Precision agriculture (PA) is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops. How do we bring it to the next level beyond ‘simple’ variable rate applications? We have to solve technical and organisational issues. Otherwise, the big promise of smart data use in AgriFood will only partly be met.
Recent EU parliament’s voting in favor of the Farm to Fork (FtF) strategy sets the scene for future European agriculture. FtF asks for major changes in how agricultural products are produced. Key objectives to be met by EU farms in 2030, are : (1) 50% reduction in pesticide use, (2) 20% reduction in nutrient use, (3) 25% of the agricultural land is for organic produce, and (4) 10% of the agricultural is set aside for nature (high diversity landscape features). Not mentioned in FtF and may be more important; farming should become climate neutral. At the same time, farming should stay economic, and food affordable and safe. So, TfT is very ambitious and 2030 only 9 years (crops) away ……….
Of course it is good to be ambitious. The ambitious transition asked for creates room for new opportunities and will be better for biodiversity, but it also threats existing EU potato value chains which provide safe food and a living for many Europeans. Because much is at stake, evaluations are initiated by several stakeholders. Wageningen University & Research recently concluded that FtF will lead to lower crop yields (on average a reduction of 15%, with situations up to minus 30%) and effects on trade, prices and quality. Likely, EU will import more agricultural produce with FtF. This outcome is in line with other studies by e.g. USDA and JRC.
How does this effect potato production and value chains in the EU? The 2021 growth season was very favorable for potato late blight disease. The 2021 production could only be saved by intensive fungicide use. Many organic potato crops had to be killed prematurely preventing Phytophthora infestans destroying all produce, leading to even higher yield losses than in the aforementioned studies. Current potato values chains in EU could not have be sourced with sufficient amount and quality of potatoes under the proposed FtF scene. So, potato value chains in EU under FtF highly depend on technical and social innovations.
From technical point of view, breeding and precision farming will be the pillars for achieving FtF compliant potato production, no matter if you grow potatoes in an integrated or an organic way. FtF objectives cannot be met without new varieties more resistant to pests, diseases and environmental stresses. Knowing that conventional breeding takes more than 9 years (read much more) to deliver the needed varieties, all breeding methods should be considered to achieve FtF compliant potato production.
Precision agriculture as a farming management concept is the second pillar. It will help farmers to make more sustainable management decisions and allows combining agro-ecological principles and technologies in the best way. Farmers under FtF have to make other, data-driven strategic decisions to improve soil health and resilience of their crops. These decisions are based on knowledge of smarter crop rotations including green manure crops, and how to integrate natural elements near or in their crops to stimulate biodiversity and natural enemies of pests and diseases in the best way. This knowledge is still very fragmented and not linked to technology yet. We must find ways to bring proven science based advice on these matters to farmers. Tools to do so are much needed and in development, such as a digital twin ‘Digital Future Farm’ for optimizing nutrient circularity between arable and dairy farms. A follow up project to bring crop rotation advice to farmers is on its way. PA has already proven here value for making better operational management decision (see e.g. variable rate applications in earlier columns; savings of pesticides and fertilizers are possible in order of 10-30% with current technology and knowledge and optimizing inputs at a scale of ca 10-30 m2) (this is low hanging fruit where FtF can benefit from). Here, green and digital go together.
Social innovation is also needed. This is about delivering a fair price and income to EU farmers. And excluding solutions on emotions. Potato production is a key crop on many EU arable farms. Potato crop yields on a hectare basis will go down under FtF, even knowing that innovations are initiated. It is very important not to communicate that we can keep the same high potato yields under FtF compared to current practices in coming 9 years. Unfortunately, I see this to many times in reports and communications on social media. Keeping information and decisions science based is much needed if we want FtF to become a success. Let us not exclude any solution based on emotions and make room for the required innovations and fair pricing.
Dr. Ir. Corné Kempenaar
Wageningen University & Research, and Aeres University of Applied Sciences
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