Speech FoodNexus Startup Challenge

Speech by Marjolijn Sonnema, Director-General for Agro and Nature, at the First European FoodNexus Startup Challenge, Wageningen, 13 December 2017

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me take you back to the Agricultural Revolution, about 10,000 years ago. For the first time, people began using tools. They learned how to work the soil. And how to reap more fruits from the earth. It’s all vividly described in the book Sapiens by historian Yuval Noah Harari. A book I’m sure many of you have read or are planning to read. With a wider variety of food at our disposal, homo sapiens became master of the food chain. And I believe that now, 10,000 years later, we’re at the beginning of a new revolution: the merging of agrifood and tech.

The tech and agrifood revolution

Great ideas emerge when whiz kids join forces with farmers and foodies. Most farmers have never written code in their life. And many whiz kids have never been on a farm – FarmVille doesn’t count! But they can work together on a common goal: to make the production of agriculture and food products more efficient and more sustainable. And, if possible, more fun.

Startups and the enterprising state

A Dutch broadcaster recently made a list of ten amazing inventions. It included GPS, the Delta Works, and the Internet. These inventions all have one thing in common: they were all made possible by government. It’s vital that government supports and actively promotes innovation, invests in progress and encourages startups. Preferably together with other investors.

The Dutch government − for instance − is currently involved in quantum technology, regenerative medicine, wind power, high-tech farming and many other projects in different areas. My ministry launched a seed capital programme especially for food and agriculture companies. We’ve also got a programme called ‘High-tech to feed the world’. It fosters cross-pollination between agri-food and high tech. And of course, we’re proud supporters of this Startup Challenge!

Because startups provide innovative solutions to many of society’s most pressing issues. That’s why the government fosters the startup ecosystem. Through new, flexible legislation for instance. And R&D funding and support for entrepreneurship. The two – government and startups – need each other. Startups – including those here today – are characterised by radically new business models and rapid innovative turnover.

Take Protix, a Dutch company that breeds insects for animal feed. They raised 45 million euros in funding this year. In just five years, they’ve grown from a small-scale operation with a single box of insects to a multinational operation, revolutionising sustainable agriculture.Or take Solynta, a small team here in Wageningen that’s developed a product with great potential to eradicate hunger globally: the hybrid potato. Solynta was awarded National Icon status in 2014, thanks to its work on new hybrid potato varieties that have greater disease resistance and a higher nutritional value.

Perhaps a smart potato doesn’t sound like a ‘must-have’ to you – not as much as a smart phone – but it is for countries with fast-growing populations and increasing hunger. Many of the problems we face are global, and that’s why I’m pleased this challenge is for startups across Europe. The Netherlands is tiny compared to big players in agri-food tech, like China and the United States.

Being part of the European Union has real advantages for us. Agriculture was one of the biggest reasons for establishing the European Union, and we all benefit from it – startups, too. Like the Wageningen startup that’s helping southern European countries cope with droughts through precision irrigation. Or the Finnish startup that’s helping the Netherlands reduce food waste.

Necessity of innovation in agrifood

By the way, I forgot to name one invention in the top ten. I mentioned GPS and the Delta Works, but I forgot to mention the vegetarian sausage. Invented in Germany in 1916, it was an idea born of meat scarcity. Scarcity can be a driver of creativity. And we’re going to need a lot of creativity if we want sufficient, sustainable food for nine billion people by 2050. A good place to start is right here. There’s so much creativity here today that it makes me optimistic about solving the major challenges we face. If you’d told me ten years ago that we could print food at home, or offered me some seaweed bacon, I would have been speechless. 

That’s what startups do. They surprise us by challenging the status quo. By thinking about how things could be done, instead of doing things the way they’ve always been done. That’s how they start a revolution in the way we think and the way we eat.

I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the startup pitches today. Thank you.