Written by Lieve Van Woensel with James Tarlton,
How will information technology revolutionise agriculture in the 21st century? That is the question investigated by a recently published study on ‘Precision Agriculture and the Future of Farming in Europe’, which was commissioned by the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel. The lead panel member was Mairead McGuinness, EP Vice-President responsible for STOA. This blogpost summarises the results of the study, in terms of both the benefits that new technology could bring for agriculture and the challenges that lie ahead.
What is ‘precision agriculture’ and why is it important?
Precision agriculture (PA) is the use of technology to improve the ratio between agricultural output (usually food) and agricultural input (land, energy, water, fertilisers, pesticides, etc.). It consists of using sensors to identify precisely (in space or time) the needs of crops or livestock, and then intervening in a targeted way to maximise the productivity of each plant and animal, whilst minimising waste of resources.
These technologies will need to play a key role in the further development of agriculture in the coming decades. To feed the world in 2050, global agricultural total factor productivity (TFP) – a comparison of total inputs and outputs – has to grow by an average rate of at least 1.8 % per year. By comparison, TFP in the EU only grew by an average of 0.9 % per year between 2005 and 2014.
Another promise of PA is reducing the agricultural sector’s negative impact on the environment. According to Eurostat, agriculture is responsible for about 10 % of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to this, there are big concerns about the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides, as well as soil erosion. PA could help a great deal in addressing these problems.
How might we be able to support PA?
Besides further investments in research and development, there are other issues to be addressed in order to help further drive the development of PA tools and methods. New PA business models could be investigated with a network of experimental farms, and the results used to guide farmers in redeveloping their businesses. PA needs to be promoted among the next generations of farmers through exhibitions, advertisements and brochures. The upgrading of infrastructure for 5G coverage in rural areas needs also to be addressed – because of the low population density in rural areas, private telecoms companies may be too slow in making the necessary investments, and poor internet connectivity could be a bottleneck in the adoption of PA.
One challenge to be addressed is the lack of technological expertise in rural areas and the agricultural sector. Whilst the average school drop-out rate in the EU is 14 %, with a target of 10 % by 2020, it is more than 30 % in some rural areas. About 70 % of EU farmers have no formal training in agriculture, only practical skills. And 31 % of farmers are older than 65, whilst only 6 % are younger than 35 – such an unfavourable age structure slows down the uptake rate of new technologies. This skills gap could be addressed by improving education, as well as reaching out to smaller farms, which employ 81 % of the workforce, but may have less access to information on new technological developments.
However, there is huge variability in the conditions of the agricultural sector in different Member States. The proportion of the labour force permanently employed in the agricultural sector ranges from 1.3 % to 71.5 % (these figures also include part-time workers). The average monetary output per hectare ranges from €11 095 to €527. And the average output per annual work unit (the amount of work that can be done by one full-time employee in one year) ranges from €176 000 to €8 000. EU policy measures need to take into account the variation in opportunities and concerns from one Member State to the other.
Precision agriculture has enormous potential to help with securing food sources and tackling environmental pollution and degradation. To get the most from it, the EU should invest in research and development as well as in education and outreach, but in a way that accounts for the significant diversity among Member States.
Read the complete study on ‘Precision Agriculture and the Future of Farming in Europe‘.