Enabling smart farming in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Smart machines and data-driven farm management

Smart machines and data-driven farm management. [John Deere]

The European Commission needs to step up its efforts to turn this smart farming opportunity into a success for farmers at all scales, writes Ulrich Adam

Ulrich Adam is the Secretary General of the European Agricultural Machinery Industry Association CEMA. 

Farming is absolutely vital for every society. In the least developed countries, the large numbers of people dependent on subsistence farming make this very obvious; in the rich EU member states only a tiny proportion of the population is directly engaged in farming, hence it is easy to forget about its fundamental importance.

European agriculture has become amazingly productive because farmers have been ready to make use of the best available technology as it is developed, whether in the form of higher-yielding, disease-resistant crop varieties, improved farm management techniques or more efficient machinery. As the world’s population continues to grow towards an expected ten billion over the next few decades, it is vital that such developments continue and that farmers are free to make the most of them. Not only will EU farmers need to keep increasing the size of their harvests in a resource-efficient and sustainable manner, but other countries will have to come much closer to the best that Europe can do.

Much of the necessary improvement will come about through smarter farming techniques, which help to optimise the agricultural production process and ultimately yields on every individual square metre of productive land to avoid the need to plough up wildlife habitats. Precision farming techniques are now well established and continue to improve as collecting and analysing vast amounts of data becomes ever more cost-effective.

But it’s not just a question of industries such as the agricultural machinery manufacturers providing the technology for farmers to use. National governments, the EU institutions, and the European Commission in particular, have an important enabling role to play. In the specific case of smart farming, policymakers have a dual role: on one hand, we need them to introduce sensible, proportional regulation to allow safe and efficient use of new technology. On the other, they need to actively facilitate the development and uptake of such innovative technology.

Regarding the first point: farming is already a highly-regulated sector, so the debate typically focuses on the question of how the legislators can strike a reasonably good balance between issuing new regulation and allowing farmers to get on with their job as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, the balance sometimes slips too far away from the user-perspective, i.e. the farmer. As such, it is of fundamental importance that over-stringent regulations are not allowed to stifle the potential of, for instance, the emerging generation of smart farm machinery.

Modern IT and data analysis tools are powerful and can really help meet the challenge of feeding a growing population in more resource-efficient and sustainable ways. However, like anything else, these technologies can be misused, and appropriate regulation is needed. So, gathering data on a large scale can have privacy implications and these must be respected. Similarly, small drones can be invaluable, but must be used responsibly and with care. But farmers are no different from other citizens in this respect, and need no additional rules to abide by.

As technology changes, so must regulation. Already, some farmers are ‘driving’ tractors which steer their own highly accurate course in a field, minimising overlap, reducing the amount of soil compaction and sowing seed or spreading fertilizer as efficiently as possible. Before too long, we can expect fully autonomous farm machinery to be available. Farmers will be able to take them to the field, program what needs to be done and leave the rest to the technology. Appropriate and timely regulations to govern these developments will have to be put in place.

Regarding the other important enabling role – active institutional support for smart farming – a range of priority measures come to mind: take broadband access, for example. Farmers are increasingly reliant on accurate, reliable and timely data delivery, but rural areas often suffer from rather poor broadband availability. High speed connectivity is important not just for farmers, but for the entire rural economy. Policies to ensure that high-speed data transmission is as available in the countryside as in our big cities are important for the whole of society.

Take another example. One of the beauties of smart machinery is that it can be useful at any scale. So far, it is larger farmers who have benefitted most, as early adopters of what have been smarter versions of farm machinery. For them, the investment has paid off handsomely in terms of lower management and input costs and higher yields, but smaller farmers have often been hesitant or unable to make such investments. As the technology develops fast and costs come down, there’s plenty that can be done by policymakers – for example by further tweaks to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – to encourage the uptake of smart technology by farmers at all scales.

Equally importantly, young people need to be trained in software development and IT. The farming sector itself needs bright young people to feed future populations. More and more, these people also need to be tech-savvy. EU institutions and member states have an obligation to nurture these vital skills via training initiatives and removing market barriers.

To coordinate the above measures, we need a more coherent EU policy approach on smart farming and the digital transformation in agriculture. A dedicated Commission taskforce involving the respective services should be put in place to formulate such an approach. Currently, this does not seem to be the case yet. There are several Commission-led initiatives on precision farming and smart machinery (such as the Working Group on Smart Farming under the Alliance for the Internet of Things (AIOTI) under the remit of DG CONNECT and various activities under Horizon2020 and the European Innovation Partnership on ‘Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability’ (EIP-AGRI) coordinated by DG Agriculture and Rural Development). But it is unclear in how far a regular, intra-institutional dialogue exists for them. Most importantly, since a good deal of the innovation in smart farming will come from key support industries, the Commission’s respective services for industrial policy, DG GROW, should also be involved in such a process.

The benefits that can be expected from smart farming are immense. To reap them, we need well-crafted regulation, good training and infrastructure policies, and a coherent EU policy approach. With such steps taken, European farming will be well equipped to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

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