#01 Countdown to AgriVision 2017

Agtech, AMR and Kofi Annan are all on the agenda for next week and the prospect is enticing. AgriVision 2017 is an opportunity to be part of a crucial debate, potentially helping to make a difference to how we behave globally and how people are treated in some of the tougher corners of the developing world.

Former United Nations' Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, is the ideal headliner for a two-day programme which will seek to discover why 795 million people still to go to bed hungry every day, how antimicrobial resistance (AMR) persists as one of the greatest threats to global public health and what today's Agtech entrepreneurs are doing with the $5 billion they've been given by the investment community.

Having Kofi Annan as part of such an important global event, 11 years on from the end of his UN term, highlights his immense contribution to international affairs from January 1997 to December 2006 and the continued value of his work since then.

In addition to setting up his own foundation in 2007 to 'promote better global governance and strengthen the capacities of people and countries to achieve a fairer, more secure world', he also chairs the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the African Progress Panel, organisations with food security, sustainable agriculture and the prosperity of smallholder farmers at their core.

#02 Hack your way to a new future

blog-hackathon-istock-id-107204751klein.pngIf youre into pigs and hackathons then next week's 32-hour AgriVision data and technology blast is tailor-made for you.

On the other hand, if neither subject immediately grabs your attention, why not treat the AgriVision hackathon as a chance to view the process without having to commit any emotion to the result?

I've been googling phrases like 'which successful start-ups grew out of a hackathon' and there are some appealing examples out there. Plenty of dross as well, of course, in 'my not so humble opinion'.

While next week's hackathon is officially billed as a 'pressure cooker event' to develop data and software driven innovations, it looks more like a chance to free-wheel for a couple of days in the company of some equally crazy techno geeks. Sounds good to me.

By the way, some of my best friends are pig farmers. I was even one myself, briefly and many years ago.

#03 Pre-event tasters

I’ve been casting an eye over some of the draft presentations lined up for delivery later this week and thought a few taster comments might get you in the mood for what lies ahead. 

First up is a word from Adam Anders, managing partner of Anterra Capital, who will tell delegates on Wednesday morning that investing in agtech carries some ‘unique challenges’ which simply don’t exist in other sectors. While I couldn’t possibly reveal his full list at this stage, here’s one to be getting on with.

There is a definite lack of experienced agtech entrepreneurs. Do you agree?

The big subject after lunch on Wednesday is Antimicrobial Resistance with the obvious danger that we pretty much know all the horrors already, or think we do. Speakers will have their work cut out to engage delegates in a fresh debate.

This is my contribution, therefore, extracted from a draft provided by Thomas van Boeckel of the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Zürich.

“Europe is technically more advanced to deal with AMR than other regions in the world, which is unusual,” he will say. “We should capitalize on this to keep setting precedents and seize the opportunity to export our expertise.”

He also mentions the US in his lead-up to this. Something about not trying to fight AMR by denying it actually exists.  Enough said.

Finally, a little bit of gossip.

Apparently, Ida is going to be at AgriVision and she’s set to make quite a splash.

You know how it is with Ida. Normally, she’s content to hang around with cows, in between sessions on the internet.  

I’m saying no more at this point. That’s partly because I didn’t really understand the rest of Ida’s pre-conference chat. It would also be a pity to spoil your enjoyment of hearing her story direct.

#04 The sun always shines

When you invite 400 people from 45 countries to a coastal location in the Netherlands in mid-June you definitely hope the weather system complies. Well it did for the ‘meet and greet’ session of AgriVision 2017.

Laying on fabulous food from around the globe also helped, of course, but the setting at Noordwijk aan Zee was perfect for the opening of this important international event.

“These next two days are really about people, passion and fun,” Knut Nesse, Nutreco CEO, told the welcome gathering. “You can’t run any business without the right people; dedicated people, committed people and passionate people.

“There always needs to be space for a bit of fun, however, and that’s also what AgriVision 2017 is setting out to achieve.”

