Through digitization, a product’s origin, its journey through the food system and the economic, and ecological costs of its life cycle will be completely quantifiable and transparent. An example: bread's main component is flour. Through digitization one can know, for example, where the cereal grew, how much fertilizer, pesticides, and water were used to grow it, and the humidity levels the day it was harvested and the precautions taken to keep it safe from fungi. All steps to make the cereal into flour and the flour – together with water, yeast, and salt – into bread will be transparent: how much of what was used, when, by whom, and where? Producers buying the flour and consumers purchasing the bread precisely know its specifications. The specs of flour will be a cause for differentiating the simplest bread. . Customers can ask for bread that, for example, contains only North American, French, or Baltic wheat or bread that was made from wheat harvested at specially dry days.

Digitization has implications especially for the beginning of the food chain. More detailed and specific information is required. For example, to determine the nutritional content of an individual apple, peer, strawberry, or raspberry. What is the amount of sun a fruit had on its side of the tree or shrub? What is the composition of the soil and its ability to store water during drier seasons? Customers can ask for a specific fruit high in X, depending on a combination of factors. They all need to be measured (by sensors) in order to turn digitization into value. Being precise on the input, means the output – being used in the whole chain – is better coded and creates new customer demand and value. Further on, specific data on nutritional content can create value in the wide variety of personalized nutrition schemes supermarkets are now introducing. Another example could be freshness and ripeness. Both can be digitized and thus create value throughout the chain, as is already the case at Driscoll’s logistics.

This will result in fewer losses of a wide array of valuable nutrients and key elements such as water, nitrogen, and phosphate
Precision agriculture
Precision farming will give digitization a massive boost. Precision agriculture is a farming management concept. Its goal is to optimize return on inputs while preserving resources. Precision agriculture includes observing, measuring, and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops. Drone images and gps, for instance, can determine per crop the amounts of water, fertilizer, or chemicals (such as herbicides and growth regulators) needed. This will result in fewer losses of a wide array of valuable nutrients and key elements such as water, nitrogen, and phosphate. According to Aidan Connolly, losses can be limited by at least 30%

Creating new Value
Digitization can turn the most basic commodities into distinctive goods. Distinct on for instance food safety and product integrity, health, or sustainability. Differentiation boosts new opportunities to create value for customers. All parties will be able to add value to the product they sell to the next partner in the food chain. Moreover, digitization will boost digitalization. Digitalization means turning interactions, communications, business functions, and business models into new technology based digital solutions. Think of personalized nutrition and distinct marketing concepts being pushed or pulled by farmers, by processors, between processors, between retailers, by consumers inquiring for new options or by all them collaborating.

Personalized nutrition and health means that people pick a diet that perfectly meets their personal needs. An example could be selenium in pork. A person with a higher risk of cancer can be recommended to eat a specific quality of meat. Or, think of an athlete. He can be advised to eat a certain harvest of beans or greens holding more protein. Moreover, a consumer can choose a portion of berries that has travelled the shortest way to ensure freshness and prefect ripeness. Or, vegetables with the smallest water footprint.

For unique concepts, think of a store that only sells products without glyphosate. Think of a salad that contains local products only for those who prefer to eat food that was grown in their vicinity. Local becomes more important post-COVID-19. Think of the search for mineral water with the least amounts of contamination or a specific mineral content.

This will enable new ways to meet customer needs, thus creating new demand. Customers can indicate what they want, for instance no pesticides. Horticulturalists can meet this demand since they know which parts of their harvest are pesticide free. The other way around, horticulturists can develop a range of products and find – through the internet – customers in need of this concept. Or, think of supermarkets inviting their customers and suppliers to talk about the customer’s demand for certain specs.

A brick and mortar shop can only service a certain region, e-commerce can connect and service anyone anywhere
Digital is a perfect way to connect producers and processors with consumers. E-commerce – electronically buying or selling products on online services or over the Internet – plays an important role here. On platforms like Snapchat, Pinterest, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, sellers can show what they do, connect with consumers, and consumers can buy products. Think of farmers who broadcast themselves on channels like TikTok to promote their products directly to consumers. Live streaming is now the biggest development in e-commerce in China, as stated by Tiffany Tsui. Or think of community building: consumers and producers interact on for instance Facebook about products from a certain region or about a certain diet. A brick and mortar shop can only service a certain region, e-commerce can connect and service everyone anywhere.

No business without digitization
As stated above, digitization and digitalization create new opportunities in healthy nutrition. Making a product’s journey completely transparent will provide new ways of inspiring trust. Moreover, through digitalization the environmental impact of products can be determined very precisely. Thus, the best places to produce and process food stuffs can be established, including the impact of logistics. In that way global trade and logistics can be justified.

Join the Conversation
Share your view on Digital Food. Consider questions and insights such as:
  • What are the cases or the cases developing in digitization and digitalization in the agri-food chain?

  • What challenges will arise from the digitization and digitalization of food?

  • Please come up with imaginary cases to inspire the agri-food cluster!

  • Please share your experience in digitization and digitalization in agri-food!

  • Please cite the cases in which you have used digitization and digitalization to add value. What is your view on and experience with precision agriculture?

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