Agri-machinery expert: EU CAP should go digital to be ‘green and attractive’

Adam: "We definitely need to avoid the risk of a digital divide in EU agriculture." [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The post-2020 EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) should include targeted support measures for farmers to invest in precision farming technologies with proven environmental benefits, Ulrich Adam said in an interview with euractiv.com.

Ulrich Adam is the Secretary General of the European Agricultural Machinery Industry Association (CEMA).

Adam spoke with Sarantis Michalopoulos.

The discussion about the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has begun. Is there room for digital farming? Could it be the “third pillar”?

We need a strong CAP for a strong European agriculture. And, in our view, supporting innovation and the digital transformation in farming should be strong elements of the next CAP. I’m not sure we have to add another pillar for this, particularly at a time when most farmers feel the CAP has grown far too complex already. But we should seriously think about how we could add elements of something like a digital greening scheme.

Smart farming trying to find its feet in EU agriculture

The EU Common Agricultural Policy after 2020 should mobilise both direct payments and rural development pillars, in order to pave the way for the introduction of much-needed digital technologies in the farming sector, experts in precision agriculture told EURACTIV.com.

In other words, devising targeted support measures for farmers in the CAP to invest in technologies like precision or digital farming, which have proven environmental benefits. After all, using public money to accelerate technology uptake so as to achieve broader societal goals or public goods is an established approach in many other sectors of society – why not try more of this in agriculture in the quest to reap the full agronomic and environmental benefits of digital farming?

Smart farming has already developed in some EU countries, especially in Northern Europe, while some others are still lagging behind. Don’t you fear that the introduction of new technologies in the farming sector will eventually create a two-speed agriculture?

We definitely need to avoid the risk of a digital divide in EU agriculture. From a farm machinery point of view, we believe this can be done. The key concept here is partial digitisation. Partial digitisation can be a sensible and achievable step for any farmer wanting to advance on the path of digital farming. For instance, even a farmer with old analogue machines can partially digitise them by adding relatively inexpensive digital support tools to them such as, for instance, so-called Bluetooth beacons.

If installed on a tractor or combine harvester they allow the vehicle to be clearly identified. Any vehicle, whatever its age, manufacturers or purpose, can be fitted with such beacons which, in turn, can be connected to smartphones and thus be embedded in modern cloud-based farm management software systems.

Farming machinery sales dropped in 2016 and there is a similar projection for 2017. What are the main reasons behind that and what do you plan to do to reverse this trend?

The ability of farmers to invest in new machines greatly depends on farm income levels which, in turn, depend on the current prices for milk, wheat and other agricultural raw materials. Like our customers, we are happy to see that prices, for instance, in the milk sector, have recently recovered again. As an industry serving the farming sector, we need to be acutely aware of these trends on the demand side and react to them, yet it is not up to us to shape or, let alone, reverse them.

Agriculture market crisis hits machinery sales

Affected by the ongoing crisis in EU agricultural markets, the European agricultural machinery industry is expected to face further losses this year, after suffering a decline in sales in 2015.

Another far more immediate and worrying trend for our industry are the regulatory compliance costs for farm machines in the EU which have risen sharply in recent years. One fundamental problem with much of EU regulation of farm machines has been that it has been directly based on EU legislation for the cars industry and was simply extended to us. However, the farm machinery and automotive industries are not comparable at all.

In fact, in terms of their size, structural set-up, commercial realities, and end-use of the final products, they follow entirely different trends. As such, we need far more tailor-made EU industrial policies for the farm machinery sector if we really want to boost the industry’s innovative power and competitiveness on the supply-side.

Organic farmers recently stressed that the new CAP should be linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. How feasible is this?

Organic farmers call for sustainability-driven CAP payments

The EU Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM EU) yesterday (19 January) sent a letter to EU Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner Phil Hogan, calling for a “fundamentally new approach” to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Partially yes, partially no. To perform agriculture properly and secure long-term supply of food, it is important to adopt sustainable production patterns and avoid soil and land degradation, so – here – we’re talking about SDGs 12 and 15. So, yes, these aspects do have a relevance for Europe and the CAP.

Also, agriculture bears a certain share in global CO2 emissions, so we need to move towards reduced emissions in farming if we want reach SDG 13. Again here, Europe has a role to play even if the immediate EU policy tool here is rather the current LULUCF proposal than the CAP.

Agricultural innovation: A driver for sustainability?

As the global population continues to grow, lawmakers are looking for innovation-driven solutions to feed the world while addressing the environmental impact of agriculture.

 

Other SDGs are probably more about development policy than European agricultural policy. In developing countries, agricultural advancement is a trend that has shown to help reduce poverty in rural areas so it’s central for reaching SDG 1 and of course can take a major role in achieving SDG 2 (End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture).

How could the EU farming sector contribute to this? Is the digital push part of the solution (precision farming)?

The EU farming sector should be a global leader in the quest for, and adoption of, ever more resource-efficient and sustainable production patterns. Here, the digital push and precision farming are central parts of the solution: there is plenty of evidence that precision agriculture can have significant beneficial effects on yields and the environment in both high-tech and low-tech farming systems.

A recent modelling exercise by the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) even singled out precision agriculture as the technology with the greatest CO2-saving potential in European agriculture until 2030. So, on an aggregated level, the positive contributions of digital technology and precision farming in Europe could be tremendous.

There is a big discussion in the EU about science and policy-making. Could innovation co-exist with public opinion?

In the case of innovations in digital technology for farming, certainly yes. All of us now have smartphones with the power of a supercomputer of a few decades ago in our pockets, so making the best use of such technologies in farming is perfectly aligned with public opinion. Even more so, in the best case, digital technology could help to make farming once again a more attractive sector to work for or in for a much broader number of people.

McGuinness: The balance between science and public opinion is ‘difficult’

Scientists should be more open about their findings, and lawmakers need to take the time to read and reflect on them. But today, with the rise of social media, it is difficult to strike the right balance between science and public opinion, MEP Mairead McGuinness told EURACTIV.com.