This article is part of our special report EU farming getting smarter.
Technologies can enhance “transparent farming” and, as a result, better inform European consumers about the food they eat, a European Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.com.
The main concept of precision farming is optimisation, meaning precise application of inputs, such as fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation water, which results in a positive environmental impact.
Analysts suggest that consumers are also benefited through smart agriculture, as the food quality is improved.
But green NGOs claim that precision farming’s role should remain limited, as the future does not solely lie in technology.
The environmental footprint
A recent report by the Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) committee of the European Parliament emphasised the environmental benefits of smart farming practices in the EU.
The experts stressed that the environmental impact of agriculture becomes measurable and verifiable by the digitisation of agriculture.
The report showed that the use of high-tech tools such as GPS systems, devices controlling sprayers and fertiliser distribution, and censors would have a positive environmental impact as they will contribute to a more sustainable and measurable production.
Among others, precision farming will be able to reduce or avoid excessive chemical input in soil and risk of water pollution; it will reduce soil compaction as well as the carbon footprint (10% reduced fuel consumption in field operations); and will also see an improvement in nitrogen-use efficiency.
“Precision farming technologies allow the production of ‘more with less’. The use of natural resources, agrochemicals, antibiotics and energy will be reduced to the benefit of both farmers and the environment, thus in turn society,” the report noted.
Neuropublic, an IT company, explained that new technologies would help farmers increase their production by applying precise quantities of inputs at the most appropriate time, while at the same time protecting the environment.
They can also be more profitable and competitive, by both reducing production costs and increasing yields.
“Precision farming is a safe way to measure the environmental footprint of farming; a farmer will be able to know what environmental impact his production has […] it’s not about punishment, it’s about enhancing farmers’ role as public goods providers and guaranteeing a fair remuneration for their efforts,” Neuropublic’s Panagiotis Ilias told EURACTIV, adding that at the same time, it would be an opportunity to bring all the relevant food chain actors on the same page to jointly face future challenges.
The expert also stressed that precision farming practices would inevitably contribute to better food quality, considering that precise amounts of agrochemicals will be used (thus avoiding excess) as well as the exact proportion of other natural resources (e.g. water) will be applied, always based on the precise needs of the crops.
Neuropublic’s smart farming services focus on the optimisation of cultivation practices, such as fertilisation, plant protection and irrigation. The expert cited an example of an olive grower, saying that he used to over irrigate his olive groves.
After mapping the olive trees’ active root system allocation in the soil and the needs of the trees in terms of water in that specific location and weather conditions, now he is using an optimised irrigation system.
“It uses fewer natural resources as less water is wasted and the organoleptic characteristics of the product are much better, allowing for a premium price with lower production costs,” he explained.
The STOA report also noted that food safety sensor-based monitoring systems would provide farmers, processors and other stakeholders with better information and early warning on the quality of food products.
“Precision farming will contribute more and more to food safety […] it will make farming more transparent by improving tracking, tracing and documenting,” the report stressed, underlining that crop and livestock monitoring will give better predictions on the quality of agricultural products and the food chain will be easier to monitor for producers, retailers, and customers.
Contacted by EURACTIV, a European Commission spokesperson said that precision farming technologies can help farmers meet marketing standards by better control over different attributes required by food markets.
“Technologies can enhance a ‘transparent farming’ better informing European consumers about food attributes,” the EU official added.
A limited role
The UN estimates that the global population will rise to more than 9.7 billion in 2050 and exceed 11.2 billion by 2100, and it has called for a dramatic increase in food production.
This is the main argument of the agri-food industry, which has reached out to niche agricultural markets and is pushing for the digitisation of the farming sector.
However, green NGOs do not share this approach. Referring to data by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Greenpeace argues that the world already produces more than one-and-a-half times more food than is needed to feed everyone on the planet.
The agency notes that for the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth and attributes high hunger levels to poverty and inequality, not scarcity.
There are people who earn less than $2 a day and cannot afford to buy this food, Greenpeace points out.
