SPECIAL REPORT / The introduction of new information and communications technologies in the EU agricultural sector could significantly contribute to its future sustainability, as well as the quality of life for farmers and consumers.
The new Common Agricultural Policy for 2014-2020 prioritises innovation in order to help the sector adapt to the new competitive environment, and promote “greener” policies.
In a recent interview with EurActiv, Phil Hogan, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, talked about an “Agri-tech revolution” and the use of advanced ICT at all stages in the food chain on the farm, through to processing and retailing.
“Such innovations will improve the quality of crop production, the quality of livestock health, but also, crucially, the quality of life for farmers,” he noted.
Irish farmers getting “mobile”
Herdwatch is a cloud-based farming app which allows cattle farmers manage their beef or dairy herds via a smartphone, tablet or computer.
It started 3 years ago in Ireland, as a small project between the FRS Network, a farmer-owned Irish co-operative, and their IT Manager, Fabien Peyaud, who came up with the initial concept, and conducted most of the research and development since.
FRS started looking for ways to help farmers become more efficient through the use of technology, and discovered that over 90% of cattle farmers did not use any form of computerised herd management system.
The Herdwatch Team ran farmer focus groups, attended agricultural events and discussion groups in order to connect with farmers face to face and determine what they were looking for.
Herdwatch is using innovative mobile technology to enable livestock farmers around Ireland, the EU and the world to spend as little time as possible on farm compliance and paperwork, so they can spend as much time as possible adding value to their business, which feeds billions of people.
Currently, more than 1,300 farmers are using this farming app, and its founders have already started the plans for the expansion of the app in the EU.
“Farmers live the quintessential “nomad” lifestyle, always on the go, and despite the popular urban perception, they are a technologically strong group of people, and it makes perfect sense for them to adopt mobile technology to improve their lifestyle and make them more efficient,” Peyaud told EurActiv.
He continued, stressing that it gave farmers exactly what they were looking for.
“A truly mobile herd management solution, which saves them time, gives them peace of mind and is both easy to use and value for money, at less than €2 a week.”
“Compliance and traceability are key for EU consumer confidence, and therefore, it’s critical to EU farm businesses trying to access new markets, but it is also an extra administrative burden which Herdwatch helps reduce greatly. Our farmers never have to use pen or paper in order to be compliant,” he added.
“Map your meal”
But smart farming apps could also benefit farmers and consumers.
“Map your meal” is an agriculture-related smartphone application which aims at enhancing the public awareness understanding of global interdependence via exploring the global food system.
The partners of the project, Future Worlds Center (Cyprus), Sudwind (Austria), C.E.G.A (Bulgaria), Fair Trade Hellas (Greece), and CDEC (UK) are planning to launch the EU-funded application in April. Currently is it in the research phase.
With this smartphone application, farmers and consumers will “scan” the products to see their “fairness” and “how much green” they are.
They will be aware of selected products’ journey, tracing each step of the way, from production to selling, as well as the product’s socioeconomic and environmental impact on farmers, work and local communities (Fairness and Greenness indicator).
“Consuming in a responsible way regarding fairness and greenness is a citizen’s act like our vote is. Our food choices really matter in our interconnected world”, Kelly Garifalli, a researcher for the Map Your Meal app, told EurActiv.
Consumers will also have the opportunity to be informed about a possible usage of GMOs and pesticides in the ingredients and in the production process, the extent to which the ingredients used are fairly traded, and the distance of transportation for each product.
The database of the application currently under development will be gradually enriched with more and more products.
“We are planning a public launch of the smartphone app with street actions in city centers, in front of supermarkets, in April,” Garifalli added.
The role of EU digital policy
Dr Adam Ulrich, Secretary General of the European Agricultural Machinery (CEMA), told EurActiv that the EU Digital Policy should play an important role in accompanying and supporting the truly transformative path that lies ahead.
“Digital technologies are set to transform the world of agriculture in the years ahead and will fundamentally reshape the agri-food value chain in Europe and beyond,” he said.
He stressed that a smart regulatory framework was needed which would help to unlock the full potential of the digital economy in European agriculture and rural areas.
“This [framework] will empower relevant actors to master and manage the upcoming digital transition in a sustainable and inclusive way.”
According to Ulrich, a dedicated Commission taskforce should be put in place to formulate a coherent EU policy strategy to promote the digital transformation in European agriculture and rural areas and improve broadband infrastructure in rural Europe for rapidly growing data flows.
The European Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy, outlined on 26 March, brought farm policy into the digital picture for the first time by associating the EU’s Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan with the team of contributors.
The promotion of hi-tech in agriculture, including a move towards precision farming, was already part of the programme of the previous Commission, with initiatives such as theEIP-AGRI innovation partnership. Precision farming involves data-based technologies, including satellite navigation tools and the Internet, to manage crops, and reduce the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water.
Hi-tech farming is being actively promoted by the European Commission, and is eligible for funding under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s €50-billion a year agriculture support programme.