Help farmers with
a digital plan
for greater resilience

Reading time: 4 minutes

RESILIENCE
SOCIO-ECOLOGICAL SYSTEM

BY Inge Janse


November 2018

The agricultural sector stands to benefit enormously from digitalization, but farmers face too many obstacles. Data scientist Ioannis Athanasiadis puts the case for a fairer system of costs and benefits. Because why should we all pay for dykes but not for digitalization? Research on data-driven resilience.

“We are entering the world of data-driven research. That makes for new challenges, as well as new opportunities for citizens, farmers and the whole world.” It is abundantly clear that WUR data scientist Ioannis Athanasiadis is enthusiastic about information. The more the merrier. He makes grateful use of the recent data explosion via computers, sensors and telephones. His aim: to think up data-driven innovations, get them to take root in the agrifood sector and thus improve its resilience.

Transparency increases resilience

Athanasiadis and his colleagues are working on two aspects of data-driven resilience. On the one hand, access to data in the supply chain. “A farmer who knows that his supplier is coming earlier, or that there is a problem with delivering, can adjust his plans around that.” But knowledge about this supply chain all too often stops at the farm gate, and everything that goes on beyond that is a black box. “Whereas transparency increases your resilience to respond to changes.”

PHOTO Jeroen Hofman

Loading and unloading at an industrial site. Data scientist Ioannis Athanasiadis is studying data-driven resilience in the supply chain. PHOTO Shutterstock

On the other hand, the data scientist looks at the resilience of IT systems themselves. Subsidies are a crucial source of financing for farmers, and if they are managed in just one database and this stops working for one reason or another, farmers have a problem. By distributing the information over several databases, you are also less affected by a faulty server. “This information resilience is crucial to every system that is needed for doing your work successfully. From making payments to monitoring water levels: we have blind faith in IT systems as long as everything works, and we don’t realize how much we depend on them.”

‘We have blind faith in ICT systems as long as everything works, and we don’t realize how much we depend on them’

In order to make progress in both areas, Athanasiadis and his colleagues are looking for new data-driven techniques for the agrifood sector. What is it, how can it be used, what are the pros and cons, and what risks are involved? Strong options are blockchain technology (digital networks for registering transactions), Big Data (the analysis of large data sets to gain new insights) and cloud storage (filing data online instead of locally).

Digital solutions can increase resilience in the face of major problems as well.

PHOTO XRESCH/Pixabay

So Athanasiadis talks a lot with stakeholders. “In a workshop with farmers, IT companies and academic experts, we developed scenarios in which blockchains could be used.” In one such scenario, food producers receive a digital passport with information such as where the ingredients come from and whether the product meets the criteria for the ‘Better life’ label. “This is not just of interest to consumers but also to farmers. With a digital passport they can show the added value of their work, such as the quality of their products.”

A digital passport is of interest to farmers as well: it can enable them to show the added value of their work, such as the quality of their products. PHOTO Sven Scheuermeier/Unsplash

Digital solutions can also increase resilience in the face of major problems. One example is the recent food scandals surrounding eggs and meat. “It is only when that kind of contamination occurs that you realize how long it takes to trace the source in the supply chain. Because nearly all the registration is still done on paper. Whereas with a good data infrastructure, it only takes a few seconds to trace an egg to Greece or a meatball
to Germany.”

Money is a big obstacle

Although there are certainly technical hurdles to be taken before all these ideas can be implemented, there is a bigger obstacle, Athanasiadis notes: money. “Farmers have to invest the most. Registering every cow, chicken or egg is a lot of work. But farmers don’t get much out of it, because they can’t suddenly start charging a lot more for their products. Whereas supermarkets can do that.”

‘With a good data infrastructure, it only takes a few seconds to trace an egg to Greece or a meatball to Germany’

Farmers also have to invest in linking all the systems, and in maintenance. And then there are the additional privacy risks attacked to digitalization. What if your financial accounts become public property? Or if company secrets are exposed by data?

The price of resilience

To crack that paradox, Athanasiadis thinks investment needs to be made attractive for farmers. Government policy and the wishes of consumers can contribute to this, as long as they also lead to a better distribution of the costs and benefits among farmers, food companies and shops. Doing nothing is definitely not an option, he emphasizes. “The Dutch know better than anyone that resilience comes at a price, because you can’t live in a delta without dykes. The same goes for the resilience of IT systems. They don’t come free, so we need to work on awareness-raising.”

Name

Ioannis Athanasiadis PhD

Position

Assistant professor in the
Information Technology group at Wageningen University & Research

Resilience research

Research into the resilience of IT systems in the agrifood sector

Team

Ioannis works on this research with a team of WUR scientists in the fields of information technology, logistics, business and sustainable economics, nutrition and biobased products

Investing in linking and maintaining all their systems needs to be made attractive for farmers (left) PHOTO Shutterstock. Data storage makes a lot of noise (right). VIDEO Anja Koelstra.

What is more, there are advantages to taking the digital step forward, swears the assistant professor. Since we are still on the threshold of digitalization in the agrifood sector, we get the chance to avoid the mistakes already made in other sectors. “Normally the big players make the rules. Take machine manufacturers for precision agriculture. They decide whether and how the data is shared. There are also concerns about who can access that data.”

‘Because we are still on the threshold of digitalization in the agriculture sector we have the possibility to avoid the mistakes that have been made in other sectors’

The agrifood sector can still set up systems that are fairer to all the stakeholders involved, with more transparency and more resilience. “Farmer organizations, big companies and consumer organizations should shape the future of agrifood together and do so fairly.”

More resilience stories:

When consumers want quinoa instead of potatoes

Financial products undermine resilience farming regions