Sustainable growth: Green Deal and data strategy, the twin engine of European farming?
Report from the event
In the Communication on “Shaping Europe’s digital future » dated 19 February 2020, the European Commission stated that « the twin challenge of a green and digital transformation” required « more sustainable solutions which are resource-efficient, circular and climate-neutral to advance the circular economy, support the decarbonisation of all sectors and reduce the environmental and social footprint of products placed on the EU market.”
With a view to design a roadmap likely to deliver on these lofty goals, DIGITALEUROPE hosted on 26 May a workshop aimed to answer this question: “Sustainable growth: Green Deal and data strategy, the twin engine of European farming?”
Panel Discussion - Moderated by Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, Director-General of DIGITALEUROPE
- Pekka Pesonen, Secretary General, Copa-Cogeca
- Elli Tsiforou, Director General, Gaia Epicheirein & Chair, Cooperative Coordination Committee, Cogeca
- Tassos Haniotis, Director, Strategy, Simplification & Policy Analysis, DG Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission
- Alexandre Teillet, Head of EMEA Commercial Operations, The Climate Corporation, Bayer
- Claire Richaud, Policy Officer, Agriculture and New Technologies, MSD Animal Health
- François Lienard, Senior Advisor, EU Affairs, Schuttelaar & Partners
The current direction of travel is good. The policies we need should be farmer-centric; reflect a commitment to meet the needs of farmers where they are; include proper investment. Incidentally, trust is needed in the platforms that make data sharing possible: the territorial dimension of cooperatives can help in this respect.
Given the magnitude of the challenges ahead, it is more a case of like-minded stakeholders having to keep the pressure on the Commission to ‘walk the talk’ and to deliver on massive education needs.
Agriculture is everyone’s concern, the quintessential issue of general public interest, as illustrated lately by the amazing resilience of the European food chain confronted to the COVID-19 pandemic. This sector has long proven to be a natural for digital technology; it also happens to be on the frontline of the Green Deal.
Indeed, it has been a while since European farmers have taken to relying on sensors, driverless vehicles, predictive analytics and other leading-edge technologies. They are also rightly seen as key protagonists in achieving a more sustainable food system. Productivity gains in all production methods positively contribute to sustainability, a better environment and improved climate: improved use of resource, better adjusted businesses plans, easier access to new markets and sales of EU farm products on a local and global scale, improved trust and transparency in the food chain.
We only owe our farmers appropriate tools to strike the right balance between their production and the environment.
Farmers can improve their life quality
As automation cuts red tape, farmers and their families see their life improve, thus making rural areas more dynamic and attractive for new and talented people. Faced with the challenge of having to produce more with fewer inputs, they are now in a position to draw as much knowledge as possible from the data accessible in a simple form, in a single place (even in the middle of a field through effective mapping) and providing easy projections to the next season. The next step is to get better control of the agri-food chain by integrating data from the distribution and retail legs: this is where data sharing and interoperability kick in. Indeed, like in other sectors, the value of data is best experienced when reliable information is made available in advance.
In order to achieve productive, competitive, and resource-efficient agriculture, farmers need cooperation and advice, not new requirements. Examples taken from salmon farms or cattle breeding show that seeing to optimal health and comfort at all times does reduce animal stress: it pays off in terms of sheer production volume, consumption of medicines and longevity; however, those fastidious, time-consuming tasks are easily taken care of by sensors or robots able to trigger corrective action if needed. This is one of the areas where the impact of e-farming on sustainability is the most eye-catching.
The missing link
Technology being available, the legal environment being just about right, i.e. a work in progress traveling in the right direction, the missing link is to be found in investment. Investment should target infrastructures (rural areas, where farming happens, hardly shine on broadband maps) and education since low adoption rate is what holds back ICT-enabled farming. Crucially, this much-needed investment in tools meant to make European farming more competitive and more sustainable should be sourced outside CAP. The targets set by the Member States within the scope of their CAP Strategic Plans should take this into account and not only deliver on the ambition of the European Green Deal but also consider what has already been achieved. Since the 1990s, for example, European agriculture has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20% while increasing its production by 25%. Admittedly, applicable KPIs (1) are to be upgraded to match the Green Deal ambitions.
But farmers alone must not bear the brunt of the costs of further environmental and climate protection. This would result in more European food production being outsourced to third countries and above all a large number of agricultural holdings being abandoned in the European Union. Given that consumers will be the chief beneficiaries of enhanced sustainability, one might think of policies having them pay their fair share of what it takes to get there collectively. It is not only about EU financial support for investment, but also about creating a favourable environment that enables it. European farmers and agri-cooperatives need alternative technologies, a better functioning, fairer food chain and a closer consumer connection. Farmers’ own cooperatives are the best partners in these investments.
A matter of asset optimization?
Besides the impressive resilience of the EU’s food system throughout the Covid-19 crisis, the EU can also boast a unique ability to produce more with less input: as noted above, European agriculture has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20% while increasing its production by 25%. A third asset specific to Europe is the sophisticated Copernicus system which provides valuable data for free.
There is no denying that innovative technologies can further enhance chemical and microbiological processes and soil carbon management. Producing more with less would also improve the EU’s competitiveness at farm and agri-business level. But only with coherent EU policies and sufficient funding can agriculture and forestry continue to contribute to different EU objectives: ensuring food security and safety, supplying renewable raw materials and providing jobs to people in rural areas, while at the same time, following environmentally and biodiversity-friendly practices and combating climate change. The COVID-19 crisis and its consequent economic hardships have shown us that the EU cannot afford to endanger its own food production.
Farming too is data-driven
Unrelated to investment though equally important is the central issue of what we are going to do with data, depending on whether they are private (under absolute GDPR protection) or public good, hence eligible to optimal use through sharing and interoperability. This is where digital policy comes into play: where rules are clear, you see high levels of acceptance and retention of digital tools, which in turn bring about both individual and public benefits. The innovative use of data secured by clear-cut, intelligible interoperability and sound governance provisions does enhance productivity. It also cuts costs for governments and farmers alike. One step further, codes of conduct and standards have a well-documented ability to ensure smooth application. Regulation is less a matter of volume (do we need more or less of it ?) than quality: we need better regulation. For instance, the GDPR is a good regulation that most global companies are happy to spread around the world; conversely, the lack of harmonized regulation of drones holds farmers back. Furthermore, it serves no purpose to create artificial tensions between investment, environment, or social silos.
IOF2020 is a good sample of the rise of multistakeholder ecosystems (business, government, academia, incubators, etc) as key instruments to turn these goals into concrete achievements.