#05 Talk to the animals 


"The rising pace of change affecting agtech and big data is moving us ever closer to being able to talk to the animals."

It's a nice soundbite certainly; as used by Knut Nesse (more or less) during his opening conference address this morning. Just how close we get to that reality, however, will depend on the lasting value of the developments we decide to pursue at either a business or personal level.

We can all think of gadgets we've bought in the past, only to discover later that we've backed the wrong option and need to start again. With more than $3 billion of new money having been invested in agtech and big data start-ups last year there is bound to be a mixture of successes and failures.

As buyers or backers of new technology, we need to be willing to acquire a few duds in order to allow the winners to emerge and flourish. After all, where does excessive caution get you?

Now, this probably doesn't have much to do with agriculture, but delegates are currently looking at images of a robot suitcase that is capable of following you through an airport. It's blue and round and moves smoothly through departures without any human contact.

The challenge is, do you buy it now or wait for the stunning pink alternative to arrive that will no doubt be able to do your check-in as well? It's your choice.

Ultimately, while getting it right individually will always be difficult, the overall message is that the general thrust of agtech and big data is on the right track and it's going to change the future of our industry. That includes 'speaking' more directly with our farm stock in the future and being able to treat their needs much more individually than has ever previously been possible.

#06 Hackathon moves into new territory

A show of hands to reveal how many of AgriVision's 400 delegates have previously been involved in a hackathon produced just two positive responses this morning.

I found that a somewhat surprising result from such a high tech audience. Whether or not hackathon leader, Anne Bruinsma, CEO of Farmhack, expected to discover more previous experience is a question I plan to ask her later. For the moment, though, I think it shifts the 32-hour data and technology exercise into new territory.

Not only will delegates be judging the hackathon outcomes according to their potential commercial value, the fact that 398 have never been here before means their new experience might shape their longer-term views of such projects in the future.

No pressure therefore on those already locked away in the hackathon room!

Seriously, we're reasonable people. Just remember – we're watching your every move.

#07 You are moving too slowly

When I get back to the office I have a meeting planned to check what we've achieved as a company in the last eight hours.

Also, if you decide to wait for six months before contacting me then you'd better be prepared to talk about a completely different product, because my business will have moved on by then.

A couple of comments voiced during this morning's agtech and big data debate, which highlighted the divide which has existed in the past between start-up innovators and the big business community and maybe still lingers is some areas today.

Led by Adam Anders, managing partner of the specialist agtech fund, Anterra Capital, the session featured the exploits of start-ups Agriconomie, Connecterra and LIVIN farms. All definitely worth a second look when you get a moment.

There's no doubt though that food and agriculture is still playing catch-up in terms of the global tech revolution and is, as a result, suffering from a shortage of experienced entrepreneurs.

There has also been something of a disconnect between tech innovators and agriculture which slowed the advance of agtech, especially during its early days.

For some it's a question of being 'too techy for ag' while for others it's a matter of being 'too ag for techy' explained Paolin Pascot, co-founder & CEO of Agriconomie.com in response to being asked about how he'd sourced the right tech talent to develop his online farm supplies marketplace.

"It's good now, but it certainly took time to put together the sort of team we wanted," he said.

It's also important to face reality. Farming moves a bit slower than other industries for the obvious reasons that some crops are only harvested once a year and there's no way you can rush a cow through its production cycle.

"Agriculture is simply different to other VC categories," agreed Anders. "There's nothing wrong with that, but we do need to develop a different tech model to accommodate farming's slower pace if we're to make the progress we're all seeking to achieve."

That applies to both sides. Those who check their progress every eight hours have to discover how this fits into an industry governed by annual cropping patterns and three-year beef production cycles. Agriculture, at the same time, could probably do with a dose of eight-hour urgency.

#08 How to avoid meat scandals

You only have scandals in business if you ask for it - pure and simple.

