Future Food Hackathon Riga


Van 18-19 februari 2020 was ik op uitnodiging van de Nederlandse ambassade als expert op de Future Food Hackathon in Riga. Een geweldige experience, waar ruim 100 studenten en jonge ondernemers uit de Baltische Staten en Scandinavië aan deelnamen. Ik mocht een keynote uitspreken, een workshop korte ketens geven en zoveel mogelijk mensen helpen en stimuleren een gaaf idee voor een beter voedselsysteem te ontwikkelen. Hieronder mijn speech.

For almost twenty years I am deaply interested in the sociological aspect of sustainable transitions. I have been engaged in the transition of our food system for ten years now. Since I have my own company, I organize master classes, workshops, I lead campaigns and projects that all contribute to this transition. And I am regarded ‘founding mother’ of the Transition Coalition of the Foodsystem, a partnership of around 150 frontrunner-companies and organizations. Two years ago, together with my partner, I wrote a book and organized a multimedia project about the Dutch food transition.

The position of the Netherlands in the world food system.

We are a tiny country, about two-third of the size of Latvia. But with 17 million inhabitants and a high agricultural and food production, we are a big player in worldwide food and agriculture business. After the United States, we are the second largest food exporter in the world. Every year we export for over 94 billion euros worth of agricultural products. All of which are therefore made by us. In our tiny country.

To give a few examples, we have:

  • 1.7 million cows
  • 12.5 million pigs
  • > 100 million poultry pieces
  • 3.5 million tons of potatoes
  • 900 million kilograms of tomatoes

Future of food_photo_AVegners-113This all more or less started with Sicco Mansholt. Originally he came from a peasant family, but after the Second World War he became a Dutch minister of agriculture and from 1958 European commissioner for agriculture. His task was to prevent us from ever being hungry again. He was the founder of the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe. And thus in a certain way responsible for the large-scale and efficient production, that started in the sixties and seventies of the past century. Later on his career he started to realize what the consequences were of this type of agriculture. But then it was too late.

Now – 60 years later – we produce more than enough food, farmers have done what they were asked to do for decades, but the market is completely stuck.

Farmers are protesting – this photo is from last fall – against the low prices, the environmental rules, the lack of political support. They feel alone in their attempt to provide the world with food, as the climate changes, as biodiversity reduces, as the soil becomes less fertile and society demands different things from them. It is becoming increasingly clear that something needs to change, but what?

In my opinion we are faced with the task of a real transformation of our food system. Instead of trying to do the things we are used to do a little better and a little more sustainable, we must ask ourselves how we can do, make, eat better things. That means we need to make food that is not just a little less bad than other food, but food that really contributes to healthier people and a healthier planet. That we stop squeezing as many crops as possible for as little money as possible from a square meter of land. That means that we have to design new food systems that are fair, clean and healthy.

 There are of course a lot of things that we want to change, like:

  • Circular production
  • Diversification of cropping systems
  • Zero food waste
  • Plant based diet
  • New business models
  • True pricing
  • Short food chains
  • New technologies
  • Healthy food, etc.

No one can realize such a transition on its own. It may help to see in this diagram how transitions usually proceed. images

In the middle you can see the ‘regime’. In short, these are the existing institutions, pricing, policy, where we buy our food, etc. This is the way we do things now, how we have things organized.

The ‘landscape’ in the top layer shows global developments that we do not have much influence on. Climate change, for example. Poverty. Trade Relations. Diseases.

What we cán influence is shown in the bottom layer, that of the niches. Here you see the many front-runners that come up with system changes and innovations. Often small-scale. But in the course of time they join forces, build up power or co-operative relationships and they start to influence and even challenge the regime. In a nutshell, that is how transitions work. I could tell you a lot more, but there simply is no time.

Future of food_photo_AVegners-176How do you start a transition?

