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EC: Precision agriculture key to farming ‘double challenge’

According to the European Commission, precision farming can help increase crop yields and animal performance, reduce costs, and optimise the use of inputs. This article follows the EURACTIV-organised policy debate “Precision Agriculture – What do EU farmers want?” supported by GIGAEurope.

Digital technologies can help farming tackle the ‘double imperative’ of greening the sector while ensuring food security, according to a European Commission official. But high investment costs and poor connectivity in rural areas might stand in the way.

Precision farming, in which digital technologies are leveraged to make agricultural practices more accurate, has drawn increasing attention in recent years as a way to optimise the use of agricultural inputs such as pesticides, fertilisers, or water.

According to Gaëlle Marion, head of the environmental sustainability unit in the Commission’s agriculture service (DG AGRI), such techniques could be key to making farming more climate and environmentally friendly while still keeping production at current levels.

“The agricultural sector is faced with a double challenge,” she stressed during a recent EURACTIV event.

For Marion, this includes, firstly, the “need for an ecological transition ensuring the protection of natural resources and fighting climate change”, and secondly the need for continued food production.

“Precision farming comes just at the centre of this double challenge,” she stressed,

According to the European Commission, precision farming can help increase crop yields and animal performance, reduce costs, and optimise the use of inputs.

For example, digital technologies can predict diseases and thus give a prognosis on precisely when it is necessary to use certain pesticides, conservative EU lawmaker Franc Bogovič, who is also an apple farmer, explained during the event.

This way, fewer pesticides are needed overall, he added. Similar systems can be used when it comes to irrigation, Bogovič explained, reducing the amount of water needed and making irrigation more efficient.

Obstacles remain

But despite such benefits, the broader rollout of precision agriculture practices still faces important hurdles. Notably, using smart technologies first requires a high-quality internet connection.

According to a 2022 report by the fibre industry association FFTH Council Europe, only 30% of rural inhabitants had access to full-fibre connectivity by September 2021, compared to almost half across all households.

Even though this digital divide is closing, connectivity remains “a fundamental issue”, Marion stressed, adding the Commission hopes to tackle this through the Connecting Europe Facility, an EU funding programme aimed, among other things, at creating a bloc-wide digital and telecommunication infrastructure.

Apart from improving internet connection, the high investment costs needed to acquire many precision farming solutions can be a challenge for small farms, Bogovič stressed. “I think it is very important that we take care of them,” he said, adding cooperatives could offer solutions by enabling the shared purchase and use of digital technologies.

Marion also acknowledged that support is needed for small farms to have access to precision agriculture, but said the EU is already doing much to this end.

“The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) supports and will continue to support not just investments, but also shifts in practices,” including by supporting cooperation projects between researchers, advisors and farmers, but also training and advisory services in general, she added.

Data sharing opportunities

Meanwhile, Marion also pointed out that digitalising agriculture “can be much more than an individual step at the farm level – it is also about cooperation along the food chain”.

Digital applications can potentially allow farmers to share data with each other and with partners along the value chain, or automatically and directly feed administrative data through to the competent authorities – something that could help minimise red tape, Bogovič pointed out.

To make such farm-level data sharing possible across Europe, the Commission has committed to building up a common agriculture data space as part of the European Data Strategy it presented in early 2020.

But research has shown that many farmers have reservations about disclosing data.

In a study conducted among German farmers by the digital industry association Bitkom, only 1% of respondents said they were willing to share data without a precondition, 13% said they were not willing to share at all, and the remainder said it would depend on whether this would bring them additional benefits.

Many are worried that disclosing on-farm data could result in negative effects, for example, if the data collected helps regulators introduce additional or stricter rules according to Aline Blankertz, the co-chair of SINE Foundation, an NGO promoting data collaboration.