Digitization will create new value in global food networks. COVID-19 will accelerate this trend by inspiring demand for more transparency and detailing. Just as Google, Alibaba, TikTok, Facebook, and Amazon turned data into the new commercial gold in the consumer’s world, so will digitalization in food in the hands of early adaptors. They can and probably will rapidly develop into major and industry dominating privately owned powers. At the same time, it can serve public goals, like reducing the loss of natural resources (water, land, and biodiversity) and pollution (pesticides, nitrogen, phosphate, and carbon dioxide).

'We should have an eye for soft issues, like coordination and pricing'
Technology as a facilitator
“Don’t overemphasize technology”, Prof. Dr. oec. Gerhard Schiefer, University of Bonn, warns. “Technology is a facilitator.” It's about how to efficiently organize the food system – and how to use digitization in doing so. “We should have an eye for soft issues, like coordination and pricing”, Schiefer stresses.

An interesting discussion followed, centering around the question whether the discussion is political, technical, geographical, or business oriented. The answer probably is that the question binding them all is ‘How to coordinate these?’

Six main Questions
The new enabling technologies confront the business community with six main questions from a governance perspective.
  1. Who owns the data?
  2. Who sets the data standards?
  3. Who sets the goals for managing the data?
  4. How to coordinate managing the goals as a whole?
  5. How to coordinate a distribution of the newly created value people judge just? (the ‘Piketty’ question)
  6. How to coordinate action between various regions in the world, as they all interact but reflect different attitudes, speeds of development, and natural contexts?

Perhaps an open informal network can create global morality and make a difference, while respecting profound differences
None of these questions is just technical or easy to answer form an existing framework. They cannot be solved by ordinary policy making or taking political decisions. They require a moral reflection on the governance of the world people in various places of the world want to live in. To put it from the point of view of a sociologist or political philosopher: the way we answer the six questions is fundamental to the way people will live their lives. That is why they ask for a moral reflection on the worlds people accept in various regions of the globe – in view of the distribution of food, shelter, jobs, dignity, mobility, and wealth. Moreover, neither national nor regional or global politics can address them, as parliaments and international bodies are incapable of truly open long term and ‘hair down’ discussions. Perhaps an open informal network can create global morality and make a difference, while respecting profound differences between people from various backgrounds and contexts.

With or without answers, businesses will decide on how to cooperate and create mutual and societal value on both a strategic and practical level. Former HBS (Harvard Business School) agribusiness director Mary Shelman and Damien McLoughlin created a framework to position real business cases from this perspective.

From various perspectives, the participants in the discussion gave their view on the issues underlying the discussions

How to make businesses share data?
Aidan Connolly, president of AgriTech Capital, a data and technology-based investment company said people and businesses are reluctant to share their information. Corporations must create an advantage for farmers to share their data. “Our smart phones are an example. Think of tracking information from your phone. We get excellent navigation in return.”

When you try to move forward with digitalization, you need somebody to guide
Hosting data
“Governance of data will make the difference. Who should host this?” Kristian Moeller, Chief Executive Officer at GLOBAL G.A.P., says. There are various candidates: “GS1, GLOBAL GAP, the Consumer Foods Forum, ITC (International Trade Centre), or the SAI platform.”

Schiefer points to the fact that everyone is talking about the food chain as if it were one straight and continuous line from the field to a product bought by customers. “Such a line doesn’t exist; food is a complex network. Therefore, when you try to move forward with digitalization, you need somebody to guide. Systems integration is key. Currently the situation is chaotic. No one is leading. A party should take the lead here. It’s a standards issue.”

“We need a type of community approach”, Möller adds. “It is all about trust.” Möller thinks complete transparency can even cause distrust, whereas an authority that doesn’t disclose details could create trust.

Digitalization is not a solution for everyone
How not to exclude?
Raj Vardan, IFAMA’s president-elect, adds a critical and practical issue – exclusion. “Look at the uniformity of standards and the traceability of data. This is ok for large firms and farms. But it is not relevant in every case and would exclude farmers in various regions of the world as they cannot comply. Digitalization is not a solution for everyone. Upfront expenses are a struggle for small scale farms. It will make more sense if companies help them out.”

Derek Baker, involved in the digital transformation of many companies, adds: “From my experience, people feel very underequipped to make decisions. Digitalization is more about changing companies all together – about pursuing a different kind of business model.”

Handling power Relations
Tiffany Tsui researches business models and governance in both the Western and Eastern world: “We need to bridge the different cultures and attitudes. Between different disciplines, between users and consumers, and between producers. High tech is different from organic for instance. How to bridge different worlds? And how to engage governments with their different attitudes and backgrounds? IFAMA as a platform can bring them together. It can be the grease.”

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  • Contributors (alphabetical order):
  • Adriaan van de Giessen, project manager Food & Smart City, Municipality of Rotterdam
  • Aidan Connolly, president AgriTech Capital, investing in start-ups, and former board member Alltech. He writes for many platforms
  • Akoth Brenda, post-graduate Student, MAgricAdmin in Management and Economics at Stellenbosch University
  • Bianca van der Ha, project manager of Foodlog, the Dutch online discussion platform on all food related topics. She is also Editor-in-Chief of the IFAMA2020 platform
  • Coen Hubers, Founder and Coordinator Greenport Hub, LDE Centre for Sustainability
  • Derek Baker, Professor of Agribusiness and Value Chains at University New England. He helps companies in their digital transformation
  • Dick Veerman, Founder and CEO of Foodlog, the Dutch online discussion platform on all food related topics. He is also moderator of the IFAMA2020 platform
  • Dominique Vrouwenvelder, editor of Foodlog, the Dutch online discussion platform on all food related topics
  • Prof. Dr. oec. Gerhard Schiefer, Chair of the Research Group 'Food Chain Management' at University of Bonn. He is also engaged in several software companies in the food network
  • Kathryn White, Executive Director of IFAMA
  • Kristian Moeller, Chief Executive Officer at GLOBALG.A.P.
  • Marie-José Tim- van Gorp, Project manager Foodlog, the Dutch online discussion platform on all food related topics
  • Mary Shelman, Founder and CEO of Mary Shelman Group. She is former head of the Harvard Business School's agribusiness program and former president of IFAMA
  • Raj Vardan, President-elect at IFAMA. He is Independent Director of Mcleod Russel India Limited, the largest Tea plantation company globally with Plantations in India, Uganda & Vietnam
  • Thomas van Gaal, Strategy Director at Het Portaal, helps companies to achieve their sustainable goals
  • Tiffany Tsui, Founder and CEO of Springtide Strategy. Works both for Dutch and Chinese governments and businesses