Digital innovation also creates new risks for farmers

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This article is part of our special report Innovation in post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy.

Although the European Commission and machine manufacturers sing the praises of digitalisation in agriculture, others point to the risk of creating new dependencies for farmers on multinationals. EURACTIV France reports.

“The Commission is quite right to promote these solutions, but we need to seriously pay attention to the details of these proposals,” said Cyrielle Denharitgh, head of agriculture and nutrition at Climate Action Network France.

“Digitalisation is a very large concept in which one can find the bad and the good,” said Denharitgh whose umbrella organisation brings together environmental NGOs such as Oxfam and WWF.

The current agri-food system needs to be transformed extensively in order to face today’s climate and environmental challenges, she said. But precision agriculture as such does not make this transformation happen according to green groups, which don’t see digitalisation as a priority.

This caveat aside, digital tools also produce convincing results, Denharitgh said. One example is an initiative put in place by the regional chamber of agriculture of the Nouvelle Aquitaine region in France. Thanks to digital tools developed by the national institute for agronomic research (INRA), and assistance from advisers, the region managed to reduce nitrate pollution in water and soil resulting from fertiliser use.

The tool allows farmers to know with precision the levels of fertilisers that are absolutely necessary for the crops, without the need for a thorough analysis. And with little investment on the part of the farmers, because the data is easily accessible online.

“This therefore does not create any indebtment, but true support,” Denharitgh said. “The true innovation is not the computer programme itself, but the collaboration between various actors,” she underlined.

On the whole, Denharitgh is quite skeptical though, warning of three different risks. First, digital gadgets such as drones, onboard equipment, or chips placed on animals all use costly technologies, which increase the risk of indebtment on farmers who are already under financial pressure, she warned.

Given their price, digital equipment are also usually the prerogative of large businesses, and therefore exclude smaller farms. And finally, they risk removing farmers from their fields, leading to a loss of know-how. This phenomenon is already happening because of mechanisation and needs to be stopped, Denharitgh said.

“There is an absolute need to avoid innovation for innovation’s sake, and concentrate on accessible tools and advice for farmers, as well as the exchange of good practice among peers,” she insisted.

That view is shared by Marco Contiero, EU agriculture policy director at Greenpeace. Like Denharitgh, he believes digitalisation will undoubtedly lead to more efficiency in agriculture but won’t in itself solve the sector’s problems.

“As such, efficiency is good, but maintaining an inherently wrong system on so many levels is not the best solution. If we are going to use public funds to support agriculture, we should support an agricultural system that is totally innovative.”

According to Contiero, the essential issue is to improve the resilience of the agriculture sector – both in economic and environmental terms. And that means a reduction of farmers’ dependence on a handful of powerful multinationals, he says.

“The market for seeds and chemical products is already saturated to the maximum and this is likely to worsen with continued mergers of companies,” Contiero said. There are currently three groups dominating the sector worldwide, he said, warning farmer’s dependence on them will worsen if multinationals are allowed to handle crop and livestock farming on their behalf using digital tools.

Contiero also raised the issue of data ownership: “If we give certain multinationals the right to deliver data to farmers, they will have absolute control.”

“Compared to data from Copernicus, which can be used for surveillance means and is freely accessible, information created by precision agriculture does not allow for this. This is therefore yet another cost that needs to be paid.”

For now, the Commission’s proposals remain very vague on regulating those risks, said Luc Vernet from Farm Europe, a think tank.

“Factually, the proposal to reform the CAP does not present us with a tool for accompanying the transition to a more digital agriculture,” Vernet said. Everything is therefore still up in the air.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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