Food Valley and Its Peaks

This month The Mixing Bowl brought a delegation of eight people to the Netherlands for the 10th annual Food Valley Expo. We participated in a half-day event organized prior to the Expo entitled “Silicon Valley meets Food Valley” where US companies Apitronics, Mavrx, and Iron Solutions pitched alongside Dutch food and ag initiatives Culios, The FoCom Project, Noldus, TMO, Dutch Sprouts, Agrisensys, and Fispace.

The Food Valley NL organization is the portal for agrifood innovators throughout the Netherlands. The term “Food Valley” refers not only to the organization, but to the “Silicon Valley of Food” clustered in and around Wageningen University, a world-renowned research institution in the fields of food science and agriculture. As the Economist recently pointed out, the Netherlands, with a land mass only the size of the US state of Maryland, is the world’s second most valuable agricultural exporter. The Food Valley Expo included nearly 750 participants arriving from countries including Israel, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Japan, China, and the US.

While the Food Valley may be in a low lying geological depression, on our tour we saw stand-out peaks punctuating from Food Valley NL and its Expo. First and foremost, the Food Valley NL’s 10 year anniversary showcased a strong, open, and connective culture, reminiscent of the character of the Dutch shipping traders of years past. Led by ample government funding, the Dutch have established strong research and development programs in areas including intensive growing, food safety and nutritional behavior. However, the greatest boon to the Dutch food/agtech sector is their progressive agrifood culture, which openly embraces the integration of technology to accelerate the development of agricultural business–even amongst the 90% of Dutch agrifood businesses that are small or medium size.

From our “Silicon Valley meets Food Valley” exchange, it was evident that both delegations are aligned on key challenges to which technology can be applied in the agri-food space. These challenges include:

Providing consumers greater insight into the nutritional value of the food they eat.

Developing data sharing constructs so that the power of “big data” can be applied to the food and agriculture industries.

Decreasing the cost of farm-based sensing technologies so that a broader base of farmers can embrace “smart farming”.

Every peak, of course, arises from lower valleys, and in the case of the Netherlands, there are a few points where they can raise their performance. Our exchange revealed that the Dutch agree that stereotypes of Europeans being risk averse still holds true. With some exceptions, the rapid iteration and riskier innovation culture of Silicon Valley has still not made its way to the “Silicon Valley of Food”. Additionally, the Dutch appear to have a tendency to be more focused on R&D than commercialization, so there could be a greater focus on viable business modeling and co-creating products with real world consumers.

Food Valley NL should be recognized for its impressive first ten years and the progressive leadership role it is playing in the open innovation movement for the food and agriculture sectors. Through more cross-border collaborative exchanges like last week’s “Silicon Valley meets Food Valley”, we hope to absorb the best of all cultures to jointly meet the agrifood challenges we face ahead.