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© USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Future farming


PEN examines the public consultation on the Common Agriculture Policy, and the role new technologies will play in future farming.

In July, the European Commission published the results of its public consultation into the role of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which gathered the views of more than 322,000 stakeholders ranging from farmers, to citizens, to organisations and other interested parties, on the priorities and challenges for the next reform of the policy. Thanks to the rapid advance of technology, and the ever more urgent need to decarbonise in all sectors – but particularly agriculture, given the high CO2 emissions the sector is responsible for – there are a number of emerging possibilities upon which a revised CAP could capitalise; on the other hand, this also presents new challenges which are not being addressed by the current version of the policy, and a need for innovative solutions.

Speaking on 7 July in Brussels, Belgium, at a conference entitled ‘The CAP: Have your say’, European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan outlined the changing contextual factors which he feels necessitate revisions to the CAP: “The Common Agricultural Policy […] continues to support a dynamic agricultural sector, ensures safe and high-quality food for 508 million Europeans and provides for significant investments in rural areas. But today, it must also be seen against a wider backdrop. It has to be seen against such issues as a challenging market situation, our international climate-related commitments, the need for generational renewal, strong international trade figures, [and] a greater focus on simplification and performance.”

The findings of the public consultation suggested that some of the core demands of the new CAP will include ensuring a higher standard of living for farmers through direct income support, and encouraging farmers to take more responsibility for tackling climate change and protecting the environment, with the latter including limiting soil degradation, safeguarding biodiversity and using pesticides and fertilisers in a sustainable manner. Meanwhile, 90% of respondents said that the best way to ensure the agriculture sector fulfils these responsibilities, and to enable farmers to receive the necessary funding and support, the management of agricultural policy should be enacted at the EU level, meaning that, ultimately, a new approach to the Common Agricultural Policy is thought necessary by a large majority of stakeholders.

Digital solutions

Thankfully, the expanding role of big data and the internet of things (IoT) in creating smart city solutions could be set to have a wider impact, particularly in terms of creating smart innovations for agriculture. The use of sensors, monitoring and data could have an enormous impact on efficiency and greatly improve crop yields; given that the UN has predicted a growth in the global population to as many as 9.7bn people by 2050, such efficiency is becoming urgently necessary. Fortunately, according to an IBM forecast, by 2050 the application of internet of things and data gathering capabilities to agriculture could increase food production by up to 70%, which could be sufficient to provide food for this entire population.

Such a rollout of this technology could also provide the agriculture sector solutions to some of the more short-term problems identified in the public consultation on reforms to the CAP. For example, if farmers are able to use sensors to monitor the growth of their crops and estimate based on accumulated data when those crops are ready to be harvested, their yields will improve. Coupled with a new European-level policy increasing profit margins for farmers selling their crops, this increased yield could improve the financial situation of many of Europe’s farmers, who were hit by a downturn in the market in 2014-16 from which many are still suffering.

© cjuneau

According to IBM’s data, there are currently some 525m farms globally, and by 2025 there could be as many as six million sensors being used to gather data and feed into something resembling an IoT for agriculture; by 2050, the number could be as high as two billion sensors, each collecting vital data which could inform not only the approaches to individual farms, but key policy reforms on a national and even European level. Along with the collection of this data, the connecting of systems together and gathering of this information into a central hub, which could act as a control centre for a farm, could allow for an increased level of automation, which in turn might further improve efficiency.

When it comes to constructing such a centralised control hub, where farming efforts can be honed as more and more data is collected, cloud-based storage will become a necessity. Indeed, the masses of data collected daily by six million sensors, let alone two billion, would be unsustainable for storage infrastructure on the farm itself. Another advantage of cloud-based infrastructure is that it would allow farmers to share data amongst themselves. While, in the current climate, many farmers are reluctant to divulge information on their crop yields or individual practices, a broadly accessible platform which allows all farmers to benefit from a large, anonymous base of raw data may eventually prove necessary to satisfying the demands of 9.7bn people.

One of the current challenges which still needs to be addressed in data-oriented agriculture is the fact that there are many rural areas throughout Europe where wireless internet is unavailable. With the strong investment currently being made in the development of 4G across the continent, it is expected that coverage will continue to broaden and grow to include many of these rural areas, but this will not happen without national policies and financial investment; it will require a commitment from member states to provide internet access for their rural areas, and to demonstrate this commitment through concrete actions.

Political commitment to change

In August, the European Commission endorsed under state aid laws the use of vectoring technology in state-funded high-speed broadband networks in Germany. The technology can greatly increase broadband speed using the country’s existing copper wire network, at relatively low cost; however, it proved controversial from a competition standpoint, given that other companies are no longer able to gain physical access to individual copper lines, which will prevent them from offering their own high-speed services. Nevertheless, the commission ultimately approved the use of the technology with the caveat that the companies responsible provide virtual access to competitors, to allow them to offer the highest possible quality of service. A primary reason for this allowance was that vectoring will improve the quality of the network at the point of use, therefore providing higher speed internet access in remote rural areas.

Ultimately, this type of commitment from all member states will be necessary to push the development of agriculture, and provide new opportunities to be included in the CAP. In his speech, Commissioner Hogan insisted that it was the responsibility of many stakeholders in Europe to aid the agriculture sector because of the key role it plays in our way of life: “[Our] commitments demand that we improve the sustainability of food production in Europe, while acknowledging the enormous contribution that farmers already make to the rural environment, to rural growth and, by extension, to society in general.”

The high number of respondents to the public consultation on the proposed revision to the CAP – which, following an impact assessment by the commission, will see a number of policy proposals put forward to try to address the many concerns the consultation detailed – shows that agriculture is a priority for many people in Europe, not only those in the sector. With many revolutionary new technologies on the horizon, it is hoped that the European institutions will hear these calls to facilitate and support the digital expansion of farming.


This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Government 23, which will be published in October.

Pan European Networks Ltd