EU plants seeds for smart agriculture revolution

Imagine a robot that knows when a strawberry is ripe and can pick it without bruising, or a drone that can shoot asparagus seeds into the soil at exactly the right depth. Think also of irrigation systems that know precisely how much water is needed in each cubic metre of field to maximise yield and reduce water usage.

There are hundreds of other exciting trends and breakthroughs in precision agriculture, and they look set to revolutionise farming in coming decades. It can’t come soon enough: the sector is struggling to recruit people and is already hard-pressed in keeping up with the steeply climbing global demands for food supplies, and the equally steeply climbing demands to safeguard the planet.

The European Union has put smart agriculture at the heart of its €365 billion Common Agricultural Policy from 2020 as it seeks to stem an outflow of workers from the land and to cut the impact of farming on the environment.

An ageing population and easier, better-paid jobs in other sectors have meant a sharp decline in farm workers. The European Commission estimates the agricultural workforce will continue to decline by almost 30 per cent between 2017 and 2030, to 6.6 million. But policymakers are optimistic that not only can agricultural technology mitigate some of the human losses, it can also make farming more attractive to the region’s youth, creating new employment opportunities and luring the brightest back to the land.

Julia Klöckner, German Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture, said recently: “Robots will be taken for granted everywhere in the fields, data will make its way directly from the field to the cloud, onto the supermarket shelf and all the way to the consumer’s plate.”

Smart agriculture aims to boost sustainability by pinpointing exactly which plants in a field need water or nutrients. Swiss startup Ecorobotix has created a solar-powered machine that can efficiently detect and destroy weeds among row crops. Controlled using a smartphone, it claims to cut herbicide usage by 90 per cent.

Meanwhile advances in fuels mean companies are developing tractors and other equipment that run on recycled waste, methane and other more environmentally-friendly products. Precise telematics control the machinery so that irrigation and sowing routes are plotted in the most efficient ways – and data are fed back to control rooms where the latest weather and soil analysis combine to minimise water and nutrient use.

Investors are taking note, with the agtech sector attracting venture capital of $1.8 billion in 2017 in 218 completed deals. There was a further inflow of $600 million in the first six months of 2018 in 105 deals, according to KPMG.

The benefits are clear but at present the adoption of these technologies is patchy and bringing farmers up to the same speed across the continent will be a key challenge.

Take dairy as an example. In the high-tech dairy parlour, the cow decides when it’s time to be milked and walks into a cage-like structure. Once there, a robot sanitises teats, measures the exact amount of milk produced and the amount of feed consumed by each animal. These systems are already used to milk about a quarter of all cows in Denmark and the Netherlands, with that figure predicted to rise to half by 2025.

But in southern Europe, where dairy farms tend to be smaller in scale, the use of milking robots is rare. The European Agricultural Machinery Association estimates that less than 25 per cent of EU farms have access to precision agriculture technologies, especially those under 100 hectares, which make up 97 per cent of the total.

The revamped Common Agricultural Policy has put up a budget of €10 billion for research into innovation in agriculture, rural development and the bio-economy through the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme. This is funding projects including robotic pepper harvesters and a desk-top based early warning system for toxins in dairy products.

At the moment though, many EU-led initiatives focus on state level assistance rather than individual farms and farmers. For instance, there is a stress on the use of satellite imagery to verify farm sizes, or to ensure fields are being rested, reducing the need for teams on the ground to monitor compliance.

That won’t help an individual farmer pay for, or understand, how best to use a smartphone app that insists only half of the asparagus patch needs water, or that the local supermarket is experiencing unusually heavy demand for radishes. There’s still much to be done to overcome micro inertia and scepticism.