F&A Next, the congress where start-ups, businesses and investors, meet, takes place today. Due to COVID-19 a digital edition instead of on Campus. What are the trends?
Having a networking event in a fully digital environment is not ideal, Jeroen Leffelaar, director Food & Agri Innovation at the Rabobank, admits. He made the F&A Next programme. Normally, this event has a programme spanning a day and a half, with promising start-ups, big companies and investors. Due to the corona crisis, the programme was cut short to two and a half hours.
'Networking is a big part of F&A Next. We do have a networking app, but it feels a bit artificial. However, there is also good news. Normally, the event is held in Orion, and attended by some 500 participants, which is what the location can hold. Now, we have over 1400 registrations from across the globe. Participants need not travel to the Campus but can follow the proceedings from their desk. Furthermore, participation is free of charge.'
During F&A Next, Gilles Boumeester, responsible for Food & Agribusiness Research at the Rabobank, talks about the impact of the corona crisis on innovation in the agri-food sector. Leffelaar: 'We don't yet know the precise effects, but we do see certain trends, Firstly, we expect the demand for high-quality food to continue to rise. Although the corona crisis has nothing to do with food quality, consumers are increasingly aware of quality and country of origin. We expect food chains to become shorter. For the sake of dependable supplies, sustainability, flavour and quality, supermarkets will focus more on local products.'
Leffelaar cannot say whether the demand for alternative proteins, such as meat substitutes will continue to increase. This will depend on the economic developments, he says. 'Will consumers still be able to afford these products if there is a deep recession? For Wageningen start-ups, this means they must be patient and perseverant. The agri-food sector is a conservative one, with complex regulations and a moderate acceptance of new technology.'
And, Leffelaar stresses, using alternative ingredients means these must be extensively tested.‘'Furthermore, food is expected to be affordable, especially in the Netherlands. We are in the middle of a food transition, and the role of start-ups is more crucial than ever. The corona crisis makes it temporarily more challenging to find investors. Still, when the dust settles, a new "normal" is sure to emerge.'
'In the new normal, we expect shorter food chains, a permanent role for e-commerce and a decline in out of home consumption. Our basil and coriander are currently imported from Kenya and Israel, but would it not be possible to produce them locally for competitive prices? We are looking into investments in indoor farming in the Netherlands. Besides, finding sufficient labour for the horticulture sector will remain a challenge, even after the corona crisis. I can imagine a rise in the demand for harvesting robots and digital customer services in this sector.'