In November, the annual largest international forum of the agriculture and food sector in the Baltic States – “AgriFood Forum 2022” – took place in Vilnius. The theme of this year’s forum, which brings together leaders of academia, business and politics, was “Peace for Food”. This year, the forum included almost two hundred on site guests, more than 2,300 unique online viewers, future-oriented topics, a large cross-sectoral inclusion, and a large group of foreign guests. One day of engaging presentations and discussions in Vilnius offered up to 1,000 minutes of content.

I have been following the “AgriFood Forum” actively for the past three years. Last year, if I wanted to describe the forum in one sentence, I would have said that sustainability in the agrifood sector is a strategic goal for an entire society, and its implementation is only possible by drawing a clear long-term direction and realising that cooperation between different sectors is an inevitability. This year, it can be said that different sectors have already understood and discovered opportunities for cooperation, and the intolerable military actions of Russia in Ukraine compelled the world to view food security as a matter of national security.

This time, AgriFood Forum focused on the impact of the unjustified war in Ukraine on food supply systems and ways to create healthier, fairer, more sustainable, and resilient food systems that would ensure access to affordable, quality food for everyone. Technology development, implementation, and start-up creation that could contribute to these goals were discussed. Other discussions focused on consumer expectations and new advanced farming methods in the food system. Finally, during this year’s AgriFood Forum, the first meeting of European Digital Innovation Hubs (ESICs) focused on the agrifood sector took place. During it, the hubs agreed on a unique best ESIC collaboration model.

Summarizing the forum, the organizer of the event Director of AgriFood Lithuania, Kristina Šermukšnytė-Alešiūnienė, said that the most frequently heard phrases at this year’s forum were war, climate change, energy, food supply chains and crisis. According to K. Šermukšnytė-Alešiūnienė, all these mentioned crises have a direct impact on the agrifood sector, and in the face of all of them, increasing the resilience of the food system is necessary. According to the expert, this requires the transformation of the sector and the introduction of innovations. In addition, it is necessary to pay more attention to the inclusion of youth and women and to understand that the desired result can only be achieved together. As the director of AgriFood Lithuania stated at the closing remarks of the forum, it is necessary to apply an innovative approach and strive to implement advanced solutions in both small and large farms.

“Supporting innovation and change, keeping up with trends, building resilience, and striving to build networks of networks must be the result of everyone working together. I really hope that when we gather in Vilnius in November next year, we will be calm about peace for food, and we will be able to talk about actions, the control and implementation of which will depend only on our own efforts”, said Kristina Šermukšnytė-Alešiūnienė, the organizer of the AgriFood Forum.

Speaker of the Seimas: Agriculture is important for Lithuania’s GDP

The Speaker of the Seimas, Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, at the “AgriFood Forum 2022” in the Vilnius Town Hall, paid a lot of attention to the Russian factor. In order to achieve a qualitative leap for Lithuania’s economy, emerging opportunities must be exploited in the agricultural and food sector.

According to the head of the Lithuanian parliament, Russia has shown very clearly and no less painfully what it means to compromise democratic principles when pragmatic considerations are placed above them, and what dangers lie when values are swept under the carpet of mercantilism. As the Speaker of the Seimas stated, for a long time some European countries have lived, one might say, impermissibly comfortably or even lazily. Understanding but ignoring the threats posed by dependence on the mercy of authoritarian regimes. Among which is the agricultural sector, and through that, fertilizers are vital for the entire food industry. Both directly and through the energy resources required for production.

“This year, Russia also turned food into a weapon. The threats surrounding us also provide unique opportunities, which, if used skilfully, can lead to a qualitative leap for Lithuania. Yes, today’s reality often makes us think more often about survival than prospects. While rising costs have left farmers scratching their heads, it has fuelled even greater interest in technologies that allow farming to be both soil-conserving and cost-effective. And all this would be impossible without smart technologies. In the agrifood industry, intelligence is no longer the future. It is everyday life, without which effective operations, ensuring competitiveness and future prospects are impossible. Intelligence is unequivocally the only way for Lithuania, which can place us next to countries that are leaders in their welfare and standard of living, because they skilfully use the available resources”, said the Speaker of the Seimas, Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, at the “AgriFood Forum 2022”.

As the head of the Lithuanian Parliament later added, looking at the dynamics of GDP in 2022, we see that good GDP growth results in Lithuania in the third quarter were ensured by good indicators of agriculture and … IT sector. Therefore, it is now necessary (primarily for politicians) to continue to create conditions that would not stop the technological breakthrough, but encourage it. Thus, in a few more years, we could say that the growth of Lithuania’s GDP is ensured not only by the separately working agriculture, food industry and IT sectors, but by their effective synergy.

Minister of Agriculture: Food is a matter of national security

Minister of Agriculture Kęstutis Navickas, who spoke at AgriFood Forum 2022, said that the theme of this year’s forum “Peace with food,” which previously sounded a bit serious, has become particularly relevant and important for the whole world this year.

“In the first days of the war in Ukraine, grain warehouses and food processing companies were targeted. No one could believe that the Black Sea ports could be closed. This raised grain prices across Europe and the world. It is no coincidence that we also raise this question in order to add food to the list of strategic security. In addition, the problem of food waste is not empty words, it is a specific social aspect”, the Minister of Agriculture said to the audience watching the forum.