Hundreds of front-runners are active in the Netherlands, all of whom take a piece of this huge puzzle and come up with new solutions for a food system that is fair, healthy and sustainable. I would like to introduce a few to you:


Jeroen, Netherlands’ most innovative farmer from the southwest of the Netherlands. He grows all kinds of innovative crops, including soy, on 300 hectares of arable land. He is a co-founder of Rechtstreex, a social enterprise in Rotterdam that sells food from farmers directly to consumers. Klompe himself makes soysauce from his beans, which is very much appreciated by people from Japan. www.klompe.com

Geert, founder of Herenboeren (Gentleman farmer). A concept where 200 households invest 2000 euro’s to start their own farm. They hire a farmer and thus produce food for themselves. www.herenboeren.nl

Ruud, the founder of Kipster, a revolutionary chicken farm that only feeds the chickens with residual flows from the foodindustry, generates it’s own solar energy. And also makes products from the roosters that would otherwise be gassed. He made a very good deal for five years with Lidl, a large supermarket-organization. www.kipster.nl

Minke, founder of the Floating Farm in Rotterdam. A floating pontoon in the ports of Rotterdam where cows produce milk for the city and which in return are fed with residual flows. A nice example of a circular production on a small scale.

Jaap, the Vegetarian Butcher. In ten years he successfully built up his business by making the best tasting meat substitutes that are in his words ‘an ode to the taste of meat’. Last year he sold his company to Unilever. www.devegetarischeslager.nl

Charlotte, who produces delicious vegan and organic cheeses and works together with several shops and caterers. www.charlysallisfair.nl

Mark and Lisette who make a vegan fast food burger from locally grown seaweed and sell at festivals and in restaurants. Their actual main goal is to challenge McDonalds… www.dutchweedburger.com

Michael, who was the first to make fresh beans in a stand-up bag, had to watch how a large Dutch company copied this and then cheerfully continued to develop a new product line, all with beans. www.boonbonen.nl

Chantal, who will introduce herself later and is here to share her knowledge with you. She was the first in The Netherlands to start a company to save fruit and vegetables that are ugly or second choice, or leftover, or…. www.kromkommer.nl

Future of food_photo_AVegners-315And finally Selma, Merel, Bart en Freke who started Instock, a company that runs three restaurants that prepare tasty meals and also more and more products from the surplus of food production. They also have a catering service and food truck. And it is also helped by one of the largest supermarkets in The Netherlands, Albert Heijn. www.instock.nl

All of these people:

  • Had a dream that kept them from sleeping at night
  • They felt deep in their heart that they wanted to change the food system
  • But they started small
  • Became very good at this
  • Learned a lot
  • Created steady communities of costumers
  • Dared to fail
  • Sometimes made a good deal at the start or later on
  • Sometimes had to accept that they would be copied by the big guys …
  • Or at some point found a partner or an investor to be able to scale up.

The next step for most of these frontrunners is to survive, to reach new costumers, to prove yourself relevant, to collaborate with larger companies, to find money to expand. And always, always think ahead of the peloton. In some cases that means that you have to stop and start all over again.

At this stage of our proceeding transition of the food system in Holland, we have formed a lot of platforms. Platforms that cover almost every aspect of this transition: plant based producers, food waste, short food chains, chefs who want to mainly cook with Dutch products, a network of young people who want to contribute to the transition, and so on and so forth. Do they challenge the system, the regime? They sure do. Is it enough? I doubt that. At this point in this transition of the food system we also need a strong government, that, maybe like Mansholt once did, presents a strong vision on the new food system and uses all its power to reach that. 

Future of food_photo_AVegners-402What does it mean for you?

Maybe in five years you will be in someone’s presentation as a ‘good example’.  What do these examples teach you?

  • Dream big, change the world, but start small
  • Think about the people that are going to use your product. Do you take away their concerns?
  • Which problem do you solve?
  • Deliver something genuine. There is already too much shit in this world.
  • Create value, not only in money but in really doing better things
  • Create a strong community around you
  • And last but not least: JUST GET STARTED!

Thank you.

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"Dream big, change the world, but start small."