From satellite technologies for precision farming to digital labels for improving transparency along the food supply chain, digitalisation offers great opportunities for making the European food system sustainable.
In its Farm to Fork strategy, the European Commission (EC) flags that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) must facilitate investment support to accelerate the digital transformation of farms. Indeed, investment will be necessary to overcome the barriers to the uptake of digital technologies on the farm.
As outlined during the EIP-AGRI seminars in which ELO took part, farmers are still lacking access to efficient and affordable broadband in rural areas, limiting the efficiency of what digital farming can offer. This is an issue that has been raised for many years. ELO is hoping that (the future CAP) the recently approved EU budget, including the Next Generation EU, will drive investment in the connectivity of rural areas. The seminars’ group also identified that there is a digital knowledge and skill gap among farmers. The data provided by digital technologies so far require high-level digital literacy. European investment is needed for the monitoring and evaluation of digital tools in order to be adapted to real-life farming conditions. Innovators and farmers have to be able to exchange through coordinated impact assessments.
So far, the main available digital tools for farming aim at enhancing precision farming. These tools are developed to help the farmer make better use of their resources. In ELO’s view, precision farming is so far the greatest tool to reduce the use of hazardous chemical pesticides. This is why ELO will in 2021 again push for a better implementation of precision farming and endorse projects contributing to the development of appropriate digital tools. However, ELO wants to flag that precision farming only remains a complementary tool for farming. European farmers still need access to efficient plant protection products to be able to grow food in a smarter way.
Clearly one of the big themes in agriculture and land management in the 21st century will be the ongoing digitalisation of farm management and control. These technologies provide extraordinary opportunities to increase the efficiencies of the farm, boost production and vastly reduce input uses and thereby help reduce pressures on the environment.
There is not one single defining characteristic for digital farming; at best they are holistic systems that can be combined farm data from several sources. Drones and satellites can provide aerial data such as detailed terrain mapping, soil types and detailed weather predictions, while soil sensors can provide nitrogen and phosphorus data to a real-time level and cloud-based IT systems create user-friendly maps and application advice. The newest generations of agricultural machineries are designed to act as a focal point for this information and serve as a hub for precise applications.
Key issues still remain before this technology is widely taken up. While the tech industry and the farming community have made great strides in Europe through the Code of Conduct on Agricultural Data Sharing, this is an issue we will need to be vigilant for. Nevertheless, we look forward to a more diversified supply chain for digital tools due to their relatively cheap development costs.
However, large parts of the European countryside are still not equipped with high speed internet or 4G (and higher) mobile data connections. Without these, many of the new digital tools do not have the necessary networks to communicate with each other or send and receive the large quantities of data necessary to create high level field analyses. If Europe is serious about adopting precision farming and wide data use, this must be remedied first.