Although previously greeted with scepticism, precision farming is gaining more and more relevance among farmers and lawmakers. Even EU auditors are now extolling the high value of the information provided by digital tools in agriculture.
If you have heard about precision farming only in terms of increasing productivity, connecting rural areas, greening agricultural practices and, in general, making farmers’ life easier, you probably don’t expect EU auditors to be at the forefront of those pushing for it.
“We are now a bit more technological in agriculture,” a European Court of Auditors (ECA) senior official told EURACTIV.com.
“Satellites, the Land Parcel Identification System (LPIS), geospatial aid applications and increasingly Copernicus have given farmers and us quite a lot of information in agriculture and I think we can make use of that,” he continued.
A fully integrated satellite-based system, combining, for instance, Earth observation data provided by Copernicus and high-performance Galileo signals, lower the number of administrative checks, making them easier.
In particular, all agricultural parcels in the member states are controlled with LPIS, an IT system already set out under the past Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) based on aerial or satellite photographs recording and designed to verify eligibility for area-based subsidies.
According to the ECA senior official, with these tools, they are able to clarify what is happening in a field sometimes without even visiting a farm, saving also financial resources.
Auditors extensively employed all these digital tools in their last report on the regularity of the European financial transactions, which is intended to spot if and where the EU public money already spent was affected by errors.
In this year’s qualified opinion, auditors found out few irregularities under the CAP scheme, leading them to the conclusions that direct payments, as a whole, were free from material error.
Digital tools could be helpful for monitoring the effectiveness of public spending under the new CAP, which should have much higher ambitions in terms of being related to performance and compliance.
“And we are very much in favour of that objective. But if you want to get there, you have to be measuring the right things,” the ECA official said.
For instance, not everything under the new CAP objectives can be measured with satellites. “With pesticide use, you can’t, so there is already the question on how to measures what can’t be checked by satellites,” he added.
The ECA official also hinted of a potential problem of digital tools’ rejection for the very reason that they better control practices. “I understand that most farmers don’t like to be spied on from the sky,” he admitted.
However, he also recognised that some member states are starting to use satellites information proactively. “And I think this is useful,” he concluded.
He gave the example of some administrations that help farmers in planning the times for planting and other farming practices by sending them e-mails based on the data they collect with satellites.
In this regard, the fact that EU satellite-based systems such as Galileo and Copernicus were developed for civilian use, unlike Russian and US ones originally conceived for military purposes, opens a lot of possibilities for public administrations and even innovative businesses to provide a wide array of services for farmers in the future.
Pressure on Wojciechowski
Despite having been an EU Auditor from 2016 to nowadays, the Agriculture Commissioner-designate Janusz Wojciechowski forgot to mention precision farming in his first unsuccessful hearing before the European Parliament’s Agriculture (AGRI) Committee.
Wojciechowski paid dearly for the lack of focus on innovation in agriculture, as it was harshly contested by MEPs among the reasons behind Commissioner-designate’s first rejection.
Before giving him a second shot and hearing him again, lawmakers explicitly asked the Pole to answer some written questions, one of them related to his take on potential innovation in the agricultural sector.
And he wrote this time that digitalisation of agriculture through the internet of things (IoT) and precision farming has enormous potential to foster the sustainability of the sector and of the whole value chain, from the production to consumption.
However, he pointed out the issue that the already available knowledge is not sufficiently used or useable by the farming community. “The farmers need to take ownership of new technologies, new business models and new forms of cooperation,” he said.
In his second hearing, Wojciechowski also said that agriculture needs innovations “such as GPS in tractors, digital technology in the countryside and smart villages that should be used also to attract young people.”
A similar remark made at a recent EURACTIV event by centre-right MEP Franc Bogovič, who spoke about how to transfer the new technologies to the young farmers and making them more affordable.
“We speak a lot about efficiency, sustainability and how to attract young people to stay in the farms. Through precision farming, you can make this work easier,” he said adding that “you can also make farming sexy and fancy.”