Agricultural research: EU should focus on Precision Farming, resource efficiency & digitisation

EU funding for agricultural research should focus on Precision Farming, resource efficiency, alternative energies & digitisation. These were some of the key messages submitted by CEMA to the stakeholder consultation on Societal Challenge 2 of the EU's Horizon 2020 Framework Research Programme. In addition, the EU should support the drawing up of a new strategic research agenda for agricultural engineering. 

In order to ensure that future innovations will reach European farmers and will be used in the field, it will be important to research factors and perceptions that effectively act as barriers to technological change for farmers and to design adequate financial support and incentive schemes to accelerate such change. 

The ultimate aim must be to empower farms to make meaningful advances in smart localized resource management and thus achieve significant aggregate productivity and sustainability gains in European farming. 

To read more, please find below:

  • the submitted document (click here or on the link below) & the answers to the open questions; 
  • detailed answers to questions 15) and 16).

 

15) What are the challenges in the areas covered by Societal Challenge 2 that require urgent action under the Work Programme 2018-2020? [NB: to read CEMA's DETAILED answer, please scroll down to the end of this site]

  • Challenge: minimize use of scarce, energy-intensive inputs by applying them in the right way, at the right amount, in the right place & at the right time (Precision Agriculture). Requires knowledge of soil specificities & ever more elaborate, autonomous high-precision tools & machines.
  • Sensor readings should be combined with data from past crop cycles. Urgent action is needed to drive up availability of usable agronomic intelligence per cm2 field.
  • Research needed to understand how much use-efficiency of machinery can be driven up further by equipping them with sensors, wireless communication & by steering operations with farm management software
  • Renewable energy: aim is to develop decentralized systems for on-farm production & use of energy. Concepts: electro mobility, fuel cells, bio methane & on-farm use of 1st generation biofuels.
  • ICT/digitisation: innovative digital structures, interoperability between platforms/portals/services & ease of use are of fundamental importance.

 

16) What are the desired output and long term-impacts that could be foreseen for Societal Challenge 2? Which innovation aspects would be needed to respond to our societal needs and market development within the next 5-7 years? [NB: to read CEMA's DETAILED answer, please scroll down to the end of this site]

  • Desired output: significant increase in the adoption of smart technologies to empower farms to make meaningful advances in smart localized resource management.
  • Long-term impact: massive aggregate productivity and sustainability gains.
  • Key enabler: innovative tools, including user- friendly ICT solutions to allow easy exchange of data.
  • Further innovation needs: development of robust sensor technology, connected to vehicles, FMIS, cloud and smarter, more precise actuators to allow precision seeding, pesticide application, and fertilizer spreading. Interoperability of data analysis providers/platforms needs further research.
  • Uptake: research on how software intelligence and interfaces can be more user-friendly and affordable.
  • Need for a new strategic research agenda for agricultural engineering (update of 2006 agenda ‘VISION 2020’ by the AET, subgroup of the European Technology Platform ‘Manufuture’). An EU strategic research project should be established to facilitate such an initiative.

 

17) In the areas covered by Societal Challenge 2, which gaps (scientific and technological, innovation, markets, policy, societal) and potential game-changers, including the role of the public and private sectors in accelerating changes, need to be taken into account?

A major gap is the adequate provision and design of financial support and incentive schemes to accelerate change by helping farmers to adopt smart innovative technologies, smart ICT support tools and FMIS. To achieve a more sustainable agriculture, there is a real need for new structures in which the focus is not only on productivity in terms of pure output. Inputs have to be taken into the equation, and this aspect must be reflected in the granting of loans and subsidies/incentives. The focus must be on the entire life-cycle cost, e.g. a simple fertilizer spreader can be 10 times cheaper than a highly advanced one, but the advanced version can save up to 200 €/ha on expensive fertiliser. A one-off upfront cost still acts as a considerable investment barrier even if subsequent pay-back has shown to be significant. Another element is the seamless integration of new technologies into the current way of working of farmers. This process must be made simpler to reduce adaptation time.

 

18) Which of the areas covered by Societal Challenge 2 could benefit from integration of horizontal aspects such as the social sciences and humanities, responsible research and innovation, gender aspects, and climate and sustainable development?

See 17) In particular, complementary empirical and sociological research is needed to better understand and analyze factors and perceptions that effectively act as barriers to change for farmers. 

 

 

Detailed answers to questions 15) & 16)

 

15) What are the challenges in the areas covered by Societal Challenge 2 that require urgent action under the Work Programme 2018-2020?

With regards to sustainable agriculture and forestry, advancing further on the path towards innovative resource management strategies and tools is of fundamental importance. In terms of resource constraints in farming, we are not only faced with limited soil and water as inputs. In addition, we see growing concerns with regards to biodiversity and environmental contamination in relation to traditionally intensive approaches to agricultural production.

In agriculture and forestry, resource management – one of the top priorities for research and innovation identified by the European Commission – should primarily be regarded as sustainable input-output optimization. The idea is to minimize the use of scarce, expensive and/or energy-intensive agricultural inputs (such as water, pesticides, organic-mineral fertiliser, and/or seeds) by applying them in the right way, at the right amount, in the right place, and at the right time for an optimal output with a minimal burden on the environment (Precision Agriculture).

