The future of the EU’s rural development depends on digital technologies, which are essential to fill the existing gap with urban areas, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan has said.
Almost 20 years ago, EU policy makers and farming representatives met in Ireland and adopted the Cork declaration, underlining that “sustainable rural development must be put at the top of the agenda of the European Union”.
The Cork declaration led to the creation of the Rural Development policy, the second pillar of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
In light of the contemporary challenges of the EU farming sector, the Commission this week (5-6 September) is organising a second European Conference on Rural Development in Cork.
Speaking at the conference, the Irish Commissioner admitted that there were still disparities between urban and rural areas in Europe.
“A new Cork Declaration can raise awareness for empowering rural areas and make people understand that a sustainable urban development depends on the prosperity of rural areas,” he stressed, adding that rural areas have a lot to offer as partners to urban areas.
Hogan admitted that there was a “digital divide” between rural and urban areas.
“Despite the fact that 300 million EU citizens live in rural areas, only 25% are covered by fast or ultra-fast broadband, compared to around 70% coverage in urban areas,” the Commissioner noted, urging for a rapid change in order to allow rural areas to seize the opportunities of a digital society.
The EU’s target is to ensure that every company and household has broadband access at a speed of at least 30MB/s by 2020.
The European Agricultural Machinery Industry Association (CEMA) recently told euractiv.com that adequate rural broadband infrastructure across the entire EU was an essential precondition to achieve a successful and inclusive digital transformation in agriculture.
“Broadband access is still lagging behind dramatically in many rural and less densely populated areas of the EU,” CEMA’s Secretary General Ulrich Adam noted.
Losing young farmers
Hogan made special reference to young people, saying that they tend to leave rural areas due to low employment level.
“We need to make sure that rural areas are attractive places to live and work in if we want to reduce the youth drain.”
Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office, last year (26 November) published a survey which found that in 2013 young EU farmers aged under 35 represented just 6% of all holding managers.
Of the total 10.8 million farms in the EU almost 3.5 million (31.1%) were managed by people aged 65 or over, and a further 2.6 million (24.7%) by managers aged between 55 and 64.
Farmers younger than 35 accounted for just 6% – a figure that raised questions over the long-term viability of the sector.
For the president of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA), Alan Jagoe, access to credit is a crucial issue for young people to return to rural areas.
“Young farmers need an ambitious CAP reform that is targeted, efficient and progressive in the manner it supports and grows agriculture into the future.”
Hogan said that the digital transformation and the globalisation had changed the life in rural areas. “We must make use of the potential that this transformation offers for rural areas,” he said, adding that there are new opportunities emerging from green, circular, and bio economies.
“When it comes to food production and food waste, the development of biomaterials, or renewable energy, there are new high-quality jobs available to the rural areas best positioned to seize them.”
The Commissioner also reiterated the need for more resource efficiency in future EU farming, by producing more with less.
“Innovative approaches and new technologies should help to develop the right tools to make it happen,” he noted.
The concept of precision or digital farming has taken centre stage lately in the discussion for the post-2020 CAP. Several experts in precision agriculture recently told euractiv.com that the CAP after 2020 should mobilise both direct payments and rural development pillars, in order to pave the way for the introduction of much-needed digital technologies in the farming sector.
“Both pillars of the CAP could be mobilised to encourage investments in new techniques. Via the greening, the EU could promote digital farming, recognising these technologies as a proper way to contribute to climate objectives,” according to Luc Vernet, a senior advisor at Farm Europe, a think tank specialising in EU agricultural affairs.
“An EU-wide investment plan targeted on new technologies via rural development programmes is needed,” he added.