EU looks at technology to make farms greener

PesticidesTractor.jpg

This article is part of our special report Agriculture.

One way of meeting the European Union's goal of ensuring sustainability and competitiveness of the farming sector is through green technologies, says Janez Poto?nik, the EU’s environment commissioner.

The latest technological advances can slash waste and improve productivity, the environment chief told agricultural industry and policy leaders this week.

Phosphorus, an essential crop nutrient that must be imported, is a leading source of water pollution mainly due to agricultural runoff, Poto?nik said.

“It is clear that there are many technologies and societal adjustments that could significantly improve the resource efficiency of this and other finite natural resources,” he said at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Brussels on 27 March.

The latest technological advances can slash waste and improve productivity, the environment chief told agricultural industry and policy leaders this week.

Phosphorus, an essential crop nutrient that must be imported, is a leading source of water pollution mainly due to agricultural runoff, Poto?nik said.

“It is clear that there are many technologies and societal adjustments that could significantly improve the resource efficiency of this and other finite natural resources,” he said at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Brussels on 27 March.

“Many of them are relatively low cost and need some political impetus to be taken up.”

Funding agricultural research

The EU executive has proposed more funding for research and development linked to the ecology and resource efficiency in the LIFE+ environment fund, Horizon 2020 research programme, and the post-2013 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Policymakers are also calling for more coordination and shared funding to maximise the impact of public money in a time of fiscal austerity.

More than 300 research projects related to agriculture have been funded in the EU’s current framework programme for research and development.

Recently funded projects include research into drought-resistant seeds, hand-held sensors using nanotechnology to detect even tiny amounts of contamination of ground water, and water purification.

In separate research that could benefits for farmers globally, the Austrian laboratories of the International Atomic Energy Agency – better know for inspecting nuclear sites and verifying fission weapons treaties – are using nuclear techniques to monitor groundwater levels and to develop nuclear micro sensors to improve the efficiency of irrigation.

“Investments in research and development have proven to give a high return rate in other sectors, and agriculture is certainly not an exception,” Poto?nik said.

The EU executive plans additional support for research and development in the next round of CAP funding – pencilling in €5.1 billion out of the proposed €435.6 billion for 2014-2020.

Agribusinesses seek to catch the opportunity

The agribusiness industry sees advantages to boosting farm research and technology – higher productivity at lower cost.

Yara, a global fertiliser company, has developed mobile optical sensors that can measure crop nitrogen needs. The Norwegian-based company says its tractor-mounted and handheld devices have been shown to cut fuel consumption and reduce fertiliser use while boosting crop yields.

The tractor-mounted devices cost upwards of €35,000 while devices slightly bulkier than a mobile telephone cost around €2,000. The hand-held device pays for itself in a couple of years through reduced fertiliser and fuel use, the company says.

This and other evolving technologies that cut plant nutrient and pesticide use could help address what the European Environment Agency has identified as a leading pollution threat in Europe – excess chemicals from farming. More than 90% of the EU’s river basins are affected by nitrate and phosphorous pollution, the EU executive reports.

Egil Hogna, senior vice president Yara International, told EURACTIV that having a technology edge is important but that Europe needs to consider its own productivity. He cited industry figures showing that EU commodity imports equal to nearly one-third of its arable land.

“For the European Union, this is a fundamental question, and also an ethical question: Is it sustainable in the future that we continue to rely so much on food production on other continents instead of taking the responsibility for our own population and feed it?” Hogna said.

“We need to regain the focus on productivity because if we want to conserve our forests and wildlife habitats, we need to maximise the production on the agricultural land,” Hogna said in an interview.

Driving smaller farmers out of business?

Some critics say the EU executive’s CAP proposals go in the opposite direction, for example by calling for reducing land under cultivation and introducing measures to diversify crops.

Farm groups, MEPs and some national leaders fear such measures would drive smaller farmers out of business and limit yields at a time of rising global food demand.

But Poto?nik defended the so-called greening proposals made by Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolo?.

Environmental stewardship must be “at the heart of the agricultural policy,” Poto?nik told the farming conference.

“Reconciling agricultural and the environment is possible and it is also very much needed, not just for agriculture, not just for the environment, but for the survival of all of us – the human race and the species we share this planet with,” Poto?nik said.

The EU’s framework programme for research and development – which is being rebranded as “Horizon 2020” – finances projects in many areas, including evolving innovations aimed at improving agricultural efficiency, cutting resource waste and tackling pollution.

More than 300 research projects related to agriculture have been funded in the EU’s current framework programme for research and development.

The EU executive plans additional support for research and development in the next round of CAP funding – pencilling in €5.1 billion out of the proposed €435.6 billion for 2014-2020.

  • 14-15 May: Meeting of the Agricultural and Fisheries Council in Copenhagen
  • June: European Parliament's agricultural committee expected to present report on CAP proposals
  • 20-22 June: UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • 2014-2020: Next phase of CAP policies and spending
  • Forum for the Future of Agriculture:Homepage

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe