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Big Data, Big Produce

In the last few decades, with the introduction of GMOs, the agricultural industry was turned upside down. Major consolidations between companies took place, while sustainability and big data have become ever more important. BioVox had a conversation on the most important trends within the agri-biotech sector with Johan Cardoen, Managing Director of VIB, and with Arjen Van Tunen, CEO of the leading Dutch agri-biotech company Keygene.

Keeping up with the US and China

Arjen Van Tunen: “In the last years, major consolidations took place such as the potential acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer, the acquisition of Syngenta by Chinachem and the merger of Dow and Dupont. These developments have large geopolitical consequences in EU, USA and particularly also China.“

Johan Cardoen: “The far-reaching consolidations had a huge impact on the agri-biotech sector, but will create new opportunities. The few companies that are left are continuously looking for innovation that will allow them to differentiate from their competitors. This will give a push to startup biotech companies, but also to companies such as Keygene and research centers such as VIB. I haven’t experienced that companies are less willing to invest in agricultural innovations”

Arjen Van Tunen: “We do have to try to foster innovations that were developed in our countries here within local companies. We need to make the investing climate in Europe as attractive as that of the US. That’s important if we want to be able to compete with huge regions such as the US and China. Europe has great scientific facilities, but we should leverage these. We have to cherish talent. Not only scientific talent, but also entrepreneurial talent by supporting it with sufficient financial investments. That’s how Europe can continue to make a difference.”

Genome editing techniques remain top of the bill

Arjen Van Tunen: “As genome editing techniques are becoming cheaper and easier to use, they are now not only applied to major crops such as maize and soy, but also become available to genetically improve wheat, potato, cassava and other smaller crops. It will be a huge challenge to feed the ever increasing global population within the next 20 years, on top of producing other raw materials we need from agriculture, while facing climate change. To fulfill this need, we have to leverage the potential of genome editing techniques. However, the regulations in Europe concerning genome edited plants and GMOs might become or are already a pitfall.”

Johan Cardoen: “It seems that the introduction of GMOs in Europe is a lost fight. However, we see some positive evolutions concerning the evaluation of genome edited plants, resulting in crops with mutations that can be exempted from the GMO regulation. So there is hope. Europe has to learn from the past and use its common sense to make the right decisions. If Europe misses the boat on this one, the impact for agriculture could be devastating.”

Big data is indispensible

Johan Cardoen: “Next to genome editing techniques, the use of big data and the Internet Of Things are very important trends that are introduced into agriculture. The way a farmer uses data to increase their yield and adjust to climatological conditions will only intensify in the future.”

Arjen Van Tunen: “For example, in the supermarkets of Albert Heijn, every day before 11am, the stores know exactly the amount of vegetables and fruit that have been consumed. This data is sent to the suppliers, who can adapt the supply of fruits and vegetables they bring to the stores. You can analyze all this data, and forecast how much fruit and vegetable produce will be needed on a certain day. Growers can control the produced amounts by adapting the temperature or the amount of light in the greenhouse.”

Johan Cardoen: “Big data coupled to the Internet Of Things will allow for profound optimization of precision agriculture, fine-tuned to the consumer’s needs.”

Sustainable agriculture influences consumer behavior

Johan Cardoen: “Another import trend within agriculture is the increasing focus on sustainability. Chemical crop protection agents are become less popular, as supermarkets and consumers are paying much more attention to the minimum residue levels on crops. Therefore a new range of less aggressive crop protection agents is being developed, for example affecting the microbiome of a crop. Consumers also tend to buy more seasonal and locally grown vegetables and fruits. This also influences the market.”

Arjen Van Tunen: “The integrated results obtained by processing big data and consumer behavior cannot only be used by farmers, but also by academia and companies to make new innovative crops, tailored to the needs of consumers. So it is also the consumer and perhaps even the patient who can benefit from better and healthier crops.”

Bron: Biovox