That's how we started the afternoon in the company of reputation management specialist, Anne Villemoes.

A no-nonsense performance by the former communications chief at Danish Crown, she plunged head-first into the key image issues faced by businesses in the livestock slaughter sector.

Nothing was left out, not even the slow rate at which soap is used up in the men’s toilets. This was a neatly placed aside which she tossed into the session while talking about the implications for business owners when workers decide to by-pass the hygiene structures which have been put in place.

“Ask them if they’d take the piece of meat they’re working on, home to feed their family,” she said. “If they say no because it’s already been on the floor or they didn’t wash their hands after the toilet then it’s time to remind them not to expect to be working next week.”

 Other Villemoes’ soundbites included:

 “You can't invent transparency.”

 “Reputation will make you or break you.”

“Don't allow anything to take place in your plant that you wouldn’t want a camera team to see.”

#09 AMR crisis rating looks bleak

Question: On a scale of one to 10 how bad is the crisis surrounding Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR)?

Answer: Nine.

It's just an opinion, of course, but coming from Andrew Morgan, Chief Scientist at DuPont Nutrition & Health, it's an opinion that justifies our attention.

Speaking from a background of 35 years of working on health & nutrition for both humans and animals, he also said his answer could easily have been 10 and only didn't select the maximum due to a long-held belief in the world's ability to solve all its major problems, sooner or later.

Sooner or later might not be good enough this time, of course. The AMR crisis clock is definitely ticking, a point made forcefully by Rio Praaning, founder and managing partner of Public Advice International Foundation (PA International).

Adding that governments are notoriously slow (and mercenary) to act on such issues, as shown by the fact that anti-smoking actions only took off after health costs outgunned tax income, he delivered a stream of statistics in support of the case for a much more pro-active approach to AMR, stating that the issue is already well set to become the world's 'deadliest health threat'.

Comparing current health and disaster risks according to the time each factor takes to kill people, he listed SARS, flooding, Ebola, earthquakes and even cancer as being less damaging than AMR will be in 2050, unless we respond soon.

That has to include more regulations being used to prevent antimicrobials 'far out-producing global health requirements'. Praaning also warned that such action could not be left for 'players in the marketplace' to run themselves.

And what happens if the world doesn't respond in time?

On this Morgan quoted Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, who said in July last year that if we go back to a pre-antibiotics era, 40% of people will die of infections.

#10 All in perfect harmony

Buying into cross business collaboration is easy during a big global conference, especially when the sun is shining and the wine is flowing. It may not be so easy when you get back home, however.

So said business innovator, David Pearl, during yesterday’s final session at AgriVision, edging his way through the last 30 minutes of a high-content programme with an audience which was already almost at maximum intake.

Time for a swift change of direction therefore.

“Okay, for the next 20 minutes I’m going to teach you how to sing in harmony,” announced Pearl, as he drew 400 hesitant delegates to their feet.

 We should have known someone who sang with Placido Domingo when he was nine would be trouble. That’s trouble with a capital T (musical joke BTW).

Actually the exercise was brilliant, giving everyone a free and easy end to the programme and setting the gathering up for the evening. It also reinforced his collaboration message of course.

“I can’t remember the words of the song this morning but his point was very well made,” said Canadian delegate, Ross Gill of Lallemand Animal Nutrition. “Being able to get a group to do something they are uncomfortable with and, at the end of it all, create a harmony in three parts was impressive.

“As for next week, if I can get everyone singing and marching together in our company, and be committed to innovative collaboration with other business, such as Nutreco, then I’ll definitely be hitting one of my key business goals.”

#11 Take it home with you

The central focus this morning is on agricultural development, starting with an analysis of the industry's sustainability goals and leading on to the keynote presentation by former United Nations' Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.

Delegates have already been reminded that 795 million people currently go to bed hungry every day, with the add-on that this figure will continue to grow unless the food industry itself gets to grips with this challenge.