Faustine Bas-Defossez, policy manager for Agriculture and Bioenergy at the European Environmental Bureau (EBB), has a similar view.
“It’s time to move away from the ‘we need to feed the world’ narrative as justification for increasing food production,” she told EURACTIV, adding that, in fact, at current levels of food production there is enough food to feed 12 billion people.
She also stressed that food poverty was a result of other societal problems such as unfair distribution, inequality, and food waste.
Bas-Defossez admitted that to some extent precision farming could help reduce artificial inputs and use them in a more targeted way to avoid runoff which pollutes the environment.
“But precision farming is associated with the use of expensive heavy machinery which represents significant up-front investment costs for farmers, this comes with the risk of locking them into a single overproduction model of farming as they need to sell more to pay off the debts they incurred buying the pricey equipment,” Bas-Defossez stated, adding that if the future CAP is to promote this model of farming as the predominant one there is “a risk that other alternatives are underfunded and undermined”.
The EEB claims that precision farming’s role should remain limited and public money should instead be used to help farmers work in harmony with nature and protect the natural resources they rely on to produce safe and healthy food.
“The future does not solely lie in technology […] The best machinery in the world cannot be used if your soil is dead and you’ve got no more water – you simply cannot produce food,” the activist said.
“Trying to find solutions in nature is not a step backward; it is smart innovation. Techniques such as natural pest control mechanisms, smart crop rotation systems, and ecological focus areas are the first steps towards food security,” Bas-Defossez concluded.
Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner Phil Hogan recently stressed, “Our farmers and related actors will have to focus on the challenge and innovate as never before”.
“But this challenge also provides huge and unquestionable opportunities for our producers. Because when they start to lead from the front in terms of sustainable intensification, they will be delivering products of the highest quality with impeccable environmental credentials. That's what the market wants,” he added.
Faustine Bas-Defossez, Policy Manager for Agriculture and Bioenergy at the European Environmental Bureau (EBB), said, “Any benefits gained from increased production volumes are cancelled out by their staggering environmental price tag: soil is being lost at an alarming rate, wildlife is on the decline, our freshwater resources are being polluted by excess use of fertilisers and pesticides, and our air is polluted with unhealthy levels of ammonia, fine dust, and methane from animal manure and synthetic fertilisers”.
“Mass production of cheap food across the EU has driven the destruction of our natural resources, endangering the future of our food chain and threatening Europe’s very ability to produce the food and the resources it needs. We don’t need to produce more, we need to produce better […] Farming and food consumption need to be brought under the same policy umbrella, and public money should only pay for farms which protect soil, help foster pollination, protect against flooding, and carry out vital carbon storage in soil and vegetation,” she stated.
Oliver Loebel, secretary general of the European federation of national associations of drinking water suppliers and waste water services (EurEau), told EURACTIV, “It is high time for integrated thinking – and acting - on water and agriculture, since these two vital sectors have direct benefits to and impacts on each other”.
“We very much support precision farming practices, as they help protect our precious water resources while utilising water in the most efficient way. We also support Commission plans to propose binding minimum standards for reusing treated waste water to irrigate farmland. This will also help conserve water supplies,” Loebel said,
“Without a safe, secure and affordable supply of food, society cannot and will not function. And without a reliable source of water, agriculture cannot be sustainable,” he emphasised.
Floriana Cimmarusti, secretary-general of Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE), commented, “As precision farming will use more adequately natural resources like water and will mitigate the use of pesticides in crops, SAFE welcomes the positive opportunity offered to consumers to eat healthier food”.
“Therefore, SAFE advocates for a new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) based on shorter food supply circuits, sustainable agriculture aiming at developing agroecology and preserving biodiversity,” she added.
Precision farming involves data-based technologies, including satellite positioning systems like GPS, remote sensing and the Internet, to manage crops and reduce the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water.
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 irrigation, fertilisers, insecticides, and herbicides are applied uniformly throughout the field, ignoring any variability.
The quality of products is improved as a result and energy consumption reduced.