- Associate Professor Darina Zaimova, Trakia University Stara Zagora, coordinator of National Scientific Programme Smart Livestock
- Associate Professor Atanas Sevov, Agrarian University Plovdiv
- Zvezdomir Zhelev PhD, Agrarian University Plovdiv
- Martin Mikush, architect and urbanist, specialised in conservation agriculture with a focus onurban areas
English resume of the discussion:
Do smart technologies produce a revolution in agriculture?
Zaimova: Since Douglas Cobb introduced the neoclassical approach to evaluation of the production function (labour-land-capital) we have been witnessing the creation of technologies that create but also destroy at the same time because they led to globalization and economic crises.
The economic growth that the high technologies produce is a combination of complex factors. We now talk about optimization of natural resources, protection of biodiversity, how to innovate and move the technological progress forward. So, new technologies are creative and destructive at the same time. We are observing a process in which robotization, digitalization, artificial intelligence advance and humans as a factor step back. The type of work in agriculture is changing while at the same time new opportunities emerge and they must be utilized.
How is artificial intelligence changing the agricultural activity?
Sevov: This is a discussion matter. We now talk about the human factor as compromised because of its energy exhaustion – people get tired while technology can function around the clock. There is also the trend of young people withdrawing from the sector. So here the dilemma emerges: AI is replacing human labour but people should develop. The world is confronted with the enormous challenge of securing food for an already huge and ever growing population. The cliché “produce more with less” has actually become a reality, especially for the next generations. I prefer to speak of an impetus rather than a revolution because the familiar schemes and technologies do not produce fast results. The new trend is the science-education-business chain.
Do you agree that traditional agriculture needs plenty of labour while modern agriculture needs plenty of capital?
Zhelev: The perception exists that the dominant type of work in agriculture is physical labour but it is definitely outdated. Agriculture is one of the technologically fastest developing sectors of both life and business. The trend is for agricultural labour to become science-intense. It is already a fact in the sector that more time spent at the office brings more prosperity. So, it combines physical and intellectual labour. An idea can definitely be and cost as much as a well plowed field.
Modern agriculture takes a lot of capital. It demands high technology, “costly toys” that require quite a lot of money. But it is a very important sector and therefore the development investments in it both by the EU and international organisations are growing along with the prices of equipment on the free market.
Does science help farmers produce more with less after all?
Sevov: Here is an example, there are greenhouses in China without any human presence whatsoever thanks to the technological solutions throughout the process from the seeding to the packaging. Those businesses that employ technologies become much more competitive, flexible and productive.
Are Bulgarian farmers ready to handle the technological challenges to the sector?
Zaimova: There are so many technologies now and it is normal for the state to support the sector and invest in it. There is also a recharge of the labour market in rural areas, the new technologioes are changing the labout relations. If you ask me, what our farmers lack is good organization. We have large farms, but we lack organisations, cooperatives, consortia. In countries like Italy or Spain cooperation and work concentration for best opportunities goes up to 100 % in some of the regions. If we look at digitalization, it can be viewed partly as a threat because it can lead to turning less urbanized areas into unstructured ecosystems. The role of the state, but not only, is not to allow the exclusion of the small producers.
Zhelev: Farmers are quick learners as far as technologies go and if at the beginning we train them, later on they give suggestions of improvements to the digital systems based on own experience. Here is an example from Switzerland: winter training for farmers are organized, which in addition to the learned content give them incentives to keep learning. Those are the types of extension services we lack.
Does that mean that the corporations will increasingly eliminate the small producers in the sector?
Sevov: The idea of the two national programmes smart livestock and smart crop production is to unite the efforts of the entire scientific community. We want to digitalize all activities that facilitate work in he sectors. There are deficits, such as the missing zoning which is the main reason for the depopulation of some of the regions. Small farmers cannot be independent, and the state must provide the conditions for cooperation to finally happen.
At this background agriculture is required to become more sustainable, greener and environmentally friendly. Is conservational agriculture a solution?
Mikush: The idea of bioregionalism has not yet reached Bulgaria. Smart agriculture requires much closer monitoring of such parameters, better statistics of crops to allow farmers to plan better and take investment decisions. I believe the role of the state is to create a hub that stores well-structured information for farmers. The connection between conservational agriculture and smart farming is about a global vision for preserving the natural state of the land and its balance. Smart development includes the market as well, including promotion of certain products and exchange of information. Furthermore, the state should pay more attention to landscape planning to incorporate the crop zoning that is specific for Bulgaria. We should be well informed to be able to reconsider our behaviour. At the moment so much data is being generated.
Climate changes are already a fact. Does the Bulgarian farmer have the capacity to adapt to them, as well as the Bulgarian consumer?
Sevov: They do and some of them do a world-level job. I have heard Dutch colleagues saying we have gold in our hands, but we don’t know what to do with it. Bulgaria has a lot to show to the world.
Zhelev: We must be prepared for the worst scenario. Ukraine for example is very advanced in no till because there are no subsidies there and there is plenty of land. Farmers protest against the new CAP proposals, but we have actually been experimenting with the new methods for several years without any financial incentives. What it takes is better coordination and improved communication between the state, the business and the academic community. Farmers must be convinced with the help of facts, not forced to do things. I just want to reiterate the importance of extension services.
Does the smart approach increase the prognostic capacity of agriscience?
I believe that science is getting more proactive and closer to those who need it from the genetic resource through sensors and monitoring the microclimate to soils and how to achieve the best effect. Researchers are making an effort to transfer their results to the users. Whether the sector is ready, I should say we must prepare it. Purely economically, if you wish, bioeconomy is a new market. How the sector will function depends on our combined action. We have excellent natural conditions here in Bulgaria.
What are the challenges to the scientists in your field of expertise?
Sevov: We should be flexible and adaptive to the climate changes and produce an adequate response to them.
Zhelev: The challenge is to be more combinative. Right now, we use homeopathy, sensors, biodynamic, satellites, scanners. And it is getting more and more complicated. It is getting hard for us scientists, let alone for the farmers.
Zaimova: From the perspective of the national scientific programme, they are to optimize the reproductive technologies, to introduce robots and manage the waste. The opportunity to incubate start-ups in the scientific community is crucial.
Is there science in conservational agriculture?
Mikush: Ironically, conservational agriculture looks for balance in human activity in the natural order of things. It builds on empirical science, which we now need to reconsider. There is science in survival techniques such as aquaponic, which can now be controlled remotely thanks to cloud technology.
Zhelev: One of the major challenges is to produce more nourishing food products.
What do you expect from the politicians?
Mikush: Legislation that is more adequate to the bioregional specifics considering the potential and expectations for the future.
Zaimova: A stable institutional environment. We need stability to be able to respond adequately to all the changes deriving from the global developments. The difference between our society and the Western ones is trust in the institutions.
Sevov: To assist the sector and provide a timely response to the challenges. The business should give assignments to science.
Zhelev: The economy should be driven by the business and not the state, and science as well. That is one of the criteria of effectiveness for us. Once again, the role of the state is to secure extension services, working and meaningful structures.
The recording of the discussion in Bulgarian can be viewed on the campaign's Facebook page.