Hi-tech farming touted as way to green Europe’s food chain

Precision Dairy Research Project at the University of Kentucky

Precision Dairy Research Project at the University of Kentucky. [UK College of Agriculture, Food & Environment/Flickr]

Connected agriculture – from farm to retail – was promoted at an event in Brussels this week, as the way to wean European agriculture off its addiction to chemicals, water and fossil fuels.

Agriculture is “probably one of the most inefficient parts of our economic value chain today”, according to Jeremy Rifkin, an American social theorist who advises the European Commission and Parliament on the big policy issues of the day.

“And there is an elephant in the room which is climate change,” added Rifkin, who warned that global warming was expected to modify the water cycles of the earth, wreaking havoc for farmers and driving up food prices.

Rifkin was speaking at a media round table on the margins of the 8th Forum for the Future of Agriculture, a major annual event that was held in Brussels on Tuesday (31 March).

Agriculture, he said, is responsible for one-third of global warming emissions, and therefore needs to be addressed as a matter of priority.

“We are awash in chemical agriculture,” Rifkin said, explaining that fertilisers derived from fossils fuels emit CO2 both at the manufacturing stage and after being laid on soil where they generate nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas.

Technology to the rescue

But, he said, Internet-based technologies offered an opportunity to solve these problems by transforming the food production system “from farm to retail”.

First, the emergence of connected agriculture, with hi-tech sensors to monitor farm production, offers scope for savings across the entire food production value chain, according to Rifkin. This includes a move towards automation of transport and logistics, which he said would bring farming products closer to the consumer, and allow quicker and more precise management of stocks at warehouses and retail stores.

“It’s absurd to take a grape from one continent and ship it to another continent so that we can have grapes in the middle of the winter,” Rifkin argued.

Micro-scale solar and wind energy systems are now also readily available, but need to be supported in order to end agriculture’s reliance on fossil fuels, Rifkin stated. On the consumer side, a move towards healthier diets, less reliant on meat and based on fresh organic produce, were also part of the solution, he said.

“We want to be able to move off of chemical farming and into organic and ecological farming,” Rifkin contended.

The American theorist’s vision for the future of agriculture, which he sees as part of the third industrial revolution, has found a receptive ear at the European Commission, which he advises.

The European Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy, outlined on 26 March, brought farm policy into the digital picture for the first time by associating the EU’s agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan with the team of contributors.

The promotion of hi-tech in agriculture, including a move towards precision farming, was already part of the programme of the previous Commission, with initiatives such as the EIP-AGRI innovation partnership. Precision farming involves data-based technologies, including satellite navigation tools and the Internet, to manage crops, and reduce the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water.

Hi-tech farming is being actively promoted by the European Commission, and is eligible for funding under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s €50-billion a year agriculture support programme.

Fewer pesticides

But not all participants at this year’s Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA) shared Rifkin’s radical views on the environment and organic food.

Jon Parr, Chief Operating Officer of Syngenta, said strict environmental rules on pesticides, although desirable in theory, were leaving European farmers with fewer chemical substances to choose from.

“What’s in our focus is crop protection chemistry, pesticides if you like,” Parr told the FFA’s media round-table, drawing attention to the decreasing number of pesticides available to farmers, which have gone down from around 1,000 active substances in the 1990s, to about 300 today.

“There will be a tipping point where the technology available to farmers won’t be sufficient. It’s not adequate to have just one chemical that works against a particular pest or disease, because nature has ways of creating resistance and you need to have a toolbox in order to deal with that.”

For Parr, “Farmers have to be profitable first before you can get them to focus on other activities – like protecting the land, the environment, and so on.”

Low-tech farming in the developing world

Pavan Sukhdev, an environmental economist from India, drew attention to the world’s developing countries, whose economies are heavily reliant on agriculture, providing jobs directly to 1 billion people, mainly smallholders.

“There are 2.6 billion people around the world relying on agricultural production systems,” said Sukhdev, adding that the only way of maintaining employment and improve the livelihoods of small farmers was to increase yield productivity.

He cited a 2006-2007 study of 285 sustainable farming projects across the developing world, which showed sustainable farming techniques increased yields by 79% on average, without relying on hi-tech solutions.

“So all these fancy ideas about replacing farming with some evolved, technologically advanced way of farming – that simply will not work,” argued Sukhdev. “You cannot employ 1 billion people any other way. It’s as simple as that.”

Sukhdev also drew attention to the “economically invisible” services provided by small farmers, such as pollination, the prevention of soil erosion, or water purification, saying policymakers were “not accounting” for those.

Sukhdev led the groundbreaking United Nations study on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), which attempted to put a price on the ecosystem services provided by nature.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the European Union's system of direct payments for farmers and subsidies, which costs each EU citizen around 30 euro cents a day, according to the European Commission.

The CAP has a budget of €53 billion a year, making it the European Union’s most expensive programme. The CAP accounts for 37.8% of the EU's 2014 to 2020 budget, compared to nearly 71% in 1984.

The majority (over 70%) of CAP spending goes to direct payments for farmers, while some 20% of the CAP budget is spent on rural development measures. The rest is handed out as export subsidies to food companies.

The Commission's reformed CAP places a greater emphasis on environmental measures, with up to 30% of the funding granted to farmers who diversify production, rotate their land or maintain permanent pastures.

>> Read our LinksDossier: CAP 2014-2020: A long road to reform

  • 1 January 2014: Reformed CAP comes into force
  • 2015: Implementation of the reformed CAP

European Commission

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