demand, organic farming plays a significant role. Van Horen: “Organic horticulture is an excellent testing ground for sustainable practices that can later be rolled out on conventional farms. Crop rotation and greater crop diversification for example.

“Organic farmers, in turn, are increasingly copying mechanization practices from their conventional peers, allowing them to upscale. As such, the gap between the two is closing. They’re not competitors, but look to combine the best of both worlds.”

“The gap between organic and conventional farmers is closing”

- Lambert van Horen, RaboResearch

A chain-wide brainstorm session

With the scan completed, the next step in Food Forward is to get the conversation going between all the actors across the region’s food supply chain: from farmers, food processors and transporters, to veterinarians, retailers and consumers. The first Food Forward event in Friesland last April attracted 120 participants who came together in the Brasserie 2050 for a conceptual dinner, lecture series, and community brainstorm session.

“The vibe was really good,” says Van Horen. “We split up into groups of eight to ten people from different backgrounds who had never met, all fizzing with plans and ideas to improve the supply chain and fired up to share them. Such an open atmosphere. All I had to do as the discussion leader was ‘tickle’ them now and then with targeted questions.”

Pitching in the Food Forward Track

Of those 120 first participants, some 25 to 30 of them have been attending follow-up sessions – the so-called “Food Forward Track” – to hammer their ideas into workable business models. Though Rabobank organized the initial event, community members took on the challenge from there. At the sixth of these track meetings, this month, they will pitch their proposals.

“Participants were fizzing with ideas to improve the supply chain”

- Lambert van Horen, RaboResearch

“The most exciting of these are the ones that connect multiple actors in the supply chain: farmers and consumers, for example, or processors and transporters. I’m really keen to see what they’ve come up with.”

Meanwhile, Flevoland has already had its own brainstorm session, and another set of participants is now following the Food Forward Track. In early October, a new event kicks off in the province of Gelderland. In the next two years, the scans and brainstorming sessions will reach every corner in the country.