EVENT HIGHLIGHTS | AI in Farming: making the “Farm to Fork” agenda a global standard for sustainability?

On the 2nd of June, PubAffairs Bruxelles organised an evening discussion regarding AI in farming and the “Farm to Fork” strategy as a global standard for sustainability with Ms Eva Kaili MEP (S&D/GR), Mr Juha Heikkilä, Head of Unit, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, DG CNECT, European Commission, Mr Gijs Schilthuis, Head of Unit, Policy Perspectives, DG AGRI, European Commission, Mr Luis Neves, CEO, Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and Mr David Meszaros CEO, SmartKas.

Mr Jakša Petrić, Counsellor, Permanent Representation of Croatia held an introductory speech on behalf of the Croatian EU Presidency.

Mr Abraham Liu, Chief Representative to the EU Institutions and Vice-President for the European Region, Huawei, delivered a keynote speech and took part in the panel discussion.

The debate was moderated by Dave Keating, Journalist and Brussels Correspondent for France 24.

After introducing the speakers and the topic of the debate, Dave Keating gave the floor to Jakša Petrić, who commenced his introductory speech by explaining that the Corona crisis created significant delays to many initiatives proposed by the EU. As an example, Mr Petrić pointed out that the debate at the informal Council meeting on the question of “smart villages” has been postponed. The speaker subsequently highlighted that the Croatian Presidency has aimed at fostering innovation and development in rural areas in order to improve their competitiveness, whilst providing better conditions for citizens’ lives and attracting young workers. Mr Petrić also pointed out that, although the pandemic has created substantial difficulties, this has not been the only challenge that characterises the transition to sustainability for the agricultural sector. He stated that, on the one hand, Europe is willing to become a model in the international context by creating high standards for sustainable and high-quality agricultural production, while, on the other hand, the EU has also expressed a willingness to limit the volatility of prices in agriculture in order to ensure a stable and proper income for farmers. The question of financial sustainability of farmers, he explained, has always been an important aspect of European policies, however, he added, the Corona crisis has not only exacerbated disruptions in food production and the supply chain but has also put farmers at risk of failure across the old continent. In addition, the representative of Croatia highlighted that innovations in agriculture should take into consideration the variety of differences inherent to this sector across Europe. In fact, Mr Petrić continued, these differences are not solely reflected in levels of technology and infrastructure, but also in the different approaches to both agriculture and the geography of a given territory. Subsequently, Mr Petrić proceeded to explain the main strategies and initiatives that are taken into consideration in the reform of the agricultural sector. As a general principle, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform package, together with the establishment of national strategic plans focused on gathering agricultural knowledge, are to be put forward in order to assist farmers in using best practices and implementing innovation for environmental performance. He also highlighted that the two main initiatives aimed at ensuring the green transition are the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy. These two policy stances, he specified, make up the heart of the European Green Deal and will play a central role in the recovery plan for Europe. Mr Petrić continued by explaining that these policy initiatives will be crucial, not only to build resilience and prevent a future outbreak but also to provide immediate investment opportunities to businesses. Moreover, the speaker elaborated on how all of these initiatives should be connected with a new and reinforced Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2020-2027 and added that the Horizon Europe programme will include 1 billion euros to be allocated for research and innovation of food production, the bio-economy and the use and conservation of natural resources. In this connection, the speaker highlighted the importance of investments in new technologies, such as precision farming. These policy initiatives, he said, should also go hand in hand with enhanced social and health services in rural areas. Mr Petrić concluded his introductory speech by underlining three main ideas: the great potential of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to achieve environmental goals, provided that it receives proper funding according to actual needs; the danger of implementing a one-sided approach, as all the differences in member states concerning agriculture must be taken into account; the idea that research and innovation should provide for optimal solutions in the agricultural sector. 

