Digitizing Food

February 27, 2018

Farmers are increasingly using data to automate and monitor food production in order to raise efficiency. Grocers started tracking consumer behavior to match demand. With the food industry being subjected to digitalization, the building blocks of the supply and demand chain can be more integrated and connected by using intelligence. Owning the data of the chain means potentially dominating the food industry. Who is positioned best to access the richest data set?

Our observations

  • Data of what the consumer wants are now more important. In the past, the range of food products was limited. Today, with a broad range of products and local, fresh, and healthy food in vogue, the consumer has more power as a decision-maker. This led to a decommodification of food (e.g. coffee) and a more volatile market in which small players can more easily play into food hypes, as we noted earlier.
  • Data are becoming integral to farm operations everywhere. Some equipment manufacturers and precision agriculture software companies want perpetual licenses, upgrades, and services fees. This increases the fear of farmers that sellers try to lock them into their data systems and policies.
  • SoftBank-backed Plenty plans to build vertical farms and locally produce fresh greens on the outskirts of major cities around the world. One farm has 7,500 infrared cameras and 35,000 sensors to monitor the environment and the plants’ growing phases. Plenty’s AI experts tweak the environment to increase productivity and enhance the food’s taste.
  • We noticed earlier that the Amazon – Whole Foods acquisition could be interpreted as a step towards a bigger ambition of integrating data along the food chain.

Connecting the dots

From farm to table—data along the food chain are becoming more ubiquitous and of greater strategic importance to the different parties. In the past, even if there were many different players in a fragmented food chain, a one-size-fits-all approach to consumers resulted in one-way communication from producer to consumer. Now that a broader offer and health and food hypes drive the behavior of consumers, this model becomes less relevant. Indeed, personalized nutrition is growing and the connected nutrigenomics, optimized nutrition based on the subject's genotype, is on the rise. Owning data from this side of the chain is a growing advantage for suppliers who want to meet specific demands.Considering the datafication of both the supply and demand side, different parties are trying to access the richest data set. We can distinguish three well-positioned candidates. First, the “Big 6” agribusiness corporations (BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Syngenta) dominate the agricultural input market by owning the world’s seed, pesticide, and biotechnology industries. They have the best access to data on the production side. Increasingly, they are acquiring other players through mergers (Bayer-Monsanto, Dow-Dupont, Syngenta-ChemChina) and by moving forward in the chain (e.g. Bayer is operating in consumer health such as food supplements). The second candidate is a party that can take the role of a trusted party in connecting all the players in the chain. A central, bank-like party could fulfill such a role or a decentralized system like blockchain technology. The latter can help to digitally trace and authenticate food products while they travel through an ecosystem from suppliers to consumers, as we noted before. Trust is a delicate topic when it comes to food: consumers care about food safety, and producers perceive a vendor lock-in as a risk since they’ll have to trust a company to manage their data. The third candidate became more visible after Amazon bought Whole Foods. The online retailer or the supermarket is of growing relevance as an interface to get data on customers: dietary and lifestyle patterns and preferences. Grocers are increasingly using in-store technology to track customers behavioral patterns since 76% of all purchase decisions are made in the store. Rather than just tracking their movements, retailers can maximize this technology by influencing shoppers throughout their experience. Although we cannot tell yet who will win the fight, big players from three different positions have begun the battle over the data of the food chain, and it is certain that this will influence our future food system.


  • Sensor technology for precision farming, vertical farming, and for grocers who track customer behavior.
  • Companies moving towards offering personalized nutrition solutions.

About the author(s)

At FreedomLab, Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.

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