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What if intensification of farming could enhance biodiversity?

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Could introducing more precision agriculture in Europe allow us to obtain food resilience, while ensuring sustainability and jobs, and taking into account the EU’s wide agricultural diversity?

Precision agriculture (PA), or precision farming, involves using technology to improve the ratio between agricultural output (usually food) and agricultural input (land, energy, water, fertilisers, pesticides, etc.). PA consists of using sensors to identify crop or livestock needs precisely (in space or time), and then intervening in a targeted way to maximise the productivity of each plant and animal, whilst minimising any waste of resources.

These technologies will play a key role in agricultural development in the coming decades. By 2050 the global population will be over 9.5 billion – we will require 70-100 % more agricultural output to feed the world. In the EU, PA could help sustain this growing population, even with low yields gains and a declining area of agricultural land. PA already offers technologies for producing more agricultural output with less input. For instance, sensor-based monitoring systems provide farmers with better information and early warning on crop status, and improve yield forecasts. Another promising aspect of PA is its ability to reduce the agricultural sector’s negative impact on the environment.

According to Eurostat, agriculture is responsible for about 10 % of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides, as well as soil erosion, cause considerable concern. PA could help a great deal in addressing these problems.

PA does not only use satellite navigation systems, but also a wide range of other technologies. These include:

  • Automated steering systems, which can take over specific driving tasks such as auto-steering, overhead turning (from the end of one row to the start of the next), following field edges and avoiding fertiliser or pesticide application overlaps. Automatic steering systems reduce human errors, and contribute to effective soil and site management. For instance, automated headland turns could already save up to 10 % fuel consumption.
  • Geo-mapping, which is used to produce maps identifying quantities of interest, such as soil properties and levels of nutrients for particular fields.
  • Remote sensing, collecting data from a distance, to evaluate soil and crop health, and measuring parameters such as moisture, nutrients, compaction, and crop diseases.
  • Agricultural robots in the future will be autonomous and able to reconfigure their own architecture to perform various tasks, offering enormous potential for sustainability: (i) Minimising soil compaction due to heavy machinery, (ii) Requiring less work and resources, while robots will most likely provide a greater output, as is already the case in the dairy industry, (iii) Optimising inputs used by farmers (e.g. fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides) and reducing the impact on soils and water tables.

However, when considering PA in the EU, we also have to consider that the farming business across the EU-28 is very heterogeneous in many aspects, as demonstrated in a recent overview of agricultural production in the EU and the analysis of the business models of farming in Europe. This diversity is represented in business models, production sectors, farming practices, employment as an absolute number and as a ratio of the working population, education and skills of the farmers, and farming output.

  Click here to read the full report.

SOURCE: European Parliament