International Agriculture News, Precision Farming

Like organic, transition to digital farming needs support

Changing farming practices is always risky and if we want EU farmers to enter the digital era, we need to support them financially for a certain transition period, as has been the case with switching to organic farming, agriculture expert Luc Vernet told EURACTIV.

“When a farmer changes his practices there is always a risk. For instance, when they go organic, there is a risk to face, because they change the production model and may be confronted with 2-3 difficult years of important losses,” Vernet said.

“If we want farmers to go digital, we need to secure them for a certain transition period of time and I think eco-scheme could do that,” he added.

Vernet, a senior advisor at Farm Europe think tank, which specialises in EU agricultural affairs, commented on the European Commission’s proposals for the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), stressing that they lack a vision for digitisation.

“We need a common vision and strong leadership in order to create a dynamic in the sector. If we don’t do anything, we will only have an elite of big farmers in a position to invest in the new digital tools,” he warned.

“What is the new model? The Commission basically says ‘we don’t know what the future is’ and asks the member states to come up with a vision and find the proper policy by themselves,” the French expert emphasised.

For Vernet, digital farming should take centre stage for two reasons: first because the profitability of Europe’s farming sector is low and secondly because the use of inputs should be reduced.

“We currently have this debate on chemicals and precision agronomy. How can we make sure that in the future agriculture does not disturb the ecosystem but plays with it in order to be productive and efficient by using fewer resources?” he wondered.

“With precision agriculture, farmers will be able to water only when it’s necessary and use the right quantity in order to optimise the production. In terms of pest and disease control, we know that either chemical or organic are toxic.”

“If we don’t use them, we will go back to the old days, where we had food security issues. We need to control the diseases in a wise way. Clearly, digital farming is the way.”

The agri-food industry has criticised the Commission’s proposals on the sector’s digitisation, saying that they disproportionally focus on controls and not on a transition toward precision farming practices. By using satellite systems like Copernicus, the EU executive aims to simplify and optimise controls.

The eco-scheme

Vernet explained that the eco-scheme provision in the Commission’s proposals is an “empty box” as only some part of the budget will be dedicated to green measures, on a voluntary basis.

“Why don’t we design the eco-scheme at the EU level in a way that supports certain transitions? A transition which will have a double objective: the economic and environmental. If we want to have sustainable agriculture in 5-10 years’ time, it has to be profitable as well,” he added.

“We could focus the eco-scheme on digital, precision farming, conservation farming all the models that are emerging and we see that are profitable for the farmers and the society,” he stated.

In addition to the eco-scheme, Vernet also suggests enhancing the investment measures in the second Rural Development pillar.

In an interview with EURACTIV Romania, EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan stressed that with the new delivery model, it’s up to the member states to decide how they will use their funds to digitise the sector.

But for Vernet, this will lead EU member states to a deadlock, as the EU executive proposes a massive cut in the second pillar and the income support, and in the meantime it tells the member states: do better with less.

“If such a proposal goes through, member states will have to keep the income support and simultaneously invest with 23% less money in the second pillar. If we don’t have a strong EU-wide orientation, the member states won’t have the capacity to drive the sector in a certain direction. The proposal gives no room to member states to drive a change in agricultural policy.”

The expert praised the Commission, however, for its “string push” to increase the capacity of advisory services.

“Owning a GPS does not make you a digital farmer. We need to work on an eco-system around digitisation where you have the farmers making the decisions, with the right tools, but also the cooperatives and advisors that can transform big data into meaningful precision agronomy.”

He said that today, this eco-system is fragmented, as the main actors of digital farming are dealing with pieces of the farmers’ puzzle: precision nutrient, precision seeding or precision irrigation, among others.