Tomorrow Talks

Dr. Sjaak Wolfert

Dr. Sjaak Wolfert

Theme Ambassador and Strategic Senior Scientist on Digital Innovation in Agri-Food, Wageningen Economic Research, Wageningen University & Research, The Netherlands

Sjaak studied at Wageningen University and is a leading researcher on Digital Innovation for sustainable food systems. Important research topics are the application of Internet of Things and Big Data with special attention to socio-economic aspects such as data sharing, business modelling and governance. He is scientific coordinator of international digital innovation projects such as the Internet of Food and Farm 2020 and SmartAgriHubs. He is affiliated with the Information Technology Group of Wageningen University and was president of the European Federation of ICT in Agriculture (EFITA). Sjaak is a visionary, challenged by complex problems that require a science-based approach.

Questions & Answers

1. As the Theme Ambassador Digital Innovation in Agri-Food at Wageningen Economic Research, what is your key message?

Digital innovation in agri-food is much more a social experiment than a technical challenge, requiring socio-economic insights. Projects on digital innovation still focus a lot on technicalities and insufficiently take the user experience as a starting point. Besides, not enough attention is paid to the business model of digital solutions. Defining a business case for e.g. a farmer as end-user is step 1, but all parties involved in the solution, should also have a positive, shared business model. This is a more difficult step. Many factors influence choices in the design of a digital solution and therefore regular interaction between the relevant stakeholders must be facilitated. Therefore, social innovation should be leading in the design process in order to upscale digital solutions in the agri-food sector.

2. Sustainability and digital agriculture have both been areas of interest to you. How do you see the relation of digital technologies evolving to address sustainability concerns?

Science has the potential to develop technologies that can boost productivity whilst addressing resource scarcities and environmental problems. Research findings suggest that digital technologies such as Precision Agriculture, Smart Farming, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence in agri-food are key technologies to develop sustainable agriculture. However, this promise still has to be fulfilled and my previous answer suggests that we still have a way to go to achieve the desired sustainability impact. And I also have to admit that digital agriculture as such will not solve sustainability issues on its own. It should be part of overall systemic changes that are required.

3. What new strategies does the post-Covid world need to ensure such widespread disruption in food supply does not happen again?

First of all, I think that agri-food production systems have proven to be quite resilient. Except for a few typical food products such as rice and pasta, food supply chains were hardly disrupted. What really got disrupted - and still is - was the health system. I won’t say that we will be able to fully defeat future pandemics, but it is clear that healthy people got less chance to become severely ill. From agri-food perspective, new strategies should therefore focus on supplying food that improves people’s health. Also, here digital technologies can be of help e.g. to monitor and influence people’s food intake and behavior.

4. SourceTrace has impacted more than 1.5 million small farmers in the Global South. We can see that the pace of adoption needs to be much faster. What are your thoughts about the same?

Yes, I agree that adoption should go much faster. But referring to my answer on the first question, paying more attention to the business model of digital solutions is perhaps even more important here. Smallholder farms have less money to spend to invest in digital technologies. A service-oriented approach in which farmers don’t have to invest in the hardware themselves, can be a good approach. But access to technologies is not only hampered by money alone. It can also be education and skills levels that is hindering adoption. Upscaling adoption requires an integrated approach that should involve all stakeholders such as smallholder famers in the innovation process.

5. You have previously spoken about the twilight zone of digitalization. While the gap between data economy and policy is widening world over, are there any good examples on how to navigate the same?

In the Mansholt Lecture that I held in Brussels, I showed how the digital transformation in agri-food has entered a twilight zone where innovations have proven to be promising, but must be upscaled to a higher level of adoption and broader integration. A paradigm shift is needed to navigate properly through this twilight zone involving of multiple aspects such as collaboration, trust, inclusion around topics such as data sharing and new business models.

The EU-funded large-scale pilot ‘Internet of Food and Farm 2020 (IoF2020)’ has developed and applied an integrated approach that tries to address this. Many of the 33 use case projects within that project have shown how to work on digital innovation in a successful way.

6. What can the world learn from digital innovations in agriculture from Europe?

Although a lot can still be improved in Europe, I think we have been able to apply this integrated approach that I described before already in a good way. EU-funded projects often require a multi-actor approach that facilitates co-creation between stakeholders. In the new calls for projects, we see the requirement to involve social sciences and humanities, which is good.

In general, you could also say that there is a good interaction and flow between fundamental research and more applied research. Finally, European policies such as the digital single market strategy help to create level playing fields and set clear rules and conditions for digital innovation. In conclusion, Europe might not be the frontrunner in developing the latest technical tour de force, but rather be a champion in embedding digital solutions in a sustainable way for food systems.

About SourceTrace

SourceTrace is a SaaS (Software As A Service) company that focuses on sustainable agriculture and empowerment of farmers.

SourceTrace's advanced technology platform DATAGREEN provides comprehensive solutions to manage all aspects of the agricultural value chain.

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