On 26 May, Europeans will be able to vote to elect new MEPs. This election will no doubt provide an opportunity to take stock of a number of divisive matters. Amongst these are agri-industry and the many problems it raises between Member States. However, will the solution to this issue be a political one? Or will it come from the new concept of smart agriculture, which is an increasingly well-trodden path.
For smarter allocation of funds
The issue is starting to become more high profile in France. For the period 2014-2020, the European Union will pay out almost €700 million in development aid for rural projects, with one aim amongst several being the purchase of agricultural equipment. The rules are strict on this subject: money that has not been spent must be returned. The problem is that with only a few months to go till the deadline, France has allocated just 4% of the sum in question, apparently because of problems with administrative delays and software. Taking into account the key strategic nature of modernising agriculture, this sorry tale is quite hard to swallow, and we believe it is high time governments and farmers worked hand in hand to make good use of these funds. If a clear vision of agricultural transformation could be top of mind for both decision-makers and users, then there might be some hope of this kind of wasteful inefficiency being avoided. All this begs the question of the reorganisation of the CAP post-2020, especially since, according to Phil Hogan, European Commissioner for Agriculture, “The Commission’s proposal for the new CAP puts innovation and, specifically, digitisation at the centre. Each member state will have to explain what they intend to do to stimulate the use of farm advice, improve the uptake of innovation and digitisation (think of precision farming and satellite use).”
For smarter use of inputs
As reported on 29 January 2019, the European Commission has obtained a qualified majority for glyphosate to be authorised for another five years, i.e. until 2022. France, one of the most recalcitrant member countries, finally cancelled its ban, amidst public controversy. NGOs have come to the fore and show no signs of abandoning their apparently popular cause. We note that in France, almost 8 out of 10 people have called for an immediate ban on glyphosate. But public rejection of pesticides is one thing, fear of the consequences of climate change is another: it involves the need to save drinking water and arable land resources, and to save energy… in short, to do more with less, to be able to feed nine billion people by 2050. All these requirements are fully in tune with the aims of precision agriculture. This is covered in a scientific foresight study on precision agriculture and the future of agriculture in Europe, compiled by the European Parliament, “Precision agriculture methods promise to increase the quantity and quality of agricultural production while using fewer inputs (water, energy, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. .). The goal is to achieve cost savings, reduce environmental impacts and produce more and better quality food.”
For smarter NBT legislation
Since Directive 2001-18, Europe has undoubtedly been the continent with the most stringent legislation on plant biotechnologies, which has delayed the latter’s development, while at the same time they have grown exponentially worldwide (as an indicator, in 2017, ISAAA covered over 189 million hectares worldwide). A new hope has dawned for Europe with the development of NBTs (New BioTechnologies), in particular Crispr-Cas 9. This new technology, developed in 2012 by researchers Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, has led to a great number of improvements, including increasing the accuracy of intervention on the genome. It is recognized as being more accurate, faster, and very importantly, cheaper than conventional genome editing techniques. This gives another chance to small European biotechnology organisations that now have an opportunity to catch up, especially since the mutagenesis that this technology enables was not a priori subject to European law on GMOs… but unfortunately they did not count on the preliminary ruling that the ECJ issued in the summer of 2018, which is changing the rules mid-game, and stamping on the brakes for the hopes of potential innovators, as we saw in our editorial on mutagenesis and the European Court of Justice.
It will be difficult for Europe to say that it is engaged in precision agriculture without also encouraging NBTs, which are an essential step in this modernisation. Ideological considerations should not mean a return to endless debates.
For smarter, participatory research
Since the Green Revolution, farmers have often complained that they are dependent on big agribusiness and have lost their independence. However, with precision agriculture, contrary to what some are beginning to suggest, we have the means to involve farmers in the research effort as well. As one industrialist from a major European agricultural machinery brand says, “Today’s combine harvesters are mobile laboratories. With GPS, they can be controlled with great precision and simultaneously collect a large amount of plant and soil data.” This is especially relevant for data collection, as Philippe Stoop explained in a major opinion piece for European Scientist : “Participatory science, which draws on the knowledge of its future users and civil society stakeholders, is one of the key trends in current research. INRA has also been heavily involved in this area. However, much participatory science work remains very asymmetrical: researchers are often the only players putting forward the theories based on the informal and unorganised knowledge of the stakeholders involved in the project. Connected agriculture offers a unique opportunity for farmers to take ownership of research topics that affect them, producing data for themselves which is as understandable for them as for the researchers who will make use of it. Beyond its impact on the daily work of farmers, it therefore has great potential to bring research closer to their needs and enable politicians to better understand their practices. This is how agriculture will be able to meet society’s many expectations of it.”
For a smarter relationship with consumers
The loss of consumer confidence in the agri-food production chain is clearly one of the most significant social factors these days. So, to the question “What should the two main responsibilities of farmers in our society be?” 60% of Europeans completing the survey put at the top “Providing safe, healthy and high quality food” But as we saw in a previous editorial, blockchain technology provides new solutions to address all these trust issues. This is true especially for food traceability, but also to facilitate trade or to secure a supply system or a land registry… There are already a considerable number of blockchain innovations in the agri-food sector and the proposed future developments are very encouraging.
There are many more reasons for wanting the future Common Agricultural Policy to choose smart agriculture. But, at this point, the most important thing is to inform voters and politicians about it and let them make the right choices.