Food is a universal human necessity. According to Dr. Martine van Veelen, this has often meant that producers saw less of a need to embrace disruptive technology – their products would often find a buyer, after all. However, the Director of EIT Food West believes that digital innovation is going to change this. She is convinced that the food sector is about to undergo a fundamental transformation that will make it more sustainable, transparent, and competitive.
"When I look at the food sector and manufacturing and processing there, it will also see an industrial revolution," argues Dr. Martine van Veelen who serves as the Director for the West section of the European Institute for Innovation and Technology’s (EIT) food program that brings stakeholders from across the sector together to boost cooperation and innovation.
While the industry has historically been more reluctant than others to adopt certain types of innovation, Dr. van Veelen is certain that this is not going to remain the case in the future – for the simple reason that digitalization stands to benefit virtually everyone: farmers, manufacturers, retailers and, naturally, consumers.
At the same time, she recognizes that many stakeholders are yet to be persuaded of the advantages of going digital, adding it can be scary to go into this data world. Her mission is to help the food sector achieve this transition and reap its manifold benefits. "We really show people that you don’t have to be afraid," she says.
Digital innovation saves money and the environment
In Dr. van Veelen’s view, the opportunities afforded by digitalization center around three pillars: sustainability, profitability, and transparency.
The environmental advantages of the digital revolution are perhaps most straightforward, according to her: it helps the food sector to avoid waste. This starts at the very beginning of the value chain. "You can be much more precise on how many raw materials you need." She points to precision farming techniques that enabled farmers to be much more accurate in determining the exact amount of water a plant needs at any given time, based on meteorological data, as a case in point. "That can really save millions of litres of freshwater use."
In fact, Dr. van Veelen argues that the principle of using data to avoid wasteful practices could be applied to the whole of the food sector. "Digital systems can predict trends, meaning that you can tell farmers what market demands are in order to prevent food loss and waste," she says.
"You cannot embark on a digital revolution alone; you must work together"
Restaurant owners who track their use of produce could inform farmers if their guests tended to eat less cheese at a particular time of the year, for instance, encouraging them to adapt their production processes accordingly. Food manufacturers could also find this practice opportune, suggests Dr. van Veelen, by pointing to a project supported by EIT Food West that used consumption data to help bakeries adjust their supply in line with the demands of their customers.
The increase in efficiency that these practices enable also mean that producers have a real economic incentive to promote digital innovation. "If you can adjust your manufacturing or production process, this is going to make businesses more competitive."
In other words, she believes that digitalization and big data could offer the best of both worlds to the food industry: save money and the environment.
Digitalization in the food industry empowers consumers
However, Dr. van Veelen believes that the perks of this innovation are not only limited to industry but extend to consumers. To begin with, it could make their food shopping cheaper. She cites a recent project conducted by EIT Food West with a start-up that developed digital price tags that automatically lowered the prices of food products on supermarket shelves in line with their remaining shelf life.
Likewise, digital technology could also empower consumers to make more informed choices about their food consumption. "You have much more knowledge and information about how food is produced, what the ingredients are, and where it comes from. Consumers are very keen to learn about this."
According to her, the COVID-19 pandemic had only amplified this desire for transparency among food shoppers in light of food safety fears. "Digital processes can be very helpful here," she points out.
Should a supermarket receive reports of salmonella infections, for instance, it could far more easily determine the origin of the food contamination. "If they cannot identify which farmers were responsible, you have to withdraw the whole product range, rather than just the 5 percent responsible." Again, digital technology could create a win-win situation by simultaneously preventing waste while ensuring high food standards.
What most of these optimisation processes have in common is that they harmonise the needs and demands of actors in the value chain. In fact, this is what Dr. van Veelen sees as the greatest operational benefit of the digital revolution: "Digitalization can create a real connection between the different industry players. Systems can be much more efficient." However, this need for connectedness also meant that this was an effort for the sector as a whole. As Dr. van Veelen puts it: "You cannot embark on a digital revolution alone; you must work together with other stakeholders."
Education and funding are key to a successful transition
She considers this principle equally crucial for the management of the digital revolution’s social and political dimensions. For Dr. van Veelen, it is imperative that governments support both companies and their employees in navigating this transition. This included, on the one hand, providing financial support for businesses which was already the case. "There is a lot of funding available, for SMEs and manufacturers, to help companies in this transformation." In fact, as she points out, one of the tasks of EIT Food West was to offer advice on how to access these funds.
However, Dr. van Veelen considers educating present and future workers to be just as important to the success of the digital revolution. "You really need to skill people. If you are working in the same environment all your life, you need to be trained in the new technologies." In her view, training employees to interpret data, for example, could not only help in avoiding that digitalization creates inequality, but would indeed benefit their employers.
Dr. van Veelen is confident that despite the complexity and challenges this digital transformation poses, it is something that the European food sector will be able to manage – especially since the help offered by bodies such as EIT Food means that stakeholders do not have to do it on their own. "I would be open and supportive of any partner or producer company who would like to have more information about this process and support them," she says.