Smart Farming in Europe - Speech by Director General for Agro and Nature Marjolijn Sonnema
At the Internet of Food and Farm 2020, Amsterdam, 21st of February 2017
Ladies and gentlemen,
Allow me to sketch the future for you.
One early morning in March 2020; the sun is rising over a potato field somewhere in Europe. A soft humming sound filters through the morning mist, revealing the presence of farm machinery. Two tractors emerge. As we peer into the tractors’ windows, we can see only one farmer. She pulls up and explains:
“I’m controlling both tractors. Just last week, a vehicle mapped the whole field and this map is now instructing the tractors’ onboard computers how to drive. The first tractor accurately follows a pre-programmed route and cultivates the soil, adapting to the soil composition. The tractor I’m in has a sowing machine, and automatically follows the same route, automatically adjusting planting distance, quantity and variety of seed potato.”
This poetic glimpse of the future is based on the IoF2020 project plan. Imagining the future so vividly is not the sole preserve of Hollywood movies like Back to the Future – a movie that predicted our current use of video conferencing and drone cameras.
The scene I just described has a clear vision behind it, and we’re all working hard to make it come true. Agriculture in Europe is on the brink of great changes.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I’m pleased to have this opportunity to say a few words on this special occasion. I’d like to congratulate all the partners of this unique project, who have found common ground in their vision of the agriculture sector and are ready to make it reality.
Wageningen University and its creative researchers deserve a special mention here. The European Commission has entrusted it with leading this complex and ambitious programme. And I’d like to compliment DG AGRI and DG Connect. These two DGs are responsible for bringing farming to the next level in Europe. We can truly say this is a broad-scaled initiative that opens up new ways to smart farming and food on a European level. The scope and depth of this programme is breathtaking: all agri-domains are addressed (Arable, Dairy, Fruits and Vegetables, Meat). About 20 use cases are scheduled which cover the entire production chain. For these, more than 73 partners from 19 different EU member states will collaborate in business units.
There is a lot to be excited about. As I said, European agriculture is on the brink of great changes. We welcome these changes, in view of the major challenges facing the European and global food systems: a growing world population, depletion of natural resources, climate change, degradation of farmland, loss of biodiversity and depopulation of rural areas. And these are only a few of the challenges. It’s estimated that the world will have to produce more food in the next 40 years than it did the last 10,000 years. We will have to grow more and better food, with fewer inputs. It will need all our skill and capacity to meet these challenges.
Fortunately, these times do not only present huge challenges, but also bring new and promising possibilities and solutions. One of these is smart farming: the large-scale use of IT-based technologies in our food system such as robots.
To give an example of a robot in this field: here’s our agriculture minister Martijn van Dam, second on the left, discussing a robot at Lely Holding last week. Lely Holding is one of the biggest exporters of agricultural robots in the world. They hold more than 2,500 patents.
Other examples of IT-based technologies in our food system are drones, satellites, cloud computing and growth models.
These advanced technologies are used in a cycle of data sensing, data analytics, decision-making and actuation, and can result in higher and better yields with fewer inputs. And this in turn results in better-quality of soil and groundwater, because there are fewer negative effects, like harmful emissions.
Data can be converted into information which can travel through the food chain by engaging food processors, retail organisations, consumers, food inspectors and others. And this flow will go two ways, or maybe more, online.
Data-driven farming can enhance transparency and sustainability in the food chain, improve food security and enable consumers to be better-informed. I also believe smart farming can contribute to a more nature-inclusive way of producing, and create better jobs and new business models.
Here’s another example: a drone developed by students of InHolland university of applied sciences. This drone, or flying tractor as they lovingly nicknamed it, detects plant diseases and harmful insects. Here they’re testing the drone at Bunnik Plants.
To reach the next level of farming we have to invest in knowledge, and develop and implement new smart farming concepts which will result in interesting innovations. The Ministry of Economical Affair’s policy actively supports progress in this field.
Clearly, the timing is right. You can see it in the growing export of innovative farming technologies, knowledge and materials – almost 9 billion euros’ worth in 2016. That’s a big part of our total agri-food export position, which was worth 94 billion euros in 2016.
The Netherlands cannot feed the world. So we’re focusing on quality and innovation. In other words: we can’t produce enough tomatoes for everyone, but we can export our tomato seeds, our knowledge and the techniques to grow them.
In our top sector approach, government works with knowledge institutions and private companies to develop knowledge for new applications and services in smart farming.
A fine example of this cooperation is the development of the ‘Winterlichtkas’ or winter light greenhouse. It’s a greenhouse that uses the limited amount of light available in winter more efficiently, letting in 10 per cent more sunlight than usual. This innovative greenhouse, which is being tested right now, is the result of a constructive partnership between Wageningen University and Research, my department in the energy transition programme and a consortium of companies. At the same time, they’ve developed cucumber and tomato varieties that need less light to flourish. The combination leads to 20% more production while using 40% less energy. This perfectly demonstrates how a challenge can be tackled from more than one angle.
As part of the Food Agenda, Mr Van Dam announced a field lab initiative for precision farming services (‘de Nationale Proeftuin Precisielandbouw’). This facility will support new smart farming concepts. In the first half of 2017, a design study will be carried out for the field lab.
The Dutch public sector also offers a great quantity of open data which is of great value for smart farming. For instance, there are datasets on soil structure, groundwater, protected nature areas, topography, natural resources, aerial photography, arable land cover and crop growth maps. In addition to satellite data supplied by Copernicus, the European Earth Observation Programme, we will also provide open access to specific remote sensing data which is suitable for smart farming applications. All these public and private data flows demand clear policies on issues like data ownership, privacy, rights of use and other issues regarding data governance.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It’s vital that Europe invests in knowledge, innovation and the introduction of smart farming concepts so that we can meet major challenges together.
I encourage the Internet of Food and Farm consortium to link up with national and local smart farming initiatives in the EU, and of course in the Netherlands. By sharing knowledge, data, infrastructure and other assets, we can make more progress on a broader scale. So that, perhaps, we won’t have to wait until 2020 for that future scenario of two tractors operated by one farmer to become reality.
I look forward to this collaboration and wish all the consortium partners every success.