Applying the right processes, in the right place at the right time. This is the objective of what is known as “precision agriculture” (PA), an increasingly significant system for managing agricultural processes, given the constant growth of the world’s population. The predicted global population of 9.5 billion by 2050 poses an enormous challenge for agriculture, which will need to increase productivity levels while protecting the environment. As highlighted in the report Fixing Food, published by the BCFN in collaboration with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), rather than attempting to fulfil this requirement by looking for new land to cultivate, we should focus on technological innovation.
What is already “in the field”?
The first definition of PA was provided 20 years ago, coined in the US in 1997, identifying this new approach as “a cultivation system based on production and information, designed to increase efficiency, productivity and economic yield over a long period for specific sites, for the whole production system, minimising environmental impact”. In practice, it involves managing agriculture by observing, measuring and providing targeted responses to the variability which inevitably arises between one harvest and the next, but also within the same harvest. There are already machines “in the field” equipped with sensors which enable the user to measure the condition and composition of the soil in real time and to regulate the quantity of seeds or fertiliser to be used. Also, satellites and drones collect information on the climate, yields, land use and the environmental impact of crops, and much more besides in this constantly developing sector.
Benefits for all
PA offers numerous advantages according to the experts at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission who contributed to drawing up the document Precision agriculture: an opportunity for EU farmers - potential support with the CAP 2014-2020, which outlines some of the potential benefits. From an economic viewpoint, a review of the scientific research on the issue demonstrates, for instance, that PA increases agricultural yield by 68% in some cases: a significant result in a system where farmers are constantly seeking technological advances to reduce costs without harming productivity. The environment can also benefit from PA, developed not solely to improve yields, but also to minimise environmental impacts and risks, reducing among other things the variability caused by the operator. “Every modern definition of PA takes environmental sustainability into account”, explain the authors of the report. Last but not least are the social effects of this new type of agriculture. As the farmer’s work becomes increasingly comfortable, some are even predicting “an agricultural system without farmers”, made up of machines guided by human intelligence.
The current scenario and goals for the future
Although they are potentially revolutionary and extremely positive from a range of standpoints, the innovations of precision agriculture are not yet as widespread as they could be, due largely to the high costs involved. There is also a lack of experience and skills required to make the best use of the huge amount of data collected by these new technologies. Indeed, the end goal is to develop management plans, which are flexible and able to adapt to changes, based on this information in order to improve productivity. But in order for PA to become properly established and transform the current agricultural production system, it is essential to focus on the figureheads of agriculture today – the farmers themselves – who must be given support in adopting and implementing this new approach. Consequently, we need to get rid of the old stereotypes, and update the image of the farmer as someone who is trained and prepared to use new technologies. In order to meet this objective, it is important to encourage the new generation. In a recent webinar promoted by the BCFN on the topic of the new Common Agricultural Policy, the experts involved discussed the high average age of European farmers and the need to attract young people to the sector.