by Isabel Espín, Professor at the Law School of Universidade de Santiago de Compostela
1. In a global perspective, the FAO Agenda calls attention to the increase in the world’s population, the rise in average income and the new consumer habits that will result in a greater demand for food in the coming decades, while the impact of climate change on natural resources makes it necessary to reduce the ecological footprint of our food production system. This sends the message that it will be necessary to improve both the productivity and the sustainability of the agricultural sector, which means that farmers will have to “produce more with less”.
Like any other productive sector, global agriculture is undergoing profound transformations related to new digital technologies and artificial intelligence, which gave rise to the concept of Smart Agriculture or Precision Agriculture, in other words, a modern farming management concept using digital techniques to monitor and optimise agricultural production processes.
The aim is to save costs, reduce environmental impact and produce more food, and for this purpose a number of technologies are made available to the farm “used for object identification, geo-referencing, measurement of specific parameters, Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), connectivity, data storage and analysis, advisory systems, robotics and autonomous navigation”([i]).
2. In the case of the European Union, the 4.0 revolution in agriculture is also confronted with the particularities of a sector of the economy in constant crisis and always in search of a necessary revitalization. It should not be forgotten that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is one of the most complex policies of the European Union, and which receives a significant share of the Community budget.
Europe has always recognized a special status for agriculture, which is still present with nuances despite the obvious loss of economic importance of the sector at the level of each Member State, and of the Union in general. The main arguments for maintaining the exceptional nature of the European agricultural model lie in the idea that it is a sector that is more sensitive to the vagaries of the supply and demand market, more conditioned by natural disasters, and more basic to national interests, such as food safety, not to mention less tangible arguments such as the importance of family farming, the role of farmers as guardians of the environment, or the consumer’s perspective on agricultural products.
As far as the CAP is concerned, the European institutions are committed to adopting a new reform that takes into account the multiannual financial framework 2021-2027, before the end of the current period (2020). The Communication “The future of food and agriculture” [COM(2017)0713] outlines the priority areas for a future CAP: sustainable development, preservation of natural resources and the need to ensure generational change, with a clear commitment to knowledge-based agriculture, sustainability and farm resilience.
3. There seems to be a consensus on the positive role that technologies related to the digital environment and artificial intelligence can play in the objectives set by the two pillars – production and rural development – of the CAP, and therefore on 9 April 2019 the Declaration “A smart and sustainable digital future for European agriculture and rural areas” was signed. It recognizes the potential of digital technologies to help tackle important and urgent economic, social, climate and environmental challenges facing the EU’s agri-food sector and rural areas. Member States are also urged to strengthen cooperation mainly in the following areas: strengthen support for research in areas such as smart farming and food traceability, establish a Europe-wide innovation infrastructure for a smart European agri-food sector and create a European dataspace for smart agri-food applications.
4. But how can the technologies of the 4.0 revolution implement the objectives set by the post-2020 CAP? What are we talking about?
In addition to the obvious improvement in productivity, greater control of the impact on the climate, we must add topics typical of the second pillar of the CAP – rural development – such as the ageing and depopulation of the rural environment([ii]).
The discourse of the renewal generational renewal problem, and specifically the incentive measures for the first installation and early cessation of agricultural activity, already has a path of at least two decades, and its results do not seem visible in the data reflected by the European authorities themselves , in the process of changes in agricultural policy in the 2013-2020 Horizon. New incentives must be introduced to make the option of engaging in agri-food activities and living in the rural areas attractive.
The introduction of new technologies in agriculture may be an opportunity to attract qualified young labour, but it is not an immediate solution if we take into account the technological adaptation needs of the territory and human resources. In this regard, the issue of generational change in agriculture has traditionally been linked to problems of access to land and access to credit, but now we must also focus on training in new technologies and on the digital divide.
5. The digital divide, understood from a territorial point of view as the lack of access to broadband, but also from a social point of view, with respect to the capacity to incorporate digitalization into agrarian activities.
In other words, several factors are delaying the final fixing of the post-2020 CAP budgets, including Brexit, but if we project a farmer with access to GPS, IOts, soil scanning and advanced data management, concrete measures to significantly reduce the digital divide, in line with the creation of intelligent villages, are urgently needed. Advances in new technologies and artificial intelligence are of no use when large rural areas do not even have adequate access to mobile telephony and the Internet.
This cannot wait.
([i]) EPRS, Precision agriculture and the future of farming in Europe, Brussels, 2016. https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/40fe549e-cb49-11e7-a5d5-01aa75ed71a1 Accessed January 28, 2020.
([ii]) See Article 102 CAP Strategic Plan [Proposal of a Regulation, 1.6.2018, COM(2018) 392 final]: (…) description of the strategy for the development of digital technologies in agriculture and rural areas and for the use of these technologies to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the CAP Strategic Plan interventions.
Pictures credits: Solar panels by Tom Jutte.