As part of its ongoing move to simplify and modernise the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the European Commission is adopting new rules that will for the first time expressly allow a range of modern technologies to be used when carrying out checks for area-based CAP payments. This includes the possibility to completely replace physical checks on farms with a system of automated checks based on analysis of satellite-based data in combination with Internet of Things (IoT) and other digital technologies.
The present paper addresses this topic from the perspective of technical feasibility. An overview of the most relevant experiences, recently finished or ongoing, is provided, as a good basis on which further implementations in Europe can be built. Key considerations and recommendations for the future are finally presented.
1. Before wide deployment of automated controls, the technical and economic viability of replacing on-farm controls must be ensured. To this end, the large-scale piloting and validation of technologies should be accelerated, building on the hands-on experience by recent and on-going initiatives (such as the ones reported in Section 4 of this paper), in order to promote the use of cost-effective, validated in operational environments and widely available technologies. Developments must be driven by the needs of paying agencies and regulators to guarantee workable solutions. Farmers and agri-cooperatives must be involved in the process from the very beginning to ensure wide acceptance. It is highly advisable that an exhaustive validation phase is put in place, where automated controls can be carefully benchmarked against existing on-farm controls to ensure fulfilment of performance and expectations.
2. In order to ensure a level playing field across the EU, the European Commission may provide support to the Member States in the design of the different technological tools and the required supporting services, as well as democratizing access to essential infrastructures (i.e. for data transmission, storage and processing). Ideas in this direction would range from subsidies for the acquisition of digital equipment to the set up of public data processing facilities and provision of high bandwidth connectivity in rural areas, without neglecting the importance of actions for improvement of the farmers’ digital skills as users of these new digital technologies, as this is nowadays one of the key reasons why digital technology adoption in EU agriculture is being relatively slow.
a. Digital infrastructure, e-services and high-performance connectivity in rural areas are crucial to the competitiveness of rural areas, to enable full digital transformation of agriculture, and in particular to guarantee that all farmers across Europe can benefit from the investments being made by paying agencies and the European Commission in ICT systems and tools (Galileo and Copernicus programmes, agriculture tools such as FaST) for improving the management and monitoring of the CAP. The connectivity gaps in rural and remote areas must be properly addressed. Particular attention must be paid to the deployment plans of optical fibre and future 5G networks in rural areas as an opportunity in this regard. EU, national and regional public investments should target those territories where the private sector alone will not close the gap. By looking at the level of digital infrastructure investments required in rural areas as of today, it appears that a better coordination framework between public funds will be necessary.
b. There is a need for more integrated and focused digital training and educational programmes coordinated with advisory services, ensuring that farmers have the skills needed to participate and benefit from the digital economy, supporting upskill and re-skill during their working lives. This in turn needs to be considered in the context of a wide diversity of practices, production environments, and socioeconomic conditions on farms.
3. The combination of different data sources (e.g. aerial data and field-data) entails a huge potential and should be encouraged, not only from the point of view of the CAP monitoring, but also from the perspective of providing additional, innovative value-added personalized services to farmers, and services of interest to the managing authorities. To realize the full potential and avoid data silos, sharing of data and open data schemes should be encouraged. Solutions for ensuring interoperability of data, as well as its secure management respecting ownership, farmers’ privacy and trustworthiness of data, leveraging the EU code of conduct, should be promoted.
4. In view of the greater emphasis on environmental issues in the new CAP, and the far greater awareness of impact of agriculture on climate breakdown, the range and type of measurements made by digital technologies need to expand. This presents a challenge and opportunity for the manufacturers of sensors and for the analysis of EO data. Most digital measurements for CAP have focused on type of crop, spatial measurements and little else. If crop and natural biodiversity is to be significantly monitored and enhanced, more sophisticated and subtle measurement techniques need to be developed both to support appropriate decision support systems and to enable monitoring of biodiversity, environmental pollution, water usage and other aspects. While great technical progress is being made in these areas, significant investment is needed at a European wide scale.
5. It comes clear that a close collaboration between the public and private sectors is needed to fill the existing gaps. It is recommended that EC and Member States build on public-private collaboration programmes. Instruments such as Pre-Commercial Procurement and Public Procurement for Innovation (in particular the latter) look very appropriate since the relevant services, as discussed in this paper, are not yet widely available neither in a commercial basis nor fully tested in operational environments.
6. Finally, the new technological solutions should not end up being seen as a form of surveillance. It is crucial to ensure that the new monitoring systems based on data will not be introduced to penalise farmer more easily for non-compliance, but rather to inform and guide them on their performance connected to the CAP rules and objectives as well as providing them a better decision making with less bureaucracy. In this regard, it is advisable to clarify all the uses that public authorities will give to all the information generated through monitoring. There is an opportunity to increase trust and reduce costs for all stakeholders by improving transparency and access to information of common interest (databases of soil maps, water maps, etc). In general, the recommendation can be summarised as “create substantial benefits and incentives for the farmer through smarter regulation, simplification, higher tolerances, smaller penalties and more guidance and correction, adding value for all stakeholders.”