"The point is, what are you going to do to solve the problem?" asked Tim Mohin, Chief Executive at Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), speaking during today's opening session.

"We're all focused on being part of the debate here today but when we get back to our over-stuffed inbox and busy schedules, messages can easily get lost and nothing happens. So, what are you really going to do?

"You – this industry – feeds the world; our hungry planet. And more than ever before sustainability problems are going to challenge this industry.

"The main message is that you simply must 'plan for the future'. Work out how you can take what been said here at AgriVision back to your own business and make it work."

Time to welcome Mr Annan.

#12 You are the leaders so get on an lead

Companies that do the right thing will always come out on top.

You don't need to wait for Governments to put the right laws in place in order to start doing the right things.

Two headline comments from Kofi Annan's address to AgriVision delegates as the former UN Secretary General sought to encourage his listeners to acknowledge their responsibilities for the future of global food production and the challenge of feeding the world.

Warning that global food problems can only worsen if current trends are allowed to continue, Mr Annan urged delegates to make sure their own businesses are at the forefront of doing good.

"Doing good is good for business," he said. "Business can't prosper in economies that fail."

There was also a word on the Paris Agreement and the recent USA withdrawal announced by President Trump.

"President Trump has taken one position but many of the companies and corporations in the USA are going the other way," he said, adding that that the companies that do what is right will come out on top.

"Where leaders fail to lead, then the people can lead. The government will eventually follow."

#13 Partnership is the key

Kofi Annan's presentation this morning covered the entire range of food, hunger, climate change and technology issues, culminating in the sign-off point that the 'greatest success will come if all stakeholders work closely in partnership'.

Despite repeatedly urging his listeners to do more to help meet the world's huge food and health needs, he did so in a calm and encouraging manner, drawing a warm and enthusiastic response from delegates.

He also gave credit where credit was due.

"I am very glad that Nutreco and other far-sighted companies are already implementing ambitious business practices to improve responsible water stewardship, reduce waste and use energy resources more efficiently," he said.

Motivating indeed, but with no one left in any doubt that there's a lot of work to be done.

#14 And the winner is...

Swinesmarts! Hackathon winner that is. 

Voted best after a 32-hour challenge to apply open innovation to pig production, the Swinesmarts solution is pretty impressive.

Basically, it creates an open data platform which a farmer can use to give direct data access to a chosen recipient, while still remaining in full control of the data itself.

There is already a lot of data being collected on farms, either by the farmer or through various sensors, and the Swinesmarts answer features an app which collects all available data and throws it to the cloud. Then, when a feed company or genetics business asks to look at a specific piece of data, all the farmer has to do is to decide whether or not to give the company direct access to his password protected data store.

Provided the access answer is yes, the company concerned can go ahead and look for itself, taking over all the info transfer requirements from the farmer. It's a lot less time-consuming than having to find the data in the first place and then move it on via a one-off process every time such a request comes in.

#15 Reflections

A couple of personal reflections on AgriVision 2017:

Professor Daniel Berckmans of the University of Leuven: “I’ve spoken here in the past and see this as a very important event for the industry.  The crucial value for delegates is that they are able to step away from their daily rolling activities, giving themselves a little distance from which to think about the issues which we face. That’s very important for us all.”

Andrew Morgan, Chief Scientist, DuPont Nutrition & Health: “AgriVision brings together many in the industry who have an important role to play in shaping things for the future. The programme over these two days highlighted the key issues we need to tackle, such as AMR, sustainability and how to work more collaboratively. The opportunity to consider new technology and the start-ups which are moving into this field will also help the industry to find solutions to today’s problems.”

And what next, when we return home?

“It’s always a challenge once we get back, as has been highlighted by others,” he said. “Coping with the inbox and dealing with all the other pressures. I think what is needed, therefore, is for actions to be drawn up. When there are actions to be followed up on, then things can start to happen.”

Finally, back to Prof. Berckmans for the last word: “I really like AgriVision and Nutreco does it in a fantastic way.