Co-operative organisations in the field of agriculture are pioneering new farming methods using the latest in information technology.
Drones, automatic-spreading machines, satellite imaging and mapping and other innovations are helping to meet the challenge of feeding a growing world with limited resources.
Only 30 years ago, such technologies would have been the stuff of science fiction. But remote tools, such as drones, are becoming more important in enhancing resource efficiency, productivity, profitability and sustainability.
This brave new world of farming was explored by Copa & Cogeca – the co-operative voice of the European agricultural sector, with 76 member organisations – at the EUSPACE 16 conference in the Hague at the beginning of June. The major five-day conference brought together business and the public sectors with users and developers of space-based solutions to the challenges of growing global populations and limited resources.
Drones and other hi-tech advances are likely to be more and more prevalent in the future, according to the united voice of farmers and co-operatives in the EU.
Drones are currently used to complement traditional remote sensing techniques and enable farmers to monitor things such as nutrients in the soil, herds of cattle, production growth and fire fighting.
They also assist with aerial-precision water-spraying, fertiliser and pest management, and can measure everything from soil erosion and environmental impact assessments to livestock movement and wildlife conservation. In a world increasingly in danger of extreme weather, they are also invaluable for flood risk surveys and precise weather forecasts.
Copa & Cogeca senior policy adviser Daniel Azevedo says: “Digitally enhanced agriculture, precision farming, automated vehicles, robots, drones, informatics, satellite imaging and remote sensing all have the potential to play a major role and offer us great opportunities in terms of minimising inputs and maximising productivity, providing a new farm management approach.
“In combination with other smart techniques, they can contribute to enhanced resource efficiency, productivity and profitability as well as greater sustainability, contributing to the fight against environmental damage.
“They can also help ease hard work, reduce working time, increase efficiency and have tremendous potential to involve young entrepreneurs in agriculture.”
Copa & Cogeca recently welcomed the EU Commission proposal on revised rules of the European Aviation Safety Agency to recognise the importance of drones.
Mr Azevedo adds: “I believe that it is crucial to strike the right balance between regulation and innovation and ensure that prescriptive rules are proportional to the complexity of the operation. It is of the utmost importance to support innovation in technology and governance by providing regulatory coherence, clarity and room for entrepreneurship.
“Copa & Cogeca are therefore calling on EU decision-makers to come together to formulate a coherent strategy to promote a technological transformation of agriculture. Smaller farming businesses also need to be able to benefit from this technology, through contractors, service providers and co-operatives. In our opinion, there is enormous potential to develop new products and services and create jobs along the whole agri-food value chain through technology and innovation.”
Innovation, research and smart farming will also be the topic of a workshop at the Copa & Cogeca Congress of European Farmers in Greece on 5 October.
In Scotland, farmer co-ops are also leading in the roll-out of precision farming techniques, agri-tech and the latest developments in data analytics to their members, through a project being delivered by the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS). The Scottish Government is contributing £200,000 to the project, which will conclude in March 2017.
Under the initiative, SAOS is working with several co-ops, helping them to research, design and trial precision farming and agri-tech services appropriate to their members and markets. Learning will be shared to make it easier for other co-ops to get involved.
The initiative follows last year’s publication of the SOAS’s Vision For Agriculture document, and will see three projects be funded to promote the use of technology in precision farming; measure the value of farming co-ops; and record carbon gains from collaborative working.
SAOS chief executive James Graham says: “The purpose we are pursuing is to use technology, data and knowledge to produce more with less. We believe that as co-ops we can certainly do that more effectively than farmers can on their own, operating on the basis of sharing the cost and linking up production and supply chains and generating knowledge and social capital.
The purpose we are pursuing is to use technology, data and knowledge to produce more with less. We believe that as co-ops we can certainly do that more effectively than farmers can on their own
“Some of these technologies are already available and some are emerging, but we can make the most of them for industry by generating economic capital and working together as farmers. Each one of us has a contribution to make which can achieve our overall objective.”
Precision farming uses IT to ensure the right decisions are made based on information which is far more exact than it ever could have been in the low-tech past.
“What it enables is quite extraordinary,” says Mr Graham. “Satellite mapping of soil samples can reveal that different parts of fields need different levels of fertiliser spread, so you can guide your spreader to release different amounts to match nutrients in the soil sample data mapped on satellite.
“Crops like peas, wheat and barley can be grown using precise weather and climate data.”
The second of the three projects to be funded by the Scottish government will validate the value of co-op membership, developing a methodology to enable co-ops to measure and communicate the quantitative and qualitative benefits of membership.
“Last year, we encouraged agricultural co-ops to give us their own future vision,” says Mr Graham. “One of the roles they identified was to become conduits to new and smart technologies on behalf of their farmer members. This project enables the co-ops to proceed in the short term. We have had a strong response from several farmers who are keen to engage with the project, which we believe will make a significant impact.”
He adds: “Co-ops have a unique ability to aggregate data across members, and with others in their supply chains, to ensure the most efficient production in response to customer requirements. The fact that the farmers will own the data that is collected by their co-op, for the collective benefit of members, is really important.”
The third project targets a collective response by farmers to climate change, and aims to create methodology for collective actions and measurement of resulting carbon gains.
Mr Graham says: “This complements the others specifically because achieving an outcome of producing more with less is about gathering and quantifying the gains being achieved through changes in practice enabling us to evaluate and quantify them in carbon terms.
“What we are demonstrating is that we can actually measure on a co-operative basis the improvement and impact they are making and can take credit for that.
“In a supply chain where there is increasing concern with environmental sustainability we must be able to demonstrate and quantify the gains the co-op is making. Our position would be that farmers working together through co-ops are much better placed to get gains from using this technology.
“It is important they own the data themselves and that it is interpreted and acted upon.
“This is an absolutely fantastic opportunity for us to come up with more sustainable agriculture in the years ahead. The potential is enormous.”
In this article
- agri-food value chain
- agri-tech services
- Copa Cogeca
- Daniel Azevedo
- EU Commission
- European Aviation Safety Agency
- European Union
- innovation in technology
- James Graham
- remote agronomic tools
- satellite imaging
- Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society
- Scottish Government
- smart technologies
- North America
- United Kingdom
- Top Stories