Mr Abraham Liu commenced his keynote speech by stating that the Corona crisis has brought about both a high degree of uncertainty and new challenges, however, he remarked, it has also uncovered the crucial role of technology, which is in the position to offer several solutions and will be indispensable in linking prosperity and sustainability. He subsequently highlighted how connectivity has been playing an increasingly central role in the last few years, as it allowed many businesses to innovate and thrive, with special regard to the agricultural sector. Therefore, Mr Liu stated, digitalisation, combined with the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are all becoming increasingly relevant and are as such, poised to revolutionise every aspect of our life. It is thus no surprise that the Commission has linked the success of the European Green Deal with digitalisation, he remarked. As an example of the benefits of digitalisation in agriculture, the speaker explained how cutting-edge technologies in both West China and New Zealand have allowed farmers to monitor their cattle and have enabled agricultural entrepreneurs to choose the optimal moment to maximise the output of milk. Mr Liu explained that this process resulted in savings of time and money, as well as waste reduction and a productivity increase of up to 20%. Among several other potential applications, AI and IoT-based technologies can also be used to monitor the harvest and soil, enabling farmers to monitor the state of play of their crops in real-time. Indeed, he specified, by using the latest technologies farmers are able to optimise their decisions and reduce the use of pesticides and water. As a consequence, it would be accurate to state that AI-based technologies have improved decision-making, reduced operational costs and waste, along with providing an increase in productivity. Mr Liu then explained how connectivity should be considered as fundamental as water or electricity, especially considering the current uptake of digital technologies. However, the speaker remarked, there are still several rural areas both in Europe and around the globe that are not digitally connected. This state of play not only compromises the competitiveness of these territories but also the living standards in and around the area. For this reason, the speaker pointed out the importance of policies that enable farmers to adopt new models of production in non-connected rural areas. Indeed, while until recently providing connectivity was costly and time-consuming, nowadays technological advancements allow tailored solutions for rural areas to be connected with the rest of the world. The speaker concluded his speech by highlighting that Huawei has developed solely solar-powered devices which are able to provide broadband connectivity and can be easily deployed in a cost and time-effective way, allowing remote rural areas to be easily connected.

The moderator opened the debate by asking Mr Schilthuis how the digital priorities set by the Commission have been incorporated into the “Farm to Fork” (F2F) strategy.

Mr Gijs Schilthuis started his reply by stating that the approach taken by the European Commission in the Farm to Fork strategy has not focused on single aspects such as the food or farming agenda; instead, it considered the European food system as a whole. This holistic approach, the speaker explained, took into account many aspects of European food production and consumption, from the sustainability of production to its social and economic components. Indeed, he specified, it is not a coincidence that the European Green Deal, of which the F2F strategy is one of the main pillars, has been so deeply connected to the digital agenda. In further explaining the elements of the process that composed the F2F strategy, Mr Schilthuis highlighted that tools such as precision farming and the preventive detection of diseases are necessary for the modernisation of agriculture. Furthermore, he clarified that, despite the importance of achieving a sustainable model, digital tools are also fundamental for reducing the costs of inputs in agriculture and for providing better risk management, thus ensuring price stability and a more stable income for farmers. The speaker continued by explaining that another way the digital agenda has been integrated into the F2F strategy is through the development of connectivity. Despite the major rollout of fast broadband connectivity in many areas in the last few years, this process is still lagging behind the needs, especially if we consider that one of the aims of this strategy is to provide connectivity to all rural areas by 2025. Mr Schilthuis then pointed out that the key to understanding the measures adopted by the European Commission is to bear in mind the composition of farming across Europe. Indeed, Mr Schilthuis explained, Europe’s territories encompass more than seven million farms, many of which are SMEs. For this reason, he remarked, it is necessary not only to provide the legal requirements to deploy new technologies but also to enable the multitude of enterprises to use them and encourage farmers to switch to a more focused model for the preservation of the environment. The speaker also mentioned that there are other initiatives, beyond the F2F Strategy, to provide farms with the tools for the ecological and technological transition, such as the reinforcement of the Agricultural European Innovation Partnership. Furthermore, the Commission aims to transform the farm accountancy data network into a farm sustainability data network, allowing farmers and authorities to monitor sustainability data much more closely while translating it into a benchmark for farmers.

The moderator then turned to Ms Eva Kaili MEP by asking to which extent the F2F strategy will be able to set a standard in the use of AI in agriculture globally and how can the strategy be further improved.

