Leftist MEP: EU left should in ‘no way’ turn its back on agriculture’s digitisation

Petros Kokkalis is a member of the Confederal Group of the European United Left - Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL) of the European Parliament. [Photo by Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The European left should under no circumstances turn its back on the digital transition of agriculture and give the floor to neoliberal political forces to further “marginalise” smallholders, Petros Kokkalis, a leftist MEP, told EURACTIV.com in an interview.

“The European progressive forces must, therefore, open their doors wide because conservatives and neo-liberals are trying to do exactly the opposite: to open the doors just wide enough for the few powerful people to pass,” he said.

This, he added, practically means that the rest, the marginalised farmer groups and smallholders or the “digitally illiterate”, will stay behind.

“And don’t be fooled, they are trying to increase the dependence of all farmers on those who will manage data,” Kokkalis added.

Petros Kokkalis is a member of the Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL-Syriza) of the European Parliament. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Network Editor Sarantis Michalopoulos at the EU Parliament plenary in Strasbourg in September. 

The full interview follows:

How can we ensure that the EU agricultural sector adapts to the challenge of climate change while at the same time, will not add another financial burden to European farmers?

This is an essential question for us, the politicians, and at the same time a great challenge. Let me start with something that is not so widely known: The climate crisis is already affecting Europe’s agricultural and livestock production. According to a report by the European Environment Agency, it is estimated that by 2050 in the EU, there will be a 16% loss of agricultural income. Even greater will be the loss in the countries of Europe’s South, such as Greece.

In other words, we will either adapt our agri-food production in a timely manner to the new situation or ignore the problem and we will be faced with chain crises, derivatives of the climate crisis. You are rightly asking how this is going to happen without causing a significant financial burden for our farmers.

Let’s start with the ‘good news’: The plan has been approved at the European level since 2013, so there is the “Climate Change Adaptation Strategy” plan that addresses all three levels at the European, national and local levels. There are also the Regional Climate Change Adaptation Plans, where the agri-food sector belongs to the ‘high vulnerability’ sectors and specific measures are proposed.

Is there bad news as well?

Of course! Because we have to turn theoretical planning into implementation and this is where a system always breaks. First of all, bold policy initiatives are needed to make tailor-made plans, to set measurable goals, to encourage private investment, and above all to understand the involvement of not only farmers but all stakeholders in the agri-food system. We have the opportunity with the new 2021-2027 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) because it has a clear objective of adapting to climate change.

It, therefore, encompasses a number of relevant measures, such as investments in land improvement, flood protection, risk management (e.g. agricultural insurance), agri-environmental and ecological programs for sustainable agriculture and food production, as well as innovation, training and agricultural advice. So it is up to us to take advantage of both finance and know-how to move in a timely manner towards a smooth transition.

The previous leftist Greek government (Syriza) came up for the first time with a comprehensive plan to digitise the agricultural sector, something that has been praised by the European Commission. What’s the current state-of-play?

The previous government had set as a strategic goal the transformation of the agricultural sector and production from conventional farming to smart and modern methods, through the use of new technologies. That is the creation of public infrastructure for the digitisation of Greek agriculture. It’s the so-called “Digital Transformation of the Agricultural Sector” project.

The project concerns the construction of ground, air and water data collection stations, which will then be accessible not only to the farmers themselves but also to the business and scientific community. Memoranda of Understanding have been signed with Universities to create a national platform of valuable data in every respect. Indeed, Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan acknowledged that this project “will be a model of best practice that other countries can follow”.

The digital transformation of the agricultural sector is the only option not only for Greece but also for Europe. It is a progressive one-way street.

How could smart farming apply in Greece, given the fragmented land there?

This is the most widespread ‘objection’: How can precision agriculture be implemented in a country with smallholdings.

I am not sure that it is always “good faith” or conceals denial of progress. Let me tell you first, that in the last 10 years, different technologies have evolved rapidly with amazing results. The 4th industrial revolution brings about radical changes in agriculture using technologies such as VRT (variable-rate technology) or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) using sensors and of course Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).

But beyond these tools, a great example of how digital transformation could be implemented are the regional centres of “smart agri-hubs” innovation

Let’s say an “agro-ecosystem” consisting of local government, research/academia, innovation consultants, farmers, businesses, and representatives of the civil society. They all work with other bodies at the national, European and international levels; however, their premises are locally located to provide easy and immediate access to every farmer and local business, access to the knowledge, innovation and skills needed for the digital transition. Consequently, I tell you that it is precisely because of the smallholdings that we have to go through the transformation faster than anyone else.

Do you have any practical examples in Greece?

In Greece, believe it or not, there are a number of serious conferences, competitions, etc. organised in partnership with universities, professional organizations, businesses and administration. Structures, centres, innovation platforms are being set up and we have a large number of start-ups in the agri-food sector.

In 2018, among other things, I supported and participated actively in the organisation of two thematic innovation competitions, held for the first time in Greece, for two of our country’s most important products, wine and oil. The VitiVini LAB Innovation Competition was organised by the Organisation of Vine and Wine, with my support via Aephoria.net.

Excellent proposals were presented such as electronic temperature monitoring throughout the transport of bottle wine, energy production from the by-products of winemaking etc. The Olive Challenge competition, which I supported in collaboration with the Filios Olive Oil Club, also featured innovative ideas in digital applications such as fruit ripening prediction etc.

My experience has confirmed what I have been already assuming, that there is a great deal of know-how in the field and people ready to transform the agri-food sector…. if we allow them to do so of course! Because in Greece we have a talent for putting obstacles to progress and innovation.

However, the position of the European left regarding the digitalisation of the agricultural sector through the introduction of new technologies has been sceptical so far.

In April 2019, the then leftist government signed with the other 23 EU member states a declaration of co-operation on “A smart and sustainable digital future for European agriculture and the countryside”. So the Greek Left and I, of course, say “yes”… Our reservation is for the model so that we don’t find ourselves in digital oligopolies a few years later.

The transition to a digitalised agri-food sector should, therefore, be smart, equitable and sustainable. Ensure that all farmers and local businesses have access to open data with up-to-date innovation and entrepreneurship services. The transition to a new era for the agricultural sector is linked to investments in technological infrastructure and costs of use that are not, at least initially, possible for all farmers.

Small farmers in Greece and elsewhere in southern Europe, in particular, may not be able to keep up with the lack of knowledge or investment funds. It is our duty to intervene and support them vigorously so that they can move into the new age smoothly but under no circumstances should the Left turn its back on the digital transition of agriculture.

In a few words, the left, as well as the Greens, should keep the door open for new technologies in EU agriculture.

Look, nowadays European farmers are faced with numerous challenges: increasing competition, growing needs for quality and safe food production, climate change, natural disasters etc. I believe that the 4th industrial revolution and new technologies will provide solutions on the condition that the transition is made fairly, leaving no one behind.

The European progressive forces must, therefore, open their doors wide because conservatives and neo-liberals are trying to do exactly the opposite: to open the doors just wide enough so that the few powerful people can pass… and the rest, the marginalised farmer groups and smallholders or the “digitally illiterate” to stay behind. And don’t be fooled, they are trying to increase the dependence of all farmers on those who will manage data.

European farmers, therefore, have the right to demand the EU support in taking advantage of the findings of agricultural research, to be entitled to access to new technologies, knowledge and skills required for their adoption and access to finance to implement the digital transformation of the agri-food sector. And in these claims, we are on their side and we are their voice.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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