Such an approach requires in-depth knowledge of the specificities of the soil and the surrounding landscape (slopes, hedges, trees, waterways…) to be gathered by soil sensors, satellite images, or drones. In order to apply the right amounts at the right place in a field ever more elaborate, more autonomous high-precision tools and machines, equipped with sensors and GPS, are needed.

In addition, farmers need in-depth knowledge on past harvests, past crops, past inputs, for a particular plot of land (full-cycle databases). Data for one or several years/crop cycles is necessary so that knowledge from new sensor readings can be combined and refined with the help of past experience. The ultimate aim is not to homogenize the production across an entire area of land, but to manage site-specific variations more effectively and optimize the production for a specific area within a field. In other words, urgent action is needed to drive up the availability of usable agronomic intelligence per square centimetre in the field and to move closer to even further refined management and application techniques, such as single plant treatment.

Resource management also relates to the amounts of energy used for the output achieved. Single or combined smart technologies with smart management of crop rotation, field operations etc. can reduce fuel consumption significantly without costly machine modifications. Further research is therefore needed to understand better and more holistically how much the use-efficiency of machinery can be driven up further by equipping them with sensors, by making them talk to each other through wireless communication, and by steering their operations more efficiently with the help of tailored data streams stored in a central farm management software.

Looking at resource management on a broader, horizontal scale, particularly in relation to waste management, agriculture can play a unique role. Agriculture provides a great potential to act as a key driving force for the development, production and application of renewable energy, as it is the only productive sector within EU society which at the same time not only consumes, but also produces large amounts of potential energy. The strategic aim here is to develop innovative decentralized systems for on-farm production and application of energy in, for instance, advanced agricultural machines. Ultimately, the sustainable production of bio-products needs a CO2-neutral energy supply balance. Innovative, decentralized on-farm energy supply und consumption concepts can provide the highest efficiency of the energy chain in “short circuits”.

In this context, a number of different, highly innovative (and complementary) concepts for farming and advanced agricultural machinery should be investigated further. Amongst these are: the application of electro mobility concepts, fuel cells, bio methane, and the direct on-farm use of first generation biofuels for which expensive transport, refinement and treatment against degradation would not be needed (a circumstance that would in itself present an enormous sustainability advantage). Decentralized on-farm (self-)supply of energy in any form will help to push farming to a higher independence from limited (fossil) resources. Most importantly, it will increase competitiveness in European farming and boost the creation of jobs, regional development, and industry in rural areas. By providing farmers with valuable additional income streams, this development will also help to boost resilience in the EU’s farming sector.

In all of this, ICT and digitisation play a rapidly increasing role. Most of all, innovative digital structures are needed that allow the performance of whole-cycle analyses by (or for) farmers/agricultural contractors. In particular, ensuring sufficient interoperability between different digital platforms/portals/services is of fundamental importance to allow farmers/operators to choose/combine data tools of their choice. Regarding such tools today, their comparatively high complexity and the prior expertise that is often needed to operate them can act as a barrier for many farmers. In the end, much of the analysis must be done by the farmer to achieve meaningful results that are tailored to his/her specific fields. Urgent action is needed to maximize the positive impact that digital technologies can have in making agricultural production and the agri-food value chain more resource-efficient sustainable in the coming years. 

 

16) What are the desired output and long term-impacts that could be foreseen for Societal Challenge 2? Which innovation aspects would be needed to respond to our societal needs and market development within the next 5-7 years?

The desired output is to achieve a swift and significant increase in the adoption and use of advanced smart technologies (in particular, sensor technology) in European agriculture to empower farms of all shapes and sizes to make meaningful advances in smart localized resource management. The long-term impact will be significant in terms of the massive aggregate productivity and sustainability gains that could be achieved with the help of smart technologies in the EU’s agricultural production chain (a development which would also strengthen Europe’s global competitiveness in agricultural production).

A key enabler will be to develop and provide innovative tools, including advanced ICT solutions that are user- friendly and allow easy exchange of data so that farmers can keep their freedom and can learn from such a system. The increased exchange of data between farmers and different data analysis providers on different platforms will produce more aggregated data and result in better agronomic decision-making overall while safeguarding data privacy.

Innovation must be further stimulated in the development of robust sensor technology, connected to vehicles, FMIS, cloud and smarter, more precise actuators to allow precision seeding, precision pesticide application, and fertilizer spreading. In addition, issues such as connectivity and interoperability of data analysis providers and platforms need further research.

To accelerate the uptake, research must also focus on how software intelligence and interfaces can be made more user-friendly. Another key aspect for farmers is affordability and knowledge on how different technologies combined can increase the return of investment.

To obtain a clearer picture of the innovation aspects to be considered in the coming 5-10 years for agricultural machinery there is a real need for a new strategic research agenda. In 2006, a European strategic research agenda for agricultural engineering entitled ‘VISION 2020 and Strategic Research Agenda’ was delivered by the AET (Agricultural Engineering and Technologies), a subgroup of the European Technology Platform ‘Manufuture’. However, technological progress has been so rapid that a completely new exercise is now needed.  A neutral body such as the AET is perfectly placed to update the current strategy direction. Setting up an EU strategic research project should be considered in order to facilitate such an initiative.

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