Ms Eva Kaili MEP began her speech by stating that, after the Corona crisis comes to an end, there will be a collective realisation as to the extent to which the world is deeply connected and how our supply chains, with special regard to food, are vulnerable to global shocks. With the F2F strategy, she continued, the EU affirmed its willingness to deliver the message that Europe is trying to establish a set of rules and practices in view of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The MEP added that avoiding a repeat of the mistakes made during the Corona crisis will also be an important aspect of future policy debates. Furthermore, she agreed with the previous speakers that new technologies will be crucial for the recovery after the pandemic. Ms Kaili MEP then explained that the EU Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) would have to change accordingly to tackle the challenges posed by the green transition. The MEP also specified that it is necessary to foster the awareness of the fact that an increase in funding for research and innovation can be translated into a direct benefit for agriculture as well. With these concerns in mind, Ms Kaili explained that the Corona crisis should also be seen as an opportunity for change, as it has made it clear that food production, distribution, consumption and waste require new and innovative solutions, especially when it comes to an unforeseen crisis that may disrupt the supply chain. Concerning further improvements to the F2F Strategy, the speaker highlighted that, as in the industrial sector, a wide range of solutions can be provided by the private sector itself, while adding that SMEs should be supported as much as possible. As an example, Ms Kaili elaborated on some successful experiences of private sector-led technological innovations in remote areas in Greece and pointed out the importance of the participation of the private sector during the policymaking process. The speaker concluded by highlighting the importance of a more resilient and sustainable food supply chain in the EU, as well as the relevance of European farmers’ production diversification.

Dave Keating proceeded by asking Mr Neves what are the main ways AI can help farmers to transition to a more sustainable model and how, in his opinion, will the F2F strategy be able to encourage them to exploit these technologies.

Mr Luis Neves stated that, according to GeSI’s Digital with Purpose report, digitalisation will be fundamental in driving the global economy in the future. This will not only apply to job creation and economic growth, but also to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, he agreed with the previous speakers on the fact that the Corona crisis has shown us that the global economy, without technology, would not be able to maintain its status, as most human activities are currently digitally enabled. Therefore, new technologies and innovative tools will be essential in maintaining competitiveness in future markets, he stated. Concerning the F2F Strategy, Mr Neves agreed with Mr Liu by stating that connectivity will be a game-changer in the sector. In particular, he remarked that close collaboration with the most innovative section of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry would give a considerable advantage to Europe in the global markets. The speaker also explained the possible benefits of a fast digitalisation in agriculture. First of all, connectivity would allow farmers to adopt the best practices and technologies available, thus gaining the possibility to perform better and in a more sustainable way. Furthermore, Artificial Intelligence not only enables the analysis and projection of aggregated data with regard to production but also provides information on global demand. This process, he explained, would reduce both the environmental costs of production and its transportation costs, as farmers would be able to operate satisfying actual demand. Additionally, he remarked that the benefits of these innovations for consumers should also be taken into account, as European and global consumers are rapidly changing their habits and wish to know the origin of the products they purchase, as well as to be able to assess the sustainability level of agricultural outputs. Indeed, allowing consumers to fully understand the origin of a given product can be translated into a better understanding for farmers about their general preferences and, consequently, allowing them to better adapt to consumer demands. Moreover, he specified that tools such as drones, satellites and precision farming can provide both a better position and access in the marketplace, as well as a predictive model to analyse the weather, significantly reducing risks for farmers. Mr Neves concluded his reply by stating that he welcomes deeper collaboration between the European institutions and the private sector, as the implementation of the digital and green transition would be up to the latter.

The moderator turned to Mr Heikkilä, asking what are the most relevant issues for the Commission regarding cutting-edge technologies, such as robotics and AI, and what approach EU institutions are adopting to facilitate their uptake.

Mr Juha Heikkilä began by explaining that, as indicated in the recent White Paper on Artificial Intelligence published by the European Commission, the Commission stance towards AI and robotics is characterised by a comprehensive approach which addresses both technological and non-technological aspects, to achieve excellence and trust. Indeed, the aim of EU action is, on the one hand, to continue to foster the development and uptake of these technologies in order for Europe to be at the forefront of global innovation processes, and to strengthen the EU industrial base. This technological aspect is complemented by addressing the ramifications of the use of technology, notably preparing for the socio-economic consequences brought about by AI and ensuring that an appropriate ethical and legal framework is in place for this technology. The speaker highlighted how these two aspects, technological and non-technological, are not antagonistic, but support one another. Mr Heikkilä stated that this comprehensive approach is essential for building an environment of trust where the technology can be deployed and used safely and with confidence. Indeed, the aim of the EU to maintain Europe’s excellence and competitive position in these technologies is supported by a predictable and stable legal and ethical framework that instils trust and enables citizens, businesses and society as a whole to reap the benefits of these technologies.

The moderator asked Mr Meszaros how companies are using new technologies to make agriculture more sustainable and if the private sector has encountered any regulatory barriers.

