This article is part of our special report How is tech revolutionising the agricultural sector?.
Technology can already be found everywhere on French farms, but the so-called “agri-tech” trend wants to push innovation even further. Two hundred fifty of France’s start-ups are already specialising in agriculture and working towards developing software, drones, robots, artificial intelligence and satellites. EURACTIV France reports.
Since the time of draft horses, which were still being used in the 1960s, high-tech has been making its way into European agriculture at a rapid pace. Yet, if horses are making a big comeback for certain farming activities, such as organic viticulture, it is still at a very small scale.
“Today we have almost autonomous tractors, which hardly need drivers anymore,” said Stéphane Marcel, head of digital technology at InVivo. Guidance technologies, the use of satellites to geo-locate operations, but also smartphones, software and even drones are now an integral part of the daily lives of farmers.
In France, agronomic research, which has always been widely supported by public authorities, has now shifted towards what is known as “agri-tech”.
Does it mean producing more with less? Better and closer to the customer? At a distance but without labour? Or even sustainably? But while the keyword is innovation, the motivations leading to ‘agri-tech’ are multiple.
The association ‘Ferme Digitale’, paradoxically located in the Paris suburbs, includes 45 projects which are attempting to establish digital technology on farms. Its objectives include the development of organic fertilisers, setting up marketplaces to avoid Amazon, as well as creating decision-support software or even the participative financing platform, known as Miimosa.
In total, nearly 250 start-ups in France are focusing on the agricultural sector. On the cooperative side, the InVivo group, which brings together 3,000 companies, is also developing a more expansive range of tech products and services.
For example, the group’s Smag software covers 10 million hectares of France’s agricultural territory. The software gives farmers access to cross-referenced information on their smartphone, including about the weather, optimum spraying dates, seeds, fertilisation plans (addition of nitrogen) and regulatory compliance.
And the consumer who buys his/her baguette every day is unaware of the tech involved, though it is so omnipresent in his diet.
“In France, it is often complicated regulatory constraints that drive the use of software, whereas elsewhere, technologies are developed to optimise productivity,” said Stéphane Marcel.
Between respecting grassed strips or watercourses, farmers must keep records that can be computerised. Software is also very present in animal husbandry, mainly because of the complexity of veterinary management.
The new wave of “AgTech” is also producing more specific innovations, particularly when it comes to precision farming. This involves mapping and monitoring geological and then plant data for a field so that inputs can be adapted to suit ultra-localised needs.
The Be Api company thus proposes to map land very precisely and to propose, according to the levels of fertility and exposure within the same plot, different treatments: increasing or decreasing the number of seeds, water, nitrogen, herbicide, etc. Precision farming is thus seen as a solution to pesticides: the technology allows for the adjustment and reduction of pesticide application.
Algorithms and satellites to monitor what is happening in the fields
High-tech is not only present at the developmental stage of the agricultural sector since the control of the entire Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is also evolving thanks to the reinforcement of the algorithms. The €59 billion allocated to farmers is often subject to fraud, something the paying agencies are trying to reduce.
Aid is allocated according to specific criteria, which are also costs for the farmer, who has a potential interest in preserving certain information from the paying agency, as analysed by the OECD in its report on “Digital Opportunities in Agricultural Policies“. Satellite imagery may now offer an answer to this problem.
In partnership with the European Space Agency, two satellites, Sentinels 1 and 2, provide permanent and precise images of agricultural plots, with ultra-precise information which includes the type of crop and the exact size of the plots of land.
The technology is also able to analyse whether the land is fallow or not. The data is distributed in open source, which makes developers happy for the data-driven part of agriculture.
In terms of monitoring agricultural activity subject to the CAP, Italy, Spain and Belgium, in particular, are already using them to determine whether or not to grant area aid, which accounts for nearly 80% of the funding.
But this is an insufficient number of countries according to the European Court of Auditors, which deplores the fact that the Commission has not yet validated the methodologies of other EU member states wishing to use satellite data.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Gerardo Fortuna]