Gé Backus: sustainability and income model can only be tackled in a chain context

Connecting Agri & Food (CAF) filled a gap in the market ten years ago: connecting agri and food. This is urgent because livestock farming has become painfully visible in recent years. “Important issues such as sustainability and the farmer’s income model can only be solved in a chain context,” says CAF director Gé Backus.

CAF was founded ten years ago because there was a need to connect parties in the chain. ‘Objective and independent. We work at the interface between science and practice and have a broad, colorful portfolio with more than thirty clients, says Backus. CAF tasks concern policy (sector analyzes and target regulations), smart farming (sensors and data science) and chain concepts (pricing systems and revenue models).

Between now and five to ten years, there are systems that act as an extra pair of eyes for the farmer

Gé Backus, Director Connecting Agri & Food

Characteristic of today is that paradoxes are becoming stronger, says Backus. According to him, people still know little about food. And NGOs in the Netherlands – with 17,500 employees and a serious business with a turnover of 5.5 billion euros – are, according to Backus, trying to bring their own goals closer by working on public opinion. In the debate, it seems as if there is no possibility of compromise, says the CAF director.

‘The debate and society are better served by NGOs that look beyond their own problem when they emphasize sustainability themes. But I don’t see them doing that at the moment. That’s why transparency is so important, showing what you do’, says Backus.

What role does data science play in this?

‘In 2017, we installed the first sensor that could measure in real time. In the five years that followed, the development and application of smart barn techniques gained momentum. The child issues have been resolved for a number of sensors. It can be reliably measured. And so much data has now been collected and analyzed that more and better knowledge is becoming available that farmers can act on.’

Technology is your hobby horse. Why?

‘Because technology takes us further. It creates a world of possibilities. And where things don’t go well, it’s usually not the technology, but how people use it. Sensors give the user extra senses. When used judiciously, they provide objective data. As an entrepreneur once told me: ‘When asked how things are going, I no longer want to answer ‘pretty well’, but I want to be able to say what the objective metrics are.’

“Additionally, you can make adjustments much faster with technology. No longer having to conclude after the fact that the result was somewhat disappointing in the most recent period, but getting the signal early on that adjustments are needed. I am convinced that we will solve many of the problems the sector now faces with technology.’

Our government does not share that belief.

Unjustified in my opinion. In the Netherlands we are facing a staff shortage. If we can measure processes reliably, it can help to solve the capacity problem of environmental services, for example. I also see opportunities for insurance companies. If the company of an agricultural worker is equipped with sensors, there is no need to check for fire risk every year.

‘Who thinks we’ll soon have enough people to do an annual visual inspection of all the barns? It is only after several recent court decisions on the Ammonia and Animal Husbandry Regulations (Amber) that governments also feel the urgency to get started with sensors. Five precious years have been wasted.

‘We want to see the possibilities and preferably on time. It is precisely this swift action that has brought the Dutch agricultural sector its global prestige.’

And what about data science?

‘Data is the raw material of the 21st century. Not only the agricultural entrepreneur, but also the government and other market parties will grow towards widespread use of ‘data science’. When I see the insights that the current generation of students bring to the surface when they analyze big data, I could not have dreamed of it when I was a student.

‘Food is about fat, proteins and carbohydrates, but also about how it is produced. For example, vision technology will help the farmer monitor animal behavior and guarantee animal welfare. This technology will be the farmer’s extra pair of eyes.’

How far is that development?

‘We are now gaining experience with camera technology on three pig farms. We translate the pixels of the images into parameters that say something about lying behaviour, an animal’s activity and, for example, aggression. So the crux here is not the camera technology, but rather the ‘data science’ that converts all those pixels into information about behaviour.

‘In five to ten years there will be plug-and-play systems that support a livestock farmer in this.’

And why is transparency so important?

»CAF researches the price development in the entire chain. From raw materials, the price ex farm to the price in the supermarket. Having the right data also plays a role here. They help gain insight into the distribution of costs and income in the chain.

“With that insight, we can work specifically to prevent the transmission mechanisms of which the farmer is now often a victim. With transparency, you prevent information inequality, you make the chain partners more equal to each other, and you can work more focused and simultaneously with sustainability and added value.’

And opportunities for a fair revenue model?

‘Let’s stop talking about fair prices. I don’t believe that, it can’t be done operationally. Judgments about what is reasonable are influenced by framing effects in the purchase decision. I do not think it is possible to apply the concept of ‘fair price’ in food chains unambiguously.

“It’s much more about transparency, so that the information about the chain links is distributed equally. This can prevent opportunism and invisible passing on of costs to the other party. You need stable chain relationships for that. Then there is no obligation and by being transparent you can work on mutual trust and added value at the same time.

“Retailers are willing to pay a little more for products. They also realize that failure costs can be kept lower in a stable chain. When, for example, it translates into an average plus of 3 øre per kilo of pork, we are talking about a plus of 3 euros per pig.’

And what else can technology mean for this?

‘With vision technology, you can also measure quality characteristics in real time, such as the fatty acid composition of the carcass. And as soon as you can automatically measure certain product characteristics in real time, you can also start to manage by building this into the payment system.’

Are there also disadvantages to data science?

“I would say that it is about the risks associated with digitalisation. Just as systems mature, maturity must be accelerated in this area as well. The point is: how do you handle the information from the chain?

“We have had European rules with the General Data Protection Regulation for several years now. The data platform JoinData is a good next step. But all questions about information security and cyber security are yet to come. The agricultural sector is not at the forefront of this.’

Solution-oriented expert in agro and food

Gé Backus (66) is an agri-food expert with a financial background. Among other things, he is head of the Economics Department at the former experimental station for pig breeding in Rosmalen and head of chain and consumer research at the former LEI, now Wageningen Economic Research. The involvement in pig breeding has always been. Backus is one of the driving forces behind the project ‘Boars on the road’. A Dutch initiative committed to ending the castration of bears on a European level. In 2012 he switched from LEI to Connecting Agri & Food. Backus gained international work experience at the European Commission, the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Throughout his career he has been involved in national and international research into markets, environmental policy and animal welfare. The common thread here is to concretize bottlenecks and deepen possible solutions with a view to a more sustainable food system, also from an economic point of view.

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