This article is part of our special report Innovation in agriculture: Europe at crossroads.
Precision farming practices, including digital farming, are the best way to deliver the EU’s strategic goals of being green, smart and safe and should be part of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans of all member states, according to MEP Petros Kokkalis.
“Under the Next Generation EU, member states will have additional resources of €15 billion for the European agricultural fund for rural development (EAFRD), which is a great opportunity for the digitalisation and the green transition of the agri-food sector,” he told EURACTIV.
In its €750 billion Recovery Fund, the European Commission proposed this fresh money for rural areas in addition to member states’ allocations for the 2022 to 2024 period, proportionally to the rural development funds earmarked in 2018.
However, the financial framework for the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is still under discussion and has to be approved by both member states and the European Parliament, with key debates expected at the 17-18 July EU summit.
Kokkalis, an EU lawmaker for the European United Left–Nordic Green Left, emphasised that precision farming and especially digital farming could be one of the tools to deliver the European Green Deal goals and Farm to Fork strategy (F2F).
Precision farming is based on the concept “produce more with less input” having as an ultimate objective to mitigate agriculture’s environmental footprint by reducing, for instance, the use of pesticides or fertilisers.
The concept, which has been largely developed in the US for years, has been making the rounds in Brussels circles for a long time. However, there is still no concrete plan to make it a reality.
EU policymakers hope to put it in a context in the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the bloc’s main farming subsidies programme, but there are still numerous challenges to face.
“To incentivise such innovative practices, we need a strong budget for the future CAP, at least at the same level as the current one. Investment is needed in improving farmers’ digital skills, advisory services, infrastructures, which may be funded under the EAFRD,” Kokkalis said.
Two of the EU’s main priorities are digitisation and green projects that will make its economy more resilient. For Kokkalis, this perfectly matches with the mission of precision farming.
“It is scientifically proven that precision agriculture practices, using high-tech equipment, have the potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, mainly by reducing agricultural inputs which are being targeted to spatial and temporal needs of the crops, and by enhancing the soil’s ability to store carbon,” he said.
“Furthermore, with the evolution of the digital farming that applies consistently the methods of precision farming and smart farming as well, I’m convinced that we have in place excellent tools to achieve the ambitious targets of the F2F,” he added.
Transferring knowledge is a challenge
The EU’s Agriculture Commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, shares the same view, saying the F2F aims at making the entire food system more sustainable, including farming.
“Precision farming can significantly contribute in making the agricultural sector more sustainable and help towards achieving the established targets such as the 50% reduction of the use and risk of pesticides, and the reduction by at least 20% of the use of fertilisers,” the Commissioner told EURACTIV.
However, he emphasised that rolling out of smart farming technologies requires proper know-how, as well as financial and technical support to farmers.
“Let’s not forget that precision farming on its own will not be enough. It will need to be supported by advisory services, knowledge sharing and building capacity. In addition, other types of innovation will be needed to complement precision farming, such as more nature-based solutions,” the Polish Commissioner said.
Likewise, Tassos Haniotis, director for strategy, simplification and policy analysis at the Commission’s DG AGRI, explained that when it comes to farm advisory systems, which provide farmers with public information on how to do things better, there is a “very uneven situation among member states”.
“We have been trying to push in that direction since 2003,” he complained.
The EU executive has established the so-called “European Innovation Partnership” groups to help transfer knowledge across Europe, but in practice, the concept is facing difficulties.
“There are linguistic variants in the various networks. So, you might have, let’s say in Portugal, a group that works on something that might be pertinent for Greece. But this transfer doesn’t normally take place. And that’s the knowledge that already exists.”
Broadband availability: a hot potato
Another burden is the poor broadband infrastructure in Europe’s rural areas.
Although the Commission has already invested €6 billion in broadband connectivity, member states are still lagging behind.
“A serious digital gap continues to exist between rural and urban areas. While 83% of the EU population has access to fast broadband, only 53 % of homes in rural areas have such access. This is an important obstacle for the development of new businesses, jobs and prosperity in rural areas,” Commissioner Wojciechowski said.
“The promotion of broadband will also be one the elements of a long-term vision for rural areas scheduled for release in 2021,” he concluded.