Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / December 1, 2017

Precision agriculture: legal, social and ethical considerations

Precision agriculture, or precision farming, is a modern farming management concept that, based on a number of technologies coming concurrently from outside the agricultural sector, is of increasing interest to of increasing interest to actors in related fields, as well as legislators across the EU.

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Written by Mihalis Kritikos

precision farming
© PlusONE /

Precision agriculture, or precision farming, is a modern farming management concept that, based on a number of technologies coming concurrently from outside the agricultural sector, is of increasing interest to of increasing interest to actors in related fields, as well as legislators across the EU.

Pointing primarily to challenges that may arise should precision agriculture become mainstreamed – especially across medium- and small-size farms – ‘Precision agriculture: legal, social and ethical considerations‘ aims at stimulating reflection and discussion regarding the legal and socio-ethical challenges that precision agriculture raises. This in-depth study is based and draws upon the scientific foresight project ‘Precision Agriculture and the future of farming in Europe’ commissioned by the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel (at the time led by Mairead McGuinness (EPP, Ireland), EP Vice-President responsible for STOA until January 2017). As the debate on common agricultural policy reform post-2020 kicks off, how will the EU address these challenges?

A threat or an opportunity for European farming?

The implications of rapid technological developments in big data analytics and cloud computing for precision agriculture trigger the need for an assessment of the aptness of the EU legal framework to cope with the ethical and regulatory challenges that the digitisation and automation of farming activities may pose in the years to come. Among other things, the collection and processing of data within this management framework for agricultural practices is expected to cause major shifts in roles and power relations.

The most profound effect of precision agriculture lies in its potential consequences for social values, the autonomy of the farmer, and local farming structures. These effects are associated with the affordability of precision agriculture technologies, the opacity of algorithmic decision-making and the blurry terms of farm-related data sharing and management.

Due to the scale, technical complexity and infrastructural requirements of precision agriculture applications, their uptake might lead to severe informational asymmetries and dependence on off-farm service support, because small farmers might lack the investment capital or knowledge to acquire precision agriculture technologies.

The application of precision agriculture may further augment the growing digital division between small and large farms, potential abuse of data by agricultural commodity markets, or even manipulation by major multinationals. Potentially wide application may in effect signal an unprecedented power shift in the industrial farming process, potentially leading to monopolies, which in turn may have an impact on food security, regional cohesion and the sustainable protection of local genetic resources and traditional knowledge.

The key question is to what extent, for what goals, and for whose benefit precision agriculture will be used. Technology in itself is neither good nor bad; how it is used is what determines the effect. The main challenge is therefore to develop a framework that can cope with the potential threats to the privacy and autonomy of individual farmers in a pragmatic, inclusive, and dynamic manner.

Call for legislative action and ethical guidance

In presenting socio-legal reflections of relevance to European Parliament’s work, the STOA study illustrates the different ways in which these technological trends affect the current EU legislative framework. It lists the issues that might have to be dealt with, the EP committees concerned, and the legislative acts that might need to be revisited, especially in view of the upcoming communication on the future of the common agricultural policy. Areas of EU law that may need to be adjusted or revised due to the potential deployment of precision agriculture and its increased capacity to collect and process a massive amount of farm-related data are considered. The study also provides a series of overarching recommendations that EU actors can take into account when dealing with precision agriculture. It concludes with options for possible policy measures to tackle the issues thrown up by precision agriculture. For instance, the study points out that data can be a valuable commodity in its own right, warning that its misuse could have far-reaching consequences: ‘[Precision agriculture-related data] combined with other farm data can be crunched, tweezed or bludgeoned into showing trends, predict market futures or the adoption of new crop technology. Thus, its potential misuse could lead to anti-competitive practices including price discrimination and speculations in commodity markets that may affect food security especially in Europe’.

The study further suggests that one way of addressing the challenges raised by precision agriculture could be to incentivise producers’ organisations to enable access to precision farming for their members, with the support of single common market organisation funds. There are also calls for legislative action in a number of other areas, including the drafting of ‘fair-use technology use agreements at the EU level’, and the creation of a ‘code of best agricultural data management’. The study also calls for the establishment of what it calls ‘an EU-wide independent, farmer-centric data repository’ to ensure safe and proper access to data generated by precision farming.

This in-depth study seeks to provide Members of the European Parliament with an overview of the various questions they are likely to face in the coming years, and a forward-looking instrument to allow the European Parliament to plan ahead for appropriate legislation.

Read the complete study in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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