Agri-food value chains are in an urgent need to improve social, economic and environmental sustainability. Think of less use of water and energy, less transport and use of crop protection products. But also think of social sustainability: better working conditions.
The urgency is even greater because food chains face systemic challenges related to climate change, environmental degradation and stressed resources, rapid technological innovations and digital transformation, and increasing globalized markets. These trends are challenging for all value chain actors, but particularly for farmers as they are constrained by low margins, locational inflexibility and weak bargaining power. ‘At the same time we see that agri-food value chains, over the years, have become more closely coordinated, to allow food safety tracking and tracing, efficient logistics, consumer responsiveness and enhanced innovation performance’, say Jos Bijman, researcher in the Business, Management and Organisation (BMO) group. ‘And precisely this value chain coordination and collaboration offers opportunities for improving sustainability and enhancing competitiveness.’
The BMO group is a major partner in the Horizon2020 CO-FRESH project. CO-FRESH is designing and implementing more sustainable and efficient agri-food value chains. ‘As a group of experts on agri-food value chains, particularly on how to organise innovation, entrepreneurship and sustainability in food systems, we are well equipped to carry out action research on sustainable and competitive fruits and vegetables’ value chains’, says Jos Bijman.
CO-FRESH is a multidisciplinary project, in which BMO (Jos Bijman together with his colleagues Maral Mahdad, Célia Cholez and Domenico Dentoni) collaborates with partners that have a background in agronomy, food science, public policy analysis, environmental sciences and consumer behaviour. ‘CO-FRESH is also transdisciplinary and a multi-stakeholder project. Together with companies and interest organisations from different EU countries we are working in the field on designing and implementing innovative and sustainable business models.’
In the Netherlands, the business partner is The Protein Cluster, which is part of Foodvalley. Bijman: ‘With The Protein Cluster we are looking at how we can take the market for meat substitutes to the next level. This sector is developing rapidly. Production must become better and cheaper, and availability for consumers still needs to improve. Instead of all companies trying to invent the wheel themselves, it is better to invest and take steps forward together. This requires coordination and direction. One way to realize that is through self-organization in the chain. The Protein Cluster in the Netherlands is an example of this.’
‘Our role in CO-FRESH comes down to designing new business models together with partners in co-creation,’ says Bijman. ‘For example, how do you make a promising crop successful? With The Protein Cluster we look for example at the faba bean, that is suitable as a protein-rich feed for livestock, but can also be used in meat substitutes for human consumption. There are already many experiments underway in producing, processing and selling faba bean, both in the Netherlands and other EU countries. We will compare these initiatives and determine key success factors. The results can be used, by individual companies or groups, to improve their performance in this emerging sector.’
Bijman sees several groups of beneficiaries of the results of the CO-FRESH project: ‘First, the results will benefit the partners in the seven case studies, including farmers, farmer organisations, traders, consultants, food processors and retailers. But we also set an example for other sectors and clusters with our best practices. Second are the interest organisations at regional, national and EU level that seek to help their members to transition to more sustainable products and processes. Third, the project will also deliver insights that are of great interest to academics.’