Digitization as the key to a sustainable food system

Digitization as the key to a sustainable food system – Interview with Liesbeth Luijendijk

Our food system is bursting at the seams. In 2050 we will share the earth with 10 billion people. While our way of producing and consuming already has an enormous impact on the environment, it will only become more difficult in the future to feed the total world population in a safe and sustainable way. The solution? OnePlanet Research Center is looking for this in digital technologies. GEA interviewed OnePlanet’s Director of AgriFood, Liesbeth Luijendijk in their online magazine about how digital technologies have the potential to completely change the AgriFood sector.

This article is an English translation of the original (in Dutch)

OnePlanet is a collaboration between nanotechnology institute imec, Radboud University / Radboudumc and Wageningen University & Research (WUR). The innovation and research center was founded in May 2019 with a clear goal: to develop digital innovations that contribute to a society in which everyone is healthy and has access to good and sustainably produced food. Consider, for example, technologies that can measure which nutrients someone needs for a healthy diet.

Liesbeth: “We work together in an ecosystem of parties that complement each other perfectly. WUR is the world leader in agri-food. Here we investigate the opportunities for making our food system more sustainable. Radboud focuses on innovations for (preventive) health and artificial intelligence. In collaboration with imec, we convert our knowledge and ideas into applicable and profitable chip and digital technologies. “

The start

And why then chip and digital technologies? According to Liesbeth, they are an answer to tomorrow’s major challenges. The world population is increasing, while the planet is becoming increasingly depleted. How do we keep everyone healthy and reduce our impact on the environment? Liesbeth: “We need to move towards a sustainable, circular, fair and transparent food system with less waste and more efficient use of raw materials. Digitization can contribute to this. I have seen many sectors completely change due to digital technologies. I myself have a background in ICT and I have worked in the financial sector, among other things. This sector and its services have changed significantly in recent years. Digital technology has dramatically reduced the number of steps in the sector/chain. In agri-food we are still at the beginning of digitization, because the sector as a “physical” sector is a lot more difficult to digitize, but I see the power and potential of digital technologies. They can contribute to solving the major challenges in the food chain of tomorrow. ”

Promising projects

Impressive steps have already been taken at OnePlanet Research Center. Although it is still too early to bring concrete innovations to the market – OnePlanet has only been active for a year – a number of promising projects are underway in the innovation center. Liesbeth: “We are currently developing the next generation of sensor and monitor technology for precision farming, whereby individual plants and animals receive the precise treatment they need. With more targeted cultivation, production can be optimized with minimal impact on the environment, because less is wasted and less pesticides are needed. We are also developing technologies that can be used in vertical agriculture: where stacked cultivation layers are used in a factory hall or office building as a solution for increasingly scarce agricultural land. These farm towers increase the food supply in urban areas and reduce the ecological footprint of agriculture. ”

“We must move towards a sustainable, circular, fair and transparent food system with less waste and more efficient use of raw materials.”

Smart Food Processing

In order to make the entire food system more sustainable, the steps after agriculture production, such as food processing, must also be considered. Liesbeth: “We are also developing innovations for the food processing sector. For example, in-line sensing and monitoring solutions that measure very precisely which surfaces are contaminated in production lines. These sensors can control robots that automatically clean polluted areas. This makes cleaning much more targeted, with less water and without the intervention of an operator. This is a good example of Artificial Intelligence (AI) combined with hardware, with which resources can be produced more efficiently and the automation in the food processing industry is taken a step further. In addition to sensor solutions, we are also working on AI models that can simulate processes in a factory. With these so-called digital twins, outcomes can be predicted, with which a factory can be set up more energy-efficiently, for example. OnePlanet is also working on innovations that enable a transition from mass food production and processing to the production of tailor-made food, tailored to someone’s specific needs. ”

Meaningful work for a better world

A sustainable world requires more than just digital technology. It is a responsibility of all of us. Liesbeth: “We want to help everyone to take this responsibility as much as possible. We do this with smart technologies that make it easier to live more sustainably, healthier and more responsibly. That is why I started working at WUR and OnePlanet Research Center. I see the opportunities of digitization and want to contribute by using them for a good cause. And with me, all my colleagues at OnePlanet! A number of my colleagues have worked in Silicon Valley, but wanted to use their knowledge for more than, for example, the new generation of smartphones. They now work at OnePlanet, so they can commit to something meaningful. And that’s what this work is. For me, this really means engineering for a better world.

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