Agriculture is confronting radical changes on all fronts, demography, climate, society, economy, etc. In essence, farmers are expected to produce more with less. Luckily, ICT is coming to the rescue… or is it actually?
member of the cabinet of Phil Hogan, Commissioner for Agriculture
Head of Unit, ‘Network Technologies’, DG CONNECT
Member of the Board of GAIA EPICHEIREIN SA, President of NEUROPUBLIC SA
Editorial Director, Farmers Weekly Group
As in every sector or every walk of life, there is a gap between what technology can achieve and its actual usage. The European Commission is addressing this challenge by bringing innovation closer to the farm: tight coordination between the main DGs involved (AGRI, CONNECT, Research, Grow, etc.) and with member States; forward-looking allocation of CAP funds; dedicated Public Private Partnerships; enhanced training, including with EIB’s help, to name but a few areas. All too often portrayed as arch-conservatives, though actually born-innovators throughout history, farmers are potentially the spearhead of the digital transformation of the EU. They are therefore worth special consideration in the broader environment of increasingly data-driven economies.
The new frontier is no frontier
Actually robots, sensors and GPS-assisted navigation have long been used by farmers across Europe. No wonder then that smart farming is a leading subset of the Alliance for Internet of Things Innovation (AIoTI). Large-scale pilots are considered, including one to be announced next month. Privacy and security seem to be less of a concern in the field than in, say, health of banking, although data ownership has to be clarified as data is fast turning into a key asset. Therefore there are less barriers to making the most of broadband that satellites can serve even to the most remote areas.
At least in theory: delivering the right tools to the farm is different indeed to making sure that farmers will take full advantage of these tools. The societal impact of smart farming has yet to be assessed and addressed properly. For years the number of farmers has been declining, more than half of European farmers are over 55 years old. Europe needs to keep the youth at the farm, even to attract new talent where life is reportedly more ‘cool’ or laid-back than in sprawling cities. ICT may prove instrumental to achieving this goal, provided that the digital divide that runs between urban and rural areas, also between age classes, is fixed properly.
In this respect, we can take heart from the Gaia experience in Greece. Gaia Epicheirein, a unique cloud-based platform combining organised farmers, IT and banking provides farmers with the ultimate added value, i.e. relevant information that makes precision farming possible. Indeed farmers need ‘next gen advice’ badly but few are ready to pay for it. That’s where cooperatives, a long-established link central to the food chain, come into play with readily-available connections and answers. Joining forces with IT to monitor technology development and with banking to smooth the path towards using those technologies proved to be a winner in the Gaia experience. Theattached presentationlays out all relevant details about how data taxonomy, collection, processing and dissemination can work in the best interest of Greek farmers and consumers. Detailed farm profiles being required to elicit valuable advice from agronomists, privacy and confidentiality have been factored in from the outset. Scaling up seems to be the name of the game in ICT-enabled farming as it is for other startups as Big Data grows out of research and innovation labs, universities, major cities and heads instead for the countryside. Data-driven agriculture also leads to more environmentally friendly farming as insight to data helps to reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Getting our act together on data coherence and completeness, data ownership and data protection will help accompany, even amplify this welcome trend. Today’s best farmers have not only technology, but also a strategy: their success is informed by a systematic use of these two key drivers.
Farmers are people too!
As in other sectors, training leaves room for improvement, but a wider, much more radical cultural change is needed if the digital divide within rural areas themselves is to be contained. Actually big farmers have been riding tractors in jetliner-style cockpits for ages while their smaller counterparts, especially in livestock farming, have precious few clues about the KPIs that drive their business. Oddly enough, the current crisis may help to lower barriers to ICT entry into small farms: a drowning man won’t discard a lifeline that by fair weather he dismissed as a mere improvement he thought he could do without. Nowadays transitioning to smart farming is no longer a value proposition, it is a matter of survival.
In short, it’s ‘all hands in deck’ when it comes to dissemination of the technology farmers need to meet successfully the challenges of producing more for less for the benefit of all of us. Education seems to lie in the court of Member States or at local level where cooperatives offer a familiar, well-proven and effective way to reach out to farmers and to other links essential to the food chain. More sensitive or politically-loaded issues such as data ownership or protection are being addressed at EU-level, whether in the context of the GDPR, Open Data or the European Free Flow of Data initiative. In this respect,the workshop set up on 14 March in Luxembourgmay be worth attending. As if the cake resulting from these coordinated efforts was in need of icing, our home-baked benchmarks for smart farming stand good chances to travel the world once Europe manages to get its act together.