Digitalisation in agriculture: what role for the EU ?

Wednesday 24 October 2018

While professions in the primary sector are often seen as very manual and very far from the digital world, the digitalisation in agriculture has been a dynamic at work for several years. Older than one might think, the digitalisation in agriculture began in the 1980s with the development of agricultural accounting software and management of parcels and farms. The term "Agritech" includes all new technologies, start-ups and innovations relating to the agricultural sector. As for other sectors of the economy, new tools such as GPS-type systems, remote sensing or autonomous agricultural vehicles can facilitate work and limit or reduce the use of water, fertilizers and pesticides.[1]

At European level, the subject of digitalisation is very much associated with the future of agriculture. The 2017 annual forum for the future of agriculture (FFA) co-organised by the European Landowners Organization (ELO) and the company specialising in phytosanitary products Syngenta hosted Mr. Jacob van den Borne, a dutch farmer who made digitalisation an essential tool in the production of his potatoes, sugar beets and maize.[2] Mr. Van den Borne explained that digital technologies, have enabled higher yields and lower use of resources, e.g. the very precise mapping of the needs of plants and weeds by drones.[3]

 

Difficulties to disseminate Agritech

Despite the productivity and environmental gains from agricultural technologies and the fact that dozens of technology companies around the world offer a range of digital tools to the primary sector, some obstacles remain in terms of wider dissemination among farmers. One of the biggest obstacles is the low internet coverage in many rural areas. In addition, the cost of investing in these tools is high for farmers, many of whom are already experiencing financial difficulties[4] and insufficient economies of scale due to their limited size.[5] In addition, trainings are necessary for farmers, firstly on the use of Agritech tools and secondly, according to Mr. Van den Borne, on biology knowledge, largely ignored to the benefit of chemistry.


Financial support for innovation under the responsibility of the Member States in the next CAP

The next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will take advantage of EUR 10 billion from the Horizon Europe program for research and innovation in the fields of agriculture, food, rural development and bioeconomy. It will also encourage Member States to make use of big data (data compiled on farm size, soil moisture status, plant health and vegetation status, etc.) in their monitoring and control activities, thus reducing the need for on-the-spot checks.[6]

EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan told in an interview for EurActiv Romania that the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would leave Member States the responsibility to direct financial support for innovation and digitalisation in Agriculture: "The budget for precision agriculture depends on specific needs and precise budget allocations within the overall CAP envelope that Member States will receive".[7]

However, among the European Commission's legislative proposals for the next CAP[8], there is not a clear agenda for the coming years, contrary to the wish of the "Farm Europe" think tank, which would like to see the CAP moving away from "a measure-based approach which creates red tape and administrative burdens to an objective-based approach, setting objectives and leaving enough room for manoeuvre for farmers to decide how to reach the common objectives.”[9]


Still too early for a European Digital Agriculture Strategy

Thus, if digital can help meet the objectives of yielding and greening European agriculture, it is probably still too early for the European authorities to establish a common strategy in this area. While humanity is still at the dawn of a digital age, the latter should bring about serious changes for agriculture, whose origins can be traced back to the Neolithic era. A European strategy will be more likely to emerge when solutions are considered to build confidence among farmers, to help establish an environment conducive to the growth of Agritech companies and to meet the required training needs for these new tools.



[1] Smart farming trying to find its feet in EU agriculture

https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/smart-farming-trying-to-find-its-feet-in-eu-agriculture/?_ga=2.250957830.1830759957.1540055912-1125473920.1530830589

[2] See website of his firm :https://www.vandenborneaardappelen.com/nl/het-bedrijf-van-den-borne-aardappelen   

[3] Interview of Jacob van den Borne during FFA 2017 : http://www.forumforagriculture.com/ffa2017-videos/

[4] « Tous acteurs de la transition numérique agricole », p.20, https://bit.ly/2O1oVA4 

[5] « Hogan says future CAP will be ‘more ambitious’ on the environment », https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/hogan-says-future-cap-will-be-more-ambitious-on-the-environment/?_ga=2.57440042.1830759957.1540055912-1125473920.1530830589

[6] Press release: « EU budget: the Common Agricultural Policy beyond 2020 » http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-18-3985_en.htm

[7] « Agriculture digitisation not only for controls, stakeholders ‘remind’ the EU Commission », https://bit.ly/2NY2X1e

[8] Factsheets and the legislative proposals are available here :

https://ec.europa.eu/commission/publications/natural-resources-and-environment_en

[9] « Smart farming trying to find its feet in EU agriculture »: https://bit.ly/2ysRgdJ

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