The European Commission wants to build “bridges” between agriculture and the ICT sector in order to better address the environmental challenges of farming.
Rising demand for agricultural products – and the pollution associated with it – is putting pressure on policymakers to find “innovative” ways of reducing the environmental footprint of the farming sector.
The Commisison now believes information technologies could help farmers reduce the EU’s emissions of greenhouse gases, 10% of which come from agriculture.
“These emissions have declined by 24% since 1990 while total output of agricultural production was maintained thanks to land management using modern technologies, improved knowledge and specific practices combat climate change,” a Commission spokesperson told EurActiv.com.
However, getting farmers into the digital era won’t be an easy task for the EU executive.
Investing in smart farming
The EU has already taken a number of steps to integrate climate change concerns in the new Common Agricultural Policy (2014-2020).
For example, financial support to farmers is now generally provided by direct aids decoupled from production. “Cross-compliance” measures link farmers’ direct payments to the observation of environmental and other legislation set at EU level. Beneficiaries of direct payments must also maintain agricultural land in good environmental condition.
Under the new CAP, the EU is also investing in climate-smart agriculture, with projects financed under the bloc’s Horizon 2020 programme for research.
“With Horizon 2020, our efforts of research and innovation in food, agriculture, forestry and marine have doubled, reaching €3.6 billion for the period 2014 to 2020,” the same EU source told EurActiv.com.
Climate smart agriculture is one of the key topics for the almost 3,000 innovation projects that are expected to receive funding from the Rural Development budget, EurActiv.com was told.
Around €64 million will be dedicated to precision farming and digital technologies in the agriculture sector under the Horizon 2020 Work Programme for 2016-2017 while €30 million will be invested in the implementation of an Internet of Things Large Scale Pilot on “Smart farming and food security”.
The “last frontier”
Phil Hogan, the EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, said the EU executive sought to establish vehicles to bring together people from the agri-food and ICT industries. This would breach the “last frontier” as products and Apps have been developed for every other economic sector, except agriculture.
“Smart and digital agriculture hold many promises for a more sustainable, productive, and competitive EU farm sector,” Hogan said. “We have seen solutions that have the potential to significantly improve resource efficiency, animal health, carbon footprint, and farmers’ position in the supply chain.”
“This is what we mean by precision farming – harnessing ICT to enable farmers to do their work more smartly, and more efficiently.”
Hogan acknowledged, however, that agriculture had not yet caught up with the “digital revolution”.
Drones in farming
Drones have emerged as one of the most promising technologies, allowing for instance the spraying of pesticides in a more efficient and targeted way. But few European farmers are currently taking advantage of it, partly because of a lack of awarness.
“In terms of the extent that drone, or precision technology, is utilised here in Europe, in comparison to the United States it is limited,” said Maeve Desmond, Communications Manager at Alltech European Bioscience.
Still, precision technology in agriculture is growing, Desmond told EurActiv.com. Mapping drones, for example, can identify underperforming soil and crops.
The utilisation of drones to monitor fields investigating moisture and nutrient deficiencies in crops has massive potential for farmers while the highly advanced imaging equipment spots details too subtle for the human eye to detect.
“This allows farmers to apply treatment before the crops are impacted significantly. In the United States, for example, drones are being utilised to monitor herds, as they have the functionality to detect unusual body temperatures and other conditions,” Desmond explained.
Many farmers have mixed feelings about drones, she conceded. But serious consideration should be paid to “the positive impact they can bring such as increased accuracy and combating challenges such as soil compaction, erosion, and damages to crops”.
“If we want to ensure food security in the face of a rapidly growing global population, then we need to expand our knowledge and engage with new technologies such as drone and precision technology,” she concluded.
Brandon Mitchener, head of corporate communications at Monsanto Europe, told EurActiv.com:
“Even though plants absorb CO2, agriculture is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions because plowing, inefficiency and animal emissions (think methane) all release CO2. Farmers can help reduce CO2 emissions by switching to no-till farming, which allows more carbon dioxide to be sequestered in the soil and reduces erosion; using digital services to make better decisions; and planting seeds which are specifically bred to get by with less water or reduce farm animals’ impact on the environment. Unfortunately, some EU governments seem to be discouraging climate-smart agriculture by heavily promoting inefficient farming techniques.”
And he added: “The best way the EU can promote agriculture that is smart both from a climate mitigation perspective and for people’s plates is to promote agricultural techniques that are tried and tested, including reducing tillage (ideally going no-till), using cover crops in between major growing seasons, and reducing waste in the field. The sustainable intensification of agriculture is demonstrably possible, despite the criticism frequently levelled against “intensive” farming by the organic-vegan fringe.”
Maira Dzelzkaleja, Vice President of Copa-Cogeca, the association representing EU farmers, said yesterday (28 January):
“A smarter and sustainable EU agriculture sector for viable and competitive rural areas are key. Research and innovation are crucial tools to achieve this. Innovation contributes to a competitive, efficient EU agriculture sector, helping farmers to cut production costs and produce more with less.”
“Innovation has to be driven by farmers in order to be able to respond to their needs and they have to be involved in the research processes from an early stage. This is crucial for the future of rural areas. Farmers generate innovative solutions themselves that often go unnoticed by public. There is a huge amount of hidden knowledge that needs to be revealed and efficiently used and more should be done here,” she stressed.
Precision farming is based on the optimised management of inputs in a field according to actual crop needs. It involves data-based technologies, including satellite positioning systems like GPS, remote sensing and the internet, to manage crops and reduce the use of fertilizers, pesticides and water.
The introduction of the new technologies helps farmers to manage their farms in a sustainable way by taking into account the “slightest detail” of everyday farming.
Precision farmers are able to make the best use of chemical inputs (pesticides or fertilisers), contributing to soil and groundwater protection while increasing production efficiency. The quality of products is improved and energy consumption reduced significantly.
By using sensors, farmers are able to identify specific areas of the field in need of a particular treatment and to focus the application of chemicals on these specific points only, reducing the amount of chemical used and preserving the environment.
This is in contrast with the traditional practices in which various agricultural activities such as irrigation, fertilisers, insecticides, and herbicides are uniformly applied throughout the field, ignoring any variability.
- Inspirational ideas: Farm demonstrations, discovering drones
- Speech by Commissioner Phil Hogan: ICT-Agriculture Conference, Ireland (1 May 2015) | Europe’s Opportunity in Digital Agriculture (14 Jan. 2016) | Green Week, Berlin (15 Jan. 2016)