‘Farming 4.0’ at the farm gates

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

Agricultural technology has moved on from what it used to be and the potential gains are hugely significant. [colleen/Flickr]

Big data and analytics are set to transform the world of agriculture as we know it. Ulrich Adam asks what kind of changes can we expect and what has to be done to make ‘Farming 4.0’ a reality?

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

In the quest for bigger yields and greater environmental protection in agriculture, arguably the most important transformation these days is the increasing use of digital technologies in what has been dubbed smart farming or Farming 4.0.

After mechanisation, the introduction of mineral fertiliser and the industrialisation of production processes, connectivity and data management are now set to unleash the next – fourth – revolution in the history of farming. In line with this, smart digital farming was listed as the highest-ranking technology opportunity in the latest Global Opportunity Report in terms of its expected positive impact on society.

While precision agriculture – the use of satellite navigation, remote sensing and other tools to farm each square metre as efficiently and sustainably as possible – has been an evolving reality for some time, IT has now reached a point where it is not only possible to collect vast quantities of data, but also to use quite inexpensive, small processors to make use of this information to control different pieces of equipment or monitor individual animals.

A growing number of farmers are starting to adopt digital technology and data-driven innovations. Thanks to digital connectivity, intelligent agricultural machines can connect the different data ‘dots’ in a working process and put them into a smart and optimised order by consulting, for instance, weather data, ordering spare parts or accessing field-specific information from a central, cloud-based farm management software.

A clever combination of bits and bytes, iron and steel, the smart machine thus stands at the heart of the digital revolution in farming.

So can big data deliver us bigger yields and greater environmental protection? Early evidence looks promising: farms in Germany using advanced digital technology have reported higher yields per hectare while reducing nitrogen levels significantly, as well as cutting herbicide and diesel use by 10% and 20% respectively.

Moreover, Farming 4.0 is a highly dynamic and rapidly evolving concept – in terms of its full potential, the current state-of-the-art might really be only the tip of the iceberg.  Even if Farming 4.0 already is a reality in certain areas, there clearly is still a lot of untapped potential in terms of automated data processing, data mining, completely integrated production processes, and building up what experts have termed smart digital ecosystems (SDEs) in agriculture.

Yet while the development potential is doubtless high, digital progress in agriculture has been slow. So far, the sector lags greatly behind in becoming ‘the next digital champion’ – as recently envisaged by the European Commission: overall adoption and penetration rates of agricultural software solutions are slow and much lower than predicted, and digital system’s capabilities are often underutilised on the farm. In other words, the question is not whether big data can deliver us bigger yields, but whether it will do so eventually – and by when.

For Farming 4.0 to become a reality in the EU, we need a dedicated joint effort between public institutions, industry actors and the farming community. Above all, EU decision-makers and national governments need to ensure that the fundamental digital infrastructure for rapidly growing data flows in terms of network coverage and transmission rates in rural areas is put in place.

Secondly, we need supportive public policies that help to address the latent investment gap in agriculture, particularly in times of dire commodity prices like now. Here, we need a forward-looking Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) after 2020 that includes new and more dedicated measures and mechanisms to boost farmers’ ability to invest in those innovative digital technologies and equipment that have proven societal and environmental benefits.

In parallel, industry actors must strive to create a competitive and innovation-friendly landscape that enables the flow of data streams and encourages fair competition at all levels. Here, we need communication and interface standards that facilitate vertical and horizontal communications i.e. permit data exchange between machines, business partners, as well as different data portals and platforms.

Finally, farmers need to get ready to embrace the upcoming digital change. What is important is to ensure that the necessary digital skills are developed and that there is an openness about potential new business opportunities and models that may be unfolding with the digital transformation.

For instance, with retailers and consumers increasingly interested in the provenance of the food they supply and eat, the ability to collect data on exactly how a crop was grown or an animal reared could become an invaluable asset. This can help growers to deliver high-quality specialised produce, fully traceable to the field, and could allow supermarkets to offer a better choice to their customers. At the same time, automated digital documentation could alleviate the administrative burden of farmers to demonstrate compliance with legislation.

Most importantly, farmers need to be given re-assurances about the security, ownership, and control of their data. The principle that data generated on a farm is the property of the farmer needs to be adequately reflected in contract law. In practice, more and more farm-data will be pooled in cloud-based data platforms to facilitate data processing, analysis, and flow of information. Yet the farmer needs to be able to decide on the allocation of access rights and on which partners receive which kind of data, and in this way retain ownership of the data.

Thanks to digital technology, people everywhere have got used to having a powerful computer in their pocket, being in constant contact with friends, colleagues and having a world of information and entertainment in front of them. Farmers now have that same power available to them, adapted to meet their particular needs. With Farming 4.0, they may be able to run their farms on entirely new levels of automation, sustainability, and productivity, while retaining full control.

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