Does European agriculture need more digital technology?

Co-funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

1. Learn the ropes

How are digital technology and agriculture related?
The French ministry of Agriculture and Food talks about a fourth agricultural revolution based upon digital technology, including robotics, varietal selection and biological pest control. The second agricultural revolution took place during the 18th century, when the farming technique of fallowing disappeared and with the introduction of crop rotation (which consists in alternating crops on one same field to preserve soil fertility). The third agricultural revolution happened during the second half of the 20th century and involved hybridization and genetic engineering of products and the increased use of pesticides and fertilizers. According to French authorities, a fourth agricultural revolution is underway with the ongoing use of digital technology in agriculture. Here is an example: sharing open data can help develop collaborative networks for farmers to share their knowledge and work together. Open data could also help consumer get more information about where their food comes from. Digital tools can also help farmers better manage their resources and stocks. Robots used in fields are supposed to make farmers’ work less strenuous.
What are the goals of the EU regarding digital agriculture?
Digital innovation plays an important role in the New common agricultural policy (CAP). The CAP aims to foster knowledge and innovation. A key objective is to modernize agriculture and rural areas through fostering and sharing knowledge, innovation and digitization, and by encouraging their uptake by farmers through improved access to research, innovation, knowledge exchange and training. Member States have several tools at their disposal to accelerate digital transformation in rural areas. Moreover, two specific programs target digitization in agriculture: with Horizon Europe, 9 billions euros will be allocated to projects related to nutrition, agriculture, rural development and the bioeconomy. Thanks to the DIGITAL program, a new common European space for agricultural data will be established, as well as the implementation of artificial intelligence and digital innovation clusters. Finally, the PEI-AGRI initiative (European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural productivity and Sustainability) will foster competitive and sustainable farming and forestry. It brings together innovation actors (farmers, advisers, researchers, businesses, NGOs and others) at EU level to share implementation experiences and to develop innovation in the agricultural sector through operational projects.
Why is the digital transformation of agriculture controversial?
At a time of global warming, soil depletion and the scarcity of metals used to manufacture some technologies, it is believed that digital technology might bring an additional danger to our agricultural model. There are worries regarding the lack of questioning of our productivist agricultural model. This new agricultural revolution is indeed based on maximizing returns and intensive farming, which sustainable agriculture activists call out. France is particularly committed to the digital transformation process: the French AgriTech initiative brings together start-ups that raise millions of euros and are supported by the government. Farmers warn about the increasing risk of becoming dependent on digital solutions suppliers and fear that they will grow even more dependent on chemical companies. Our food production would then partly be controlled by these corporations. The new use of agricultural data also raise the question of cybersecurity.

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Does European agriculture need more digital technology?


Agricultural digitization is an inevitable goal to face new challenges

Irène Tolleret

Member of the European Parliament, member of the Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament


We are frequently witnessing unprecedented and extremely violent climate hazards: floods, droughts, fires… We do not have a choice anymore. Scientists keep telling us that we have to act quickly to stop climate change. We already know that we have to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. It is important to emphasize that farmers are among the most important players in the fight against climate change. However, they are also very often the first victims of extreme weather conditions. 

The European Union is committed to a green transition. This has become an essential part of its future economic transformation. The European Green Deals introduces new ambitious goals, and the agriculture industry will actively have to contribute to carbon neutrality. It is thus crucial that the UE gives itself the means to make this economic and environmental transition a reality. Let’s not forget that agriculture still accounts for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is therefore obvious that we must rethink our production model while trying to protect European food sovereignty. Hence the necessity to support European farmers in their effort towards a green transition. 

We need solutions, and need them quickly. In addition to climate change, farmers are faced with sharply increasing production costs, mainly due to the current energy crisis. The Green Deal, and especially the “Farm to Fork” and “Biodiversity” strategies, aim at meeting the environmental expectations of consumers. For instance, goals regarding the reduction in the use of chemicals are very ambitious. However, it will be hard for farmers to reduce their pesticide use by 50% and fertilizers use by 20% by 2030 without putting European food security at risk. Science and the authorizations of new scientific innovations are not making progress fast enough to address the climate risks we are now experiencing, especially given the severe droughts and other extreme weather phenomena we witness year after year.

In this emergency situation, farmers need digital tools they can use right away, and eventually, also in combination with other solutions, such as more resilient vegetal species, or new genomic techniques. Digitization does not currently reach all rural areas as it should. We must therefore improve connectivity and encourage farmers to use these technologies. Digitization is crucial, for it can contribute to significantly reduce chemicals use, and thus reconcile economic targets with the environment in order to provide European consumers with high quality food in sufficient quantity. The use of digital technologies represents a change in farm management that can range from minor adjustments to major changes in production organization. The young generation will likely have a decisive role to play in this new agricultural revolution. 

At the European level, the common agricultural policy (CAP) reform, coming into effect in January 2023, should help farmers transition towards environmentally friendly practices. One of the transversal objectives of this new legislation is precisely the digitization of European agriculture. We thus have the means, we now need to take actions.


Digital tools bring on many new concerns and challenges

Benoît Biteau

Member of the European Parliament, organic farmer and agronomist


As soon as they entered Ukraine, the Russian military plundered the country. They stole combine harvesters. After they crossed the border, it was impossible to start the machines. The company had remotely locked them, turning them into just a pile of spare parts. Russian hackers have similarly tried to hack into computer’s control system. Artificial intelligence and digitization in agriculture are taking on a significant role that we have trouble comprehending. In Europe, can we take the risk of seeing our harvest be destroyed one day because a powerful enemy will have taken control of our tractors from the other side of the planet?

Another concern is related to the ownership of digital data collected in the fields with sensors or by satellite imagery. In 2013, Monsanto bought the Climate Corporation, a company that collects and analyzes agricultural and weather data, for a billion dollars.

This information is of great value. It makes it possible to improve yield forecasts and harvest on a global scale, and thus the prices of raw materials on forward markets. With these tools, big food corporations, such as Cargill, reinforce their power on farmers and cooperatives who do not have the capacity to process large volumes of data. Cargill, ADM or Dreyfus use these technologies to their only advantage.

In order to bring more fairness in, we have to think about setting up a new legal mechanism at a European level to make these databases accessible to all. This is not the case today, which I deeply regret. Farmers’ access to their own digital data do not enable them to extract knowledge from it to a degree that would make them equal to the GAFA and other digital companies. Although the European Union is establishing a legal framework with the Digital Market and the Digital Service Act, they do not make it possible, in my opinion, to establish a more equitable balance of power.

Many farmers in the US are finding themselves tied to the customer service of the company which they bought their machine from. They can’t even access the service manual! In November 2022, nine of them sued the company John Deere. Their only request is to obtain the right to maintain and fix the equipment they own. This demand seems completely legitimate, and yet, it clashes with intellectual property rights and patents on computer programs. 

What is at stake is not only to know whether digitization is beneficial to the agricultural industry. Techniques and technologies in this sector, as in others, have advantages and drawbacks. No one can deny that they bring very a useful knowledge, for instance about soil. In this respect, it is up to each individual to evaluate how this knowledge should be used. However, as a lawmaker at the European Parliament, I believe that instead of rushing things, we should reinforce farmers rights, otherwise their autonomy to choose for themselves might be diminished again. We should also implement a European system to make our machines completely safe. The recent and recurring example of hospitals hacking by cyberattackers show us how far we are from achieving this.

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