Farmers and growers spend a great deal of time on administration. If these entrepreneurs had had a love for administrative work, they would have taken up a desk job instead, but this was clearly not the case. A big part of this administrative burden is the result of government-formulated policies for agriculture and the environment. Phil Hogan, the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, is under pressure to simplify these policies. Some would even like to see all the rules being abolished entirely. However, the chances of this happening are very slim.
Another part of the administrative burden comes from the businesses themselves. This is partly because retail and the food industry no longer blindly trust the farmers and the growers when it comes to food safety. They want to see the results of inspections and all the relevant certificates. However, it can also be attributed to the profits that can be made nowadays by having products certified as 'organic' or as 'fair trade' to distinguish them from standard products. This is accompanied by stiff competition between the different certification schemes: dark green or light green, organic or standard, etc. Simplification also remains a pipe dream in this case, as these schemes and their inspection bodies each have their own business model. Simplification in this field might also be undesired as they all appeal to different consumer segments and thus create value.
The verdict is clear: administration will remain a necessary aspect of these businesses and the simplification of these schemes is nearly impossible. However, ICT could ease the burden of administration. This has been the area of focus of our Farm Digital project. The partners in the Farm Digital project believed that many of the certification controls were plagued by mountains of paperwork instead of being supported by a set of digital documents. This is not exactly practical for organisations that conduct inspections as you cannot prepare a great deal ahead of time, and it is difficult to set up good monitoring software that supports risk-focused controls.
Those who want to further automate the monitoring processes are also stifled by the lack of reliable standards for EDI (electronic data interchange). These standards are in place for invoices, building plan information and laboratory data; just not for certification. This standard is now being created by the Farm Digital project under the direction of standards organisation, AgroConnect.
Another problem that the Farm Digital project will address is the observation that there is a great deal of overlap between the data that must be made available for the different certification schemes. Many farmers and growers that are involved with multiple schemes have to make these data available over and over again. One of the farmers participating in Farm Digital spoke about being involved in seven or eight different schemes. I related this story recently during a lecture in Spain, and one of the farmers attending the lecture announced being involved in fifteen different schemes, with each scheme requesting the invoices of crop protection agents or the cultivation plans.
As already mentioned, these certification schemes cannot be combined as they simply do not fit together. The solution that the Farm Digital partners have come up with is to add an activity in between that allows the data submitted by the farmer for certificate A, to be reused for certificates B, C and D, etc. However, this is easier said than done as new schemes are created or adjustments need to be made over time. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a highly flexible software architecture that can handle these alterations. We cannot get rid of complexities altogether, after all.
A year has passed since launching the Farm Digital project and the premises on which this project is based have proven true. This project addresses several other premises which I would like to address in another column. One of these premises is that you cannot find the solution for these issues sitting at a desk in Wageningen. Instead, you need to work with the certifiers, farmers and growers, their distributors and software developers in practice to arrive at solutions together. This is known as 'Interactive Innovation' in EU jargon. In the Netherlands, this collaboration is stimulated by the public-private partnerships of the top sector policy.
Another premise is that while subsidies are great for start-up businesses, if the Farm Digital solution is to work, you need to work towards a business model that places the costs with the parties that profit from this. Here, issues such as the ownership of data cannot be dismissed or neglected. These are aspects that are currently being worked on and I will address these issues again at a later stage.
In the second and final year of the Farm Digital project we will communicate the results and the observations that were made during the project.
Chair of the Farm Digital Steering Group
LEI Wageningen UR