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Working towards a future-proof food system

26 October 2023

Alex Datema
Led by Food & Agri director Alex Datema, Rabobank is working towards a future-proof food system. Part of this includes helping agricultural clients take steps to accelerate the agricultural transition. Designers' imagination, he says, is instrumental in this trend. Meanwhile, Rabobank is a source of high-impact knowledge for the Embassy of Food, says creative lead Barbara Vos. A conversation about how the two parties are working together to create the food system of the future.

Alex Datema is someone who knows where many puzzle pieces in the sometimes confusing food chain are located, how they got there and what their connections are. Since its founding in 2015, the dairy farmer has been chairman of BoerenNatuur, an association committed to agricultural nature management and nature-inclusive agriculture. He resigned from that position in May of this year when he started working as Director of Food & Agri at Rabobank. Despite the different insights coming from all these different sources, there are also surprises for him in the ins and outs of the sometimes complicated food chain. “On average, the complexity of the chain is underestimated,” says Datema. “There are often many more steps than you would think between the moment something is produced and when it ends up on someone's plate. And there are many more parties involved than you might initially think.”

Mapping the food system

“If you want to change something in that system, you not only need to know what needs to be changed, but also who has what interests,” Datema continues. The imagination of design helps in that search, the Rabobank director believes. “That also makes Rabobank an interesting partner,” says creative lead Barbara Vos. “In addition to a lot of substantive knowledge, Rabobank has enormous influence on what the future of the food system could look like. The inclusion of these insights into opportunities for change, as seen through the eyes of Alex Datema, in the Embassy of Food's research was highly relevant. “Some time ago I went to Alex's house, together with visual storyteller Rogier Klomp, and we literally drew out how interests work in the chains, using the dairy chain as an example. What makes it even more interesting is that Alex has been a dairy farmer as well as having that knowledge and insight from within the bank which gives you a much more complete picture. Alex's input was crucial in the realisation of the visual mapping created by Rogier Klomp of the food chain for Embassy of Food.

Considering at a distance

Rabobank is undeniably an influential party in the food and agricultural industry. Particularly for such an influential body, it is vital to consider the matter at a distance, Datema points out. "That's why we support designer initiatives. If you really want to achieve new things, you need a new perspective. And designers can sketch that perspective all too well. They are ideally placed to look and think outside the system,” says Datema. "After that, the question is whether we actually dare to do something with such an idea and want to  to pass it on to other parties. That takes courage. In my opinion, we could develop that further at the bank.”

“We don't just want to conduct nice research together or look at a particular idea,” Vos adds. “But also, consider how you are going to implement those ideas. Because change is necessary. Now. I think designers can play an important role in shaping that future differently and offering new perspectives. Even if it's by using a different language that more people can agree with. And that can inspire people to go along with the necessary change”

Datema agrees with Vos: "Our prime minister sometimes says that solving problems is going to be very tedious. But that's not the way to get people on board. You can also say: yes, there's something wrong. But if we solve it, we will do it in a good way and ultimately we will end up with a better world. You have to be able to show that better world.”

© Alex Datema

The transition to a new economy

According to Datema, Rabobank talks about achieving broad prosperity, in which 'true cost' and 'true value' are taken into account. “That is the goal and the question is how you organize your economy around that. This involves making different choices, based on different values. The fact that the economy is designed for profit maximization is simply a choice from the past,” says Datema.

Vos sees banks playing an important role in the choices and transition to a new economy. “A bank of course partly determines what you will base a new value system on. They can help ensure that nature and social conditions play a role when it comes to the food transition. That you not only opt for profit maximization, but also for sustainability conditions and for rewarding nature management.”

Winding path

In any case, the road to that new economy is a winding path, Datema believes. “We all tend to have yes-or-no discussions these days. In these conversations, you should always look at what you can work with and what you can't. I see that reflected in design power: you can use it to show that you are able to build the system we are currently in in a completely different way. There is no one system of the future. Sometimes imagination helps to portray something sharply enabling you to then move in a certain direction."

There is room for everyone on that winding path to the food system of the future, Vos believes. "We also have to really show that the challenge is not for just a few, but for everyone. Not just the farmers', the bank's, or the supermarket's, but of us all."