Precision farming should only be small part of holistic EU agriculture

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

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for national debates to identify possible solutions in the run-up to the UN Food Systems Summit in September. [Joanna Poe/Flickr]

Only sustainable practices, with prevention coming first, will be able to feed the world, writes Henriette Christensen.

Henriette Christensen is senior policy advisor at PAN Europe, an anti-pesticides NGO.

PAN Europe has read EURACTIV’s special report Europe entering the era of precision farming and believes it is time to define what this term actually covers, and where it is useful.

While we fully recognise that there are aspects of precision farming which are useful (like weather forecasts and pest simulation programs), we are completely opposed to the argument that precision farming is the key to ensuring sustainability of agricultural production.

Modern technologies, covering smart phones and internet-linked programs, allow farmers to integrate weather forecasts and pest simulation programs the in every-day life of a farm, that were not available only a decade ago. Other such technologies are modern equipment like satellite navigation tools, GPSs etc., which help farmers to target spray better. Some even argue that with tools like GMOs, seed treatment may also be considered precision farming.

However, products like GMOs, and techniques like seed treatment, can in no way be considered ‘precise’. Their use is systemic and they are applied irrespective of whether farmers have pest problems or not.

Sustainability of agricultural production comes with the sustainable use of pesticides. Farmers need to have a system in place preventing the use of pesticides and preventing diseases, while synthetic pesticides will only be used as a last resort.

The EU’s directive specifies that member states shall take all necessary measures to promote low pesticide-input pest management, giving wherever possible priority to non-chemical methods, so that professional users of pesticides switch to practices and products with the lowest risk to human health and the environment.

The EU directive made it mandatory for EU farmers to apply integrated pesticide management on their farms as from 2014. Therefore, the way forward towards sustainable use of pesticides is empowering farmers to apply agronomic practices (such as crop rotation to introduce more nature and predators into the field), use resistant crop varieties, biological control, and buffer zones.

To ensure the mandatory change towards sustainability of agricultural production, it is essential that member states integrate the requirements of the SUD fully into EU policies like the Common Agricultural Policy. 

Eurostat will publish EU statistics on use of pesticides only in 2016, but EU statistics show that pesticide sales in 2013 were no less than 353,325 tonnes.

Evaluations of pesticide use from the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on how member states are encouraging sustainable use of pesticides concludes that in the majority of member states, forecast and warning systems on pest outbreaks are freely available online and in place.

So while certain aspects of precision farming (like weather forecasts and pest simulation programs) are useful, it will never be able to replace a good crop rotation for arable farmers, herbaceous strips in orchards etc., and as a result never be able to ensure sustainability in the farming sector.

By proposing precision farming as the key element in obtaining sustainability in agricultural production, big companies are once again turning the debate upside down, going down towards a dead-end street depleting healthy soils and risking further unsolvable resistance problems. 

Subscribe to our newsletters