According to Minister K. Navickos, as Lithuania is dependent on energy resources and fertilizer prices, it is necessary for farmers to implement smart technologies that would preserve nature and help save farmers’ financial resources. As the minister said, the current offer of innovations really allows us to do that. In addition, he suggested that biotechnology should be applied more frequently, as this would preserve crops and soil fertility, which would contribute to a safe food policy.

Marion Jansen, director of the OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate, agreed with the Minister’s thoughts. Wheat prices increased by about 60 percent in the spring due to the Black Sea grain blockade resulting from the war, according to her. This proves that the connection between food and peace is extremely relevant, because food shortages fuel unrest in countries where that food is scarce,” emphasized the director of the OECD’s Trade and Land Directorate.

Minister of Economy and Innovation: “FoodTech is changing the world and we are ready to help”

The Minister of Economy and Innovation, Aušrinė Armonaitė, jokingly said that the only stable thing in Europe today is that everything is constantly changing, so everyone should admit that and be ready to change constantly. According to her, food technology is an important part of biotechnology, and the Government is ready to help this sector as much as it can.

“When we reflect on the future of the agrifood sector, innovation, digitalization is an integral part of it. Food technologies, which are a part of biotechnology, have a future in Lithuania. Israel and the USA also pay great attention to this, this is a new page in Lithuania as well. Us, the Government, are ready to help you as much as we can. We have to think not only about survival, but also about new solutions, products, digitalisation, and scientific research and innovation can offer that,” said the Minister of Economy and Innovation at the forum to the agrifood sector community.

Innovation is the key to success

The CEO of the largest and most influential European food innovation initiative, Dr. Andy Zynga, raised the question of what we as a society, business and science should do in this multi-layered crisis, in the agriculture and food sector. The main answer is clear – innovation, innovation and even more innovation.

“We urgently need to increase sustainability, but we must also build resilience to respond to the many serious challenges we are facing now. We need to invest in key innovations and solutions that drive the transition to climate neutrality. But we also need to understand that increasing the sustainability and resilience of the food system is not something we can do alone. All parties must cooperate and work together and understand the impact of each decision on other actors. Each of us is an important part of the food system”, said the head of EIT Food, Dr. Andy Zynga.

Also, the main speaker of the forum drew attention to the fact that only 11 percent of farmers in Europe are up to 40 years old, so attracting young people to farming is a huge challenge that we will have to overcome. In addition, the head of EIT Food highlighted the issue of gender inequality in the sector.

“Women account for 60 percent of initial employment in the agrifood sector, but in managerial positions, depending on the food supply chain, this number reaches between 9 and 25 percent. This shows that the involvement of women in business creation in this sector is too low, and this will have to change. An excellent example of promoting this is EIT Food’s EWA program in Lithuania, which is coordinated by AgriFood Lithuania. It is inspiring because we see how program participants continue to develop their business ideas after the program ends. The examples of the alumni of last year’s program prove that” – said the head of EIT Food, Dr. Andy Zynga.

We must fight together against common enemies

During the forum, an unusual presentation was made by August Alešiūnas, an angel of the agrifood business and the owner of the innovation boutique house “ART21”. A. Alešiūnas gave a speech that caused the most discussions. Responding to today’s military conflicts, the businessman emphasized the importance of each actor and paid much attention to the changes that have taken place in the world in the last year.

“Today, crises or even the course of war are decided not only by the state – many other actors react to them and become part of these events. They try to defend the common values of a developed society against a common enemy regardless of their educational experience or belief. And who are the common enemies of the agrifood sector?” – this was the question raised by the business angel during the presentation.

According to A. Alešiūnas, it is pollution, broken supply chains, and food prices. During the presentation “The community we belong to. Life without protocols” the business angel said: “It’s time for all small networks to unite and create a big common network, a common “army,” forget the protocols, take off the jackets, roll up the sleeves and start to fight these common enemies of the agrifood sector together in reality, not in formal terms,” Augustas Alešiūnas tried to inspire the gathered participants of “AgriFood Forum.”

A session of discussions on Biofood and EU4BCC took place during the “AgriFood Forum”

A special session “Cooperation between the EU and the Eastern Partnership in the biofood sector: opportunities and challenges” took place during the “AgriFood Forum.” The initiators of these discussions were Šiauliai Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Crafts, which implements the EUROCHAMBERS project, EU4Business: Connecting Companies.

It is important to attract new investments, create jobs, export/import, enhance the competitiveness of the Eastern Partnership organic product sector, as well as increase the competitiveness of the sector. This session discussed the potential for increased cooperation between the EU and EAC, the impact of the Russian war on EU4BCC BioFood Consortium initiatives, and what results have been achieved.

Carmen Fernandez noted that 95 percent of companies operating in the biofood sector in Eastern Partnership countries are classified as SMEs. These companies are the main economic driving force of these countries; therefore, it is necessary to ensure equal conditions of competitiveness in such countries.

According to EC official K. Dyja, in the future, it is necessary to carry out a multifunctional policy of change. This would cover several sectors and not focus on the development of only one of them. According to her, the new plan for the Common Agricultural Policy consists of three main words – fairer, greener, and socially sustainable.

Forum organizers

You can find more information about the discussions on the AgriFood Lithuania website, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube accounts.

This year’s forum was organized by AgriFood Lithuania  together with Business at OECD, Confederation of Lithuanian Industrialists, EUROCHAMBERS, EIT Food, Smart Agri Hubs. The partners of the event were – “Vadasiga”, “Akvilė”, “Žemės ūkio rūmai”, “Paulig Pro”, “Bijola”, “Lašai”, “Vilnius Go”.