Mansholt Lecture: Digitisation of Food Systems

October 7, 2021

Wageningen University & Research organised the fifth edition of the Mansholt Lecture in Brussels on 22 September 2021: Navigating the Twilight Zone: pathways towards digital transformation of food systems. The lecture about the challenges and opportunities of digitisation of food systems was presented by WUR researcher Sjaak Wolfert. These were the main points.

There are challenges in the food system such as hunger and obesity, but also climate change and the use of crop protection agents. The proper use of digital systems – from sensors to apps – can help to address these challenges.

Digitisation in agriculture and the food sector creates opportunities as well as challenges. An app may be very easy to use, but it must connect to other apps or underlying larger information systems that businesses already use. If this is not the case, then ease of use quickly translates into a negative as a result of additional administrative actions.

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According to data scientist Sjaak Wolfert, senior researcher at Wageningen Economic Research, the biggest problem is fragmentation of digital innovation, and there is fragmentation and discontinuity in the funding of innovation projects as well. Large-scale application in the practice of technology from the lab continues to be a major challenge. 

According to Wolfert, the digitisation of the agri-food sector is in the twilight zone at the moment: it looks promising, but there is still a lack of clarity and there are pitfalls. It requires scaling up and bridging the gap between the technological possibilities and the willingness of users to engage with it.

Lack of Funding

Many digital innovations never see the light due to a lack of funding. This deficiency is mainly at play during the middle part of an innovation project. When an innovation is in the lab stage, it is usually with the help of public funding. The actual production of this kind of app or sensor is often funded by private parties who want to bring the innovation to market. However, there are a lot less funding options available for the in-between stages, when a lot of money is needed for the development of prototypes and pilot studies.  

Wolfert says that policy makers should focus on this middle stage. “This is when applications are promising, but public financiers pull out and private providers of finance see too much risk.” 

Five Lenses

To navigate this twilight zone in a responsible way, it is necessary to look at it through five different lenses. 

For digitisation to become economically feasible, it is important to know what business models exist and which are suitable for the agri-food sector (lens 1). 

To achieve optimum benefits from digital innovations, data must be shared between the different stakeholders (lens 2). However, they will only share their data if their privacy is respected and they have control over their data.  

Lens 3, digital inclusivity, pertains to data access. Users must have the opportunity to participate, both financially and in terms of skills.  

Integrative artificial intelligence, lens 4, involves searching for new collaborations between different disciplines, such as combining computer visioning and phenotyping to meticulously map out the characteristics of crops and animals. 

Lens 5, cross-sectoral integration, relates to sharing knowledge and data between sectors so that the agri-food sector can connect with an advanced digital ecosystem.


Finally, Wolfert has two important recommendations. The first one is that digital innovation projects require an integrated approach with constant interaction between all relevant stakeholders, supported by multiple disciplines while taking the five lenses into consideration. 

The second recommendation is that the structural development of ecosystems – facilitated by public and private funding instruments — must be aligned with each other to prevent fragmentation.  

Reflection from an EU Perspective

According to Wolfgang Burtscher, director-general of Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Commission, digitisation will play a crucial role in achieving the Green Deal objectives. Using computer-guided precision agriculture, a farmer will need fewer pesticides and nutrients and will be able to use water more efficiently, for example. 

Burtscher: “We are aware of the enormous potential of digitisation in agriculture, initially in production, but also in the whole of the food system. I think that we have a lot of opportunities in our policy to not only financially support the digitisation, but the education of farmers as well.” The latter is important to prevent an innovation divide, a division between farmers who are and are not digitally skilled. 

Burtscher also refers to the risks of digitisation and sharing of data. If all digital platforms and tools are provided by large companies, then it is important that the EU creates legislation for this. The government must stand up for the common interest, and the companies must be transparent about what they will do with the data. 

Panel Discussion

The lecture ended with a panel discussion with Simone Ritzer (WUR) as moderator, and Burtscher, Marietje Schaake (former Member of the European Parliament), Ivo Hostens (technical director at CEMA), and Evan Fraser (director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, Canada) as members of the panel. Fraser hopes that the digitisation will also convince young people, including those with a technical background, to work in the agri-food sector. Fraser: “I think that it is one of the most innovative and technologically interesting sectors of the economy. Food relates to so many areas: health, trade, industry, development, jobs, education.”  

Louise O. Fresco, chair of the Wageningen University & Research Executive Board closed the gathering. “The central theme in this lecture: legislation is crucial, but we must also change the way in which we engage in agriculture and produce food.”

She says that the farmer of the future will require IT skills and manage machinery, but emphasises that this digitisation must have a human face, and add to the knowledge and skills of farmers instead of replacing it, which is sometimes the case at the moment.