DiPP - Data-enabled farming with a human touch
Agriculture has been at the forefront of the data-driven revolution, helping EU farming to become more efficient, productive and sustainable.
Like in other dimensions of the digital transformation, the European Commission has been instrumental to making leading-edge technologies accessible to this sector: agriculture and food value chains are an integral part of the Digital Single Market strategy; issues related to agricultural data sharing and reuse are at the heart of EU policies on data. At the same time, the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post 2020 has set Smart Farming as a catalyst to achieve its objectives, whereas the EU’s Research & Innovation policy has been supporting the digitization of the agricultural sector through ambitious financing of a large number of Horizon 2020projects.
But where do farmers stand amidst all the hype? At the center, actually, whether for data collection or its optimal use, and in close cooperation with a full array of stakeholders involved throughout this complex decision making process.
To build on previous workshops dedicated to other aspects of ICT-enabled farming, we have asked these distinguished experts to share their views on the human factor in data-powered farming:
Member of the Cabinet of Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, European Commission
Head of the Brussels Office, Gaia Epicheirein
Dr George Beers
Programme Manager, Wageningen University
Director General of DIGITALEUROPE
Here is the thrust of the conversation that took place on 20 June.
Ever keen to appropriate leading-edge technology with a view to improve their act, farmers have indeed made their field one of the most innovative trades of Europe’s ongoing digital transformation. However, throwing money and tech to this constituency was never going to bring about all the advantages ICT can deliver.
Money is actually not in scarce supply. On top of structural funds – now focused on the digital transformation and low carbon economy – and ‘traditional’ research funds, Digital Europe offers a new instrument (€9.2b) based on five pillars:
– High Performance Computing (HPC) is particularly relevant to data-hungry farming: soil improvement, simulations, pest eradication, climate, etc rely on adequately processed Big Data.
– Cybersecurity is expected to protect farmers provided those are given appropriate training. This is a matter of cost as much as broader strategic policy. To put things in perspective, China has earmarked $10b for this single topic.
– AI is poised to afford small farmers easy access to data clouds, themselves instrumental to making the most of Big Data.
– eSkills plans will make sure that everyone in the agribusiness is fit for enjoying the benefits of smart farming.
– digital innovation hubs are essential to evangelize this strategy and ensure a wide use of digital technologies across the economy and society. They aim to be the go-to place for technical expertise, financial advice and all sorts of facilitation. Even though not all of them will have a farming-specific window, this is the most effective entry point.
This is not to mention additional sources such as the Connecting Europe Facility, Horizon Europe or InvestEU.
Humans, the missing link?
Whatever progress is made in automation, healthy farming will never be reduced to a suite of autonomous devices. Greece has fully documented the fact that tight collaboration between farmers and their cooperatives, distribution outlets, data scientists, consultants and other stakeholders helps co-create knowledge, which in turn bears spectacular results in the form of productivity gains between 18% and 36% depending on the crop considered.
This bottom-up, multi-stakeholder approach inspired a nation-wide programme covering more than 16,000ha in 26 different areas. Data acquisition, processing, sampling and monitoring shaped the business concept of Farming as a Service that includes a catalogue of best practices that feed ecosystems and are ready to be taken advantage of. Tools made available by Europe’s ‘Agricultural Knowledge and Information Systems’ (AKIS) may help with proper dissemination:
Among lessons learned, three gaps have been identified:
– adoption: awareness raising secures optimal appropriation of knowledge and dispels fears that robots might gradually crowd out farmers. Experience tells that peer-to-peer communication works wonders, whether within family and friends or through e-learning. Demonstration forums have a proven ability to draw crowds and spark interest for innovation.
– knowledge and skills: the advisory side needs strengthening to achieve Farming as a Service. For instance, the sensor business is including advisory service as the best part of hardware sales, and it is not an outlier. This is the gateway to bringing into play small farmers (the average Greek farm is less than 5ha) who often lack investment capacity and fail to attract attention for market solutions that fit their needs.
– policy optimization is critical at both EU and national level. For example, rural areas lag behind in broadband access. Four DGs (CNECT, REGIO, AGRI, COMP) have joined forces to remedy what is seen by and large as a market failure, but there is only so much they can achieve without strong involvement of national and local governments. The same holds true for mitigating possible negative effects of digitization. In this respect, data ethics gains traction as AI is taking up: farmers have to see digital technology more as an opportunity than a challenge. They all too often get mesmerized by the ‘Ethics vs Investment’ picture whereas ethics starts attracting sustainable investment as soon as it is rightly perceived as an asset or a catalyst. Ethics is indeed a primary ingredient of trust, itself a prerequisite for data-enabled economy and society.
Large scale pilots in the Internet of Food and Farm (IoF 2020) provide a particularly striking illustration of how powerful the combination of leading-edge tech and multi-disciplinary teams is.
The aim of IoF2020 – a €30 million project involving 16 Member States – is to build a sustainable network of innovation ecosystems meant to foster the uptake of IoT-enabling technologies. For this purpose key stakeholders throughout the food value-chain are involved in IoF2020 together with technology service providers, software companies and academic research institutions. Once farmers can see the practical merits of taking the troves of data generated by ubiquitous sensors to the cloud and of connecting them to other critical databases such as chemicals regulation, they are in play, ready to enjoy the benefits of smart farming and to evangelize the next links in the agri-food value-chain. No less than 19 use cases are produced via cycles of four iterations: the next is scheduled in February 2019. Three angles are considered:
– technology optimization
– business viability
This debate cast European farmers as early adopters of digital technology, happy to get state-of-the-art assistance but careful to stay in the driver’s seat. In this respect, they may very well be the ‘canary in the coal mine’ of the data-driven economy, a telltale of developments that might run contrary to healthy, productive interplay between humans and systems.