PEN looks at the European Commission’s recent efforts to stimulate internet-enabled technological innovation in the agriculture sector.
Smart technologies could play an enormous role in making the agriculture sector more sustainable. With sensors able to monitor and carefully control intervention into the lifecycles of crops, and farming equipment connected to the internet of things (IoT), automation and precision will reach new levels, and provide far greater efficiency, larger crop yields, and fewer emissions.
One trend currently making waves in farming is digitalisation, which is having a considerable impact on making agriculture both more competitive and more sustainable. According to European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan, some 70% of new farming equipment that is sold today in Europe contains a precision agriculture component, and this significant level of uptake means that a shift towards digital farming is already underway, and set to rapidly advance.
At Horizon 2020 Societal Challenge 2 Infoweek, a high-level event held in Brussels, Belgium, from 14-17 November, Hogan gave a speech on the role new technologies will play in the future of agriculture. During the event he welcomed the ways in which these technologies are already beginning to have an impact: “Digital technologies are already, as we speak, transforming the way we produce our food, manage our land, the way we eat and consume our food and even the way we do research.”
However, he clarified, Europe is still in the early stages of making these technologies available to farmers and, in his view, the move towards a digitalised agriculture and food sector is not progressing quickly enough, and farmers will need to be prioritised when it comes to speeding up this evolution. “More and better technological assistance is the key to success for the 21st Century farmer … Future research and innovation support with regard to digital technologies will have to place the needs of farmers, food businesses and citizens at its centre. It will have to recognise today’s much more open innovation ecosystem, in which the entrepreneurial drive of farmers, SMEs and start-ups are seen as mandatory, alongside a bottom-up, problem-oriented approach.”
Hogan gave a number of examples of exactly how these technologies could serve to make farming both smarter and more sustainable, and the avenues that developers should be pursuing to best have a positive impact on agriculture. He took the opportunity in the speech to outline his vision of how a technologically enabled agriculture sector will look in the near future: “On-farm digital technologies will help to assess the exact state of soils and plants, including through remote sensing. Precision farming will decrease water consumption and help optimise nutrient management and the use of chemicals. The use of sensors can also improve animal welfare by continuously recording and evaluating livestock health. Or in relation to crops, EU projects are working on swarms of drones which identify weeds and destroy them, decreasing the need for herbicides … New technologies also increase food safety and traceability by improving the mechanisms to enhance and monitor food products’ safety and quality throughout their whole lifecycle, from farm to fork.”
Rural broadband provision
While he is optimistic about the development of technologies to aid farmers and rural communities, Hogan acknowledged that there are also significant challenges which need to be overcome, some of which will require EU support and intervention to solve. One of the primary impediments to the development of IoT technologies with farming applications remains the lack of broadband internet access in many rural areas throughout Europe. In fact, only 40% of rural households have 4G internet access, compared to an average of 76% throughout the rest of the EU, while the European Commission has established a target for all citizens to have access to high speed internet by 2020. With rural areas lagging behind, the commission acknowledged that it had a responsibility to take action to stimulate development in this area; not least because, for many private stakeholders, the lack of customers in many rural areas means that investment does not provide a secure return in the short term.
In his speech, Hogan gave his view of this situation, and welcomed a number of newly announced actions through which the European Commission will attempt to address the problem: “This is a serious handicap for the development of new businesses, jobs and prosperity. The lack of connectivity has an extremely high cost for rural populations in general but for agriculture in particular. To help to close this gap, around €6bn has been dedicated to improving the roll-out of broadband, especially in rural and peripheral areas, benefiting around 18 million rural citizens.”
Additionally, the commission has established a number of broadband competence offices with a mandate to increase internet coverage in rural areas. Additionally, the commission has developed a toolkit and a five-point action plan, which includes the designing of a ‘common methodology’ for planning, reporting on and monitoring broadband investments, to aid regions in increasing rural broadband coverage, and the introduction of a ‘rural proof test’ which will prioritise rural areas in the allocation and revision of structural and investment funds. These actions, coupled with concrete deadlines and the EU’s ambitious target that all EU citizens should have access to high speed internet by 2020, are likely to have a major impact on private investment in rural areas and, ultimately, the provision of high quality broadband.
The establishment of these broadband competence offices is a welcome commitment to address the concern, as Hogan acknowledged in a later speech on 20 November, which marked the launch of the new venture. “At the commission, we strongly feel that this represents an important milestone on the road to providing fast, reliable broadband to all our rural communities. Let us not forget that this is a worthwhile destination, not just for our rural citizens, but also, ultimately, for all European citizens.”
Hogan continued: “If we truly want to reverse the trend of rural depopulation and build sustainable, thriving communities, broadband will be absolutely critical: critical from an economic point of view, because business creation, precision agriculture, and remote work requires connectivity … and critical from a social point of view, because modern rural communities require connectivity to connect with each other and the wider world.”
Throughout both of his speeches, Hogan emphasised that his focus is not on emerging technologies, but on the people and communities that are reliant on them. With expanding populations demanding more food on one hand, and the urgent need to decarbonise on the other, it is only the development of these innovative, IoT-enabled technologies that is going to relieve this pressure on farmers and rural communities, and ensure that the increasing demand can be met in a smart, sustainable way.
This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Science & Technology issue 25, which will be published in December 2017.