Modern-day agriculture, with the infusion of technology, has indeed made the world a smaller place by interconnecting its many stakeholders along the supply chain. Digital innovations encourage mutually-beneficial dialogues between farmers and other stakeholders, and empower them to cater better to the constantly-evolving needs of consumers globally. Farming communities are also now equipped with the right information and the tools to proactively address issues around sustainability and climate change. This enables them to boost the quality and quantity of agri-output to match the requirements of the agri-food industry while also adopting the right farming techniques to conserve natural resources and farm sustainably. Our thought leader today shares insights from his experience in the agri-industry, his views on the challenges that farmers face today and how they can be better supported by the other stakeholders, and his vision for the industry.
In Conversation With
Felix Niedermayr works in the Department of Agriculture Development at Loacker where he handles the organisation’s Italian hazelnut project with contract farmers across the country along with Loacker‘s sustainable vanilla project in Madagascar. Having grown up in a wine farm in the North of Italy, he has a strong understanding of the agriculture industry since the time he was a kid, which motivated him to take up a career in agriculture after high school and pursue a degree in Agricultural and Food Economics from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. He reveals that his direct contact with farmers in the production line on one hand and the processing of raw materials on the other are what makes his work so special and exciting. The permanently-changing nature of the agri-sector, its many challenges, and having to quickly react to them inspires his everyday work.
Agriculture 4.0 has made way for a broad spectrum of tools, information, and technologies that have had a positive impact on agriculture production globally. Is there any particular application of technology that has caught your attention recently, which you think will dramatically change how food is produced today?
Felix Niedermayr:In my opinion, sensors that measure the humidity of the soil and scanners that show the state of a plant are going to be very important tools for future methods of irrigation. As there is a shortage of water in some regions of the world already and it will be an even more scarce resource going into the future, how we use irrigation water now is going to play a very important role in future farming. Water for agriculture needs to be consumed in a way that its loss is minimised and the plants are irrigated only when they need to be.
There is a significant increase in the global demand for hazelnuts, not just for its high nutritional value but also as an ingredient in chocolate bars, coffee, spreads, and several cosmetics and personal care products. In your opinion, what is the contribution of technology in improving farm productivity and the quality of produce, particularly in the hazelnut industry?
Felix Niedermayr:Technology can help to reduce the use of agri-inputs such as water, fertiliser, and plant protection products, and therefore reduce the costs for the producers. On the other hand, it can also help to increase production as these methods, along with decision supporting systems, enable the farmers to intervene at the right time and attend to the needs of the plants. In this way, the health status of the whole culture can improve.
What are the three major challenges in the hazelnut supply chain?
Felix Niedermayr:Traceability to each farmer, the need for improved genetics in the plant material, and keeping a check on new threats such as halyomorpha halys (brown marmorated stink bug) that can be currently found in Europe.
How is climate change affecting agriculture, and what measures do producers need to take to overcome associated risks?
Felix Niedermayr:Climate change is affecting agriculture dramatically by completely altering the ways of farming and increasing unpredictable risks such as droughts, frosts, hailstorms, and so on. The farmers have to think beyond traditional methods of farming and incorporate a scientific approach in their approach to agriculture. They need to introduce new farming methods in each farm to prevent the many risks associated with climate change.
Although crops like coffee, cocoa, nuts, spices and herbs are identified as high-value commodities, marginal farmers often earn an insignificant portion of the profit margin. How can enterprises higher up the supply chain ensure that these farmers receive fair compensation?
Felix Niedermayr:In my opinion, companies could increase long-term contract farming for their strategic raw material procurement to create a win-win situation on both sides. With this approach, unnecessary steps in the supply chain can be skipped and the farmers can also obtain a fair price for their produce in addition to purchase guarantee. On the other hand, these companies can have a direct link to the farmers to obtain the quality they are looking for, all the while not being dependent on world market prices and having the security of a steady supply.
How can a food-processing company ensure that the procured raw materials meet the necessary quality standards, and are ethically and sustainably sourced?
Felix Niedermayr:The food-processing companies in their verticalization projects should work hand in hand with farmers or cooperatives on a long-term basis. This ensures that the food-processing company can obtain the necessary quality standards they seek because it gives the producers the time to implement the required standards and to change their traditional ways of farming. If a company is implementing this approach, not merely for certification purposes, it has to also take into consideration sustainability on the basis of social and ecological pillars while striving to help communities with strategic activities.
What is your vision for the future in the agriculture industry?
Felix Niedermayr:Closer collaboration between farmers and the food industry is fundamental to reach far-reaching objectives on both sides: sourcing security, risk prevention, complete traceability, and improving quality of food on the food industry side and better purchasing guarantee with sustainable prices on the farmers’ side. Environmental sustainability has to be a core outcome of the collaboration between farmers and the food industry to counteract future changes and challenges in agriculture.