Europe entering the era of ‘precision agriculture’

Planting season photo in South Dakota [Eric Barsness, USDA NRCS / Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Innovation – Feeding the world.

SPECIAL REPORT / The agricultural sector has stepped into the digital era, in an effort to respond to rising global nutrition needs and tackle the environmental crisis.

The world’s growing population has resulted in rising demand for agricultural products. But, at the same time supply capabilities are shrinking due to reduced land availability and climate change.

>>Read: Reformed CAP aims to respond to global food security challenge

Analysts claim that an “agri-tech revolution” is needed and precision farming is emerging as an innovation-driven solution.

Precision farming is based on the optimised management of inputs in a field according to actual crop needs. It involves data-based technologies, including satellite positioning systems like GPS, remote sensing and the Internet, to manage crops and reduce the use of fertilizers, pesticides and water.

The introduction of the new technologies helps farmers to manage their farms in a sustainable way taking into account the “slightest detail” of everyday farming.

>>Read: ‘E-agriculture’ could save EU farmers time and money

Precision farmers are able to make the best use of chemical inputs (pesticides or fertilizers), contributing to soil and groundwater protection while increasing production efficiency. The quality of products is improved and energy consumption reduced significantly.

By using sensors, farmers are able to identify specific areas of the field in need of a particular treatment and to focus the application of chemicals on these specific points only, reducing the amount of chemical used and preserving the environment.

This is in contrast with the traditional practices in which various agricultural activities such as irrigation, fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides are uniformly applied throughout the field, ignoring any variability.

Researchers estimate the precision farming market already amounted to €2.3 billion euros in 2014 on a global level. They expect it to grow at an annual growth rate of 12% through 2020. The mature US and European markets are considered the most promising.

Commission supports e-farming

In a report published last July, the Joint Research Center of the European Commission confirmed that precision agriculture could play a substantial role in meeting the increasing demand for food while ensuring sustainable use of natural resources and the environment.

“On farms, we are entering the era of ‘precision agriculture’ – harnessing the use of technology and data to enable farmers to do their work more smartly, and more efficiently”, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan, told EURACTIV in a recent interview.

>>Read: Hogan: Empowering women farmers in developing countries is ‘absolutely crucial’

Under the new Common Agricultural Policy for the period 2014-2020, financial incentives, and support schemes exist under Pillar 2 to promote farmers’ ability to invest in Precision Farming technologies such as, for instance, precision fertilizer spreaders.

The promotion of hi-tech in agriculture is not entirely new. It was already part of the programme of the previous Commission, with initiatives such as the European Innovation Partnership on ‘Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability’ (EIP-AGRI).

>>Read: Hi-tech farming touted as way to green Europe’s food chain

Today, the Commission promotes precision farming mostly via its €78 billion Horizon 2020 programme for research.

Meanwhile, a dedicated focus group on Precision Farming was set up in 2014 under EIP-AGRI. Jacob van den Borne, a precision farmer from The Netherlands, is a member of the focus group. He made an animated video explaining in simple words how precision farming works.

Unaffordable for small farmers

However, precision farming technologies are still expensive and unaffordable to most farmers, especially for the smaller ones.

“For certain technologies, larger farmers were among the early adopters of what have been smarter and more precise versions of farm machinery, while smaller farmers have sometimes been more hesitant (or unable) to make the necessary investments”, said Ulrich Adam, secretary general of the European Agricultural Machinery Industry Association (CEMA).

But some technologies such a Global Satellite Navigation Systems (GNSS) were quickly adopted by farmers of all size. “We have seen that as the technology develops fast and costs come down, market penetration is wide-spread among farmers”, Adam said.

“In the Netherlands, for instance, GNSS is now penetrating well with 65% of the arable farmers using GNSS in their cultivation”, he underlined. This amounts to a strong uptake growth from 2007 when the figure was 15%.

EU is a fertile ground

Asked what more the EU could do for precision farming in Europe, Ulrich said it should promote further research and technology development as well as facilitate a faster and inclusive uptake in European agriculture.

“The EU should, therefore, try to work on a more coherent and impactful approach towards precision farming, one that ensures greater alignment between the respective policies. For this, the different Directorates-General in the Commission – AGRI, GROW, ENVI, CONNECT, and the JRC – should work more closely together, for instance, as part of a common taskforce.”

Regarding the potential of the EU precision farming sector, he noted that Europe was a very fertile ground as shown by the range of recent innovations coming from the agricultural machinery industry.

“This said, due to their larger field size, the US has often been an easier entry point for certain Precision Farming technologies coming to the market.”

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