Digitalisation in agriculture: Mission impossible?

Digitalised agriculture is still a far ways off for many places in Germany. [Shutterstock | Panumas Yanuthai]

The German Agriculture Ministry and the European Agricultural Research Initiative examined what politics and research can do to effectively tackle the problem of digitisation in agriculture at an online conference on Wednesday (2 December). EURACTIV Germany reports.

In Germany, hardly a month goes by without a debate about broadband expansion, digital schools or public authorities.

Since the pandemic started, there has been a real digital boost in many areas. More and more applications can now be submitted online, and although online teaching in schools does not yet function properly, it can now be done to a large extent.

However, digitisation is not making progress everywhere. In agriculture, it is often still in its infancy. At best, large farms have comprehensive IT that digitally records feeding quantities, orders, or logistics. Smaller family-run businesses are still a long way off.

Digitalisation could make a contribution to environmental protection and more sustainability in this sector.

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“Digitalisation not at any price”

For this reason, the theme of this year’s conference of the non-governmental organisation EURAGRI is digitalisation. With its conferences and workshops, the NGO offers a platform for the exchange between political, economic and scientific actors for the strategic management of problems in the field of agriculture. Given Germany’s current EU Council Presidency, the BMEL is a co-organiser of the two-day conference.

There are many starting points for a digital transformation of the agricultural sector, but not all of them make sense.

“Digitalisation at any price is not reasonable. In the dairy farms, with all the robots and the sensors to monitor the milking process, digitalisation makes sense, but not necessarily in arable farming,” Bettina Heimann, Secretary General of EURAGRI, said in an interview with EURACTIV Germany.

However, she believes that research can help find out where the gaps are and then fill them.

Cost-benefit calculations also play a role: “Many of the digital solutions are very expensive, but because they come from different manufacturers, the systems may not speak to each other.” In many cases, a switch to a fully digitalised feedlot is therefore not worthwhile financially, because the benefits are ultimately limited.

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Legal questions on the data

The next problem in the use of digital technologies is data processing and the ownership of data. Legally, it is still not clear to whom collected data belongs: the manufacturers of the technologies, the owners of the equipment or the farmers who use them?

This includes Big Data for precision farming, such as weather data and information on soil and fertiliser quality. But it’s also about sustainability, environmental protection and animal welfare, because large amounts of data can help keep land and livestock healthy.

Rainer Spiering, agricultural policy spokesman for the Social Democrat (SPD) parliamentary group, says that there must be quick clarification of the data policy issues, as otherwise it would be left to the large agricultural companies, which are already investing in digitalisation, to increase their market power based on their data.

“A state platform on which companies provide their data would prevent large companies from controlling this data. This would help small and medium-sized companies to maintain their independence,” he said

Spiering and his group therefore demand that financial resources be made available to farmers for digital data collection and that they in turn make their landscape and environmental protection data available.

However, it is not a question of gaining economic control over farmers, Spiering stresses.

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Digitalisation is not part of the CAP

The provision of financial resources for digitalization does not have to be the responsibility of individual countries alone.

At European level, discussions on the EU’s future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are currently taking place with a key question being how the CAP can promote sustainable agriculture going forward.

The BMEL is convinced that digitalisation can contribute to greater sustainability and climate protection. Nevertheless, this topic has so far been missing from the agenda of the CAP negotiations.

For Spiering, this is a mystery. He hopes that in the future farmers will be able to use the data digitally collected to submit applications for CAP subsidies. But for this to happen the digital infrastructure would first have to be built.

Heimann does not believe that farms can achieve the transformation to digitalised agriculture without public funding, saying “Farmers are under great economic pressure. If you expect them to be sustainable, then you have to pay them for it.”

However, agriculture is not all the same, she added. Since farms and conditions differ everywhere, one cannot treat them the same.

At the conference, representatives from politics, research, industry and agricultural practice will have the opportunity to discuss the important issues of digitalisation.

Everyone agreed that we need to make future-oriented decisions. However, it remains to be seen how much of this exchange will ultimately be addressed in the political negotiations.

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