Mr David Meszaros stated that the regulatory barriers for the agricultural sector are seemingly the same as those that the rest of the private sector at large encounters. Regarding robotics, AI, blockchain and drones, he explained that the main challenge for regulators consists of the adoption and implementation of these technologies into their existing policy approaches. He continued by explaining that the tech sector has a double challenge in public policy terms: firstly, new technologies do not fit into the existing policy frameworks and, secondly, there is an increasing worry that technological innovation will reduce the number of workplaces available. With special regard to the agricultural sector, Mr Meszaros pointed out that fewer people are nowadays willing to work in agriculture, making it indispensable to find a sustainable way to improve production and ensure food security. In addition, he specified that it has been estimated that by 2030 three quarters of the total population of the world will live in cities. This trend, Mr Meszaros said, will not only pose a high burden on the supply chain, but it will also require localised production in or nearby urban areas. For these reasons, he stated that robotics, drones and AI are excellent tools for tackling the societal challenges ahead and, to this end, SmartKas is working closely with several tech companies such as Huawei in order to foster cloud computing technologies that would make innovations possible. To conclude, the speaker addressed the employment perspective by highlighting that these innovative solutions will not make human work obsolete. On the contrary, it would provide new forms of work and flexible answers to structural problems, thus bringing about new opportunities, including for those territories where it is still not possible to farm as efficiently as possible.

To begin the second round of the debate, Dave Keating addressed Mr Liu and Mr Meszaros by asking the speakers’ respective opinions about what should be the priorities for the future.

Mr Liu stated that providing connectivity and proper infrastructure is, in his opinion, a precondition for every other action. In fact, while AI can increment efficiency, it cannot be displayed without a connectivity network. For this reason, policymakers should encourage operators to provide broadband connectivity, especially in remote areas. This process, he explained, would pave the way to smart farming as well. Mr Liu subsequently stated that in the past providing connectivity in rural areas was extremely time consuming and expensive and that the reduced number of users in those areas made it economically difficult for telecom operators to cover them. Whereas now, Mr Liu clarified, there are a variety of solutions that can be adopted and the prices to deploy structures that provide connectivity have decreased dramatically. Going more into detail, Mr Liu highlighted the importance of economies of scale in the digital sector as, once they have the means to be connected, farmers immediately start to collect information and act accordingly. For this reason, the speaker said that it is realistic to think that providing connectivity to rural areas would release immense potential, especially by considering that it would also provide access to unexplored markets and e-commerce. Mr Liu highlighted the importance of making AI computing more affordable in the future, ensuring the storage of a valuable amount of information in the cloud, as well as preparing a new legal framework for these types of data.

Mr Meszaros stated that it is important to understand that maximising output will not be the only goal in the future; on the contrary, the main focus will be to reduce the consumption and input costs in agriculture. To achieve this goal, precision farming, renewable energies, the implementation of AI and better usage of water will be central. Similarly, other practices like water desalinisation will be abandoned in favour of more advanced tools. The speaker also mentioned that, in terms of cost efficiency for connectivity, currently 5G technologies consume 10% of the energy of 4G; this would make it possible to deploy 5G towers more easily and with drastically reduced energy consumption. Mr Meszaros explained that thanks to this, together with SmartKas technology, they will be able to raise smart villages from the ground, providing them with autonomous water supply, electricity and a fast connectivity network. This initiative can find many applications in developed countries to connect all rural areas, but particularly in developing regions such as Africa. To conclude his reply, Mr Meszaros highlighted the importance of data. Free movement of data accessible to all will have a huge impact on the economy and, for sectors like agriculture, will be fundamental in triggering general positive effects, as well as allowing for the sharing of data concerning sustainability. In fact, he explained that the concept at the base of the realisation of smart villages is to set up a centralised open data source available for everyone, powered by blockchain technology. Considering the nature of this kind of data, it will bring benefits to all stakeholders, without compromising competition in the market.

Mr Keating then asked Mr Schilthuis how digital technologies can help in achieving the goal of reducing the use of pesticides in agriculture by 50% and how Europe can set a global standard in the sector considering the relatively small size of its farms compared to the rest of the world.

Mr Schilthuis began by stating that the reduced use of pesticides, which is notably central in the F2F Strategy, will be achieved through adoption of different agricultural, agro-ecological practices, including the transition to precision farming, plant breeding and robotics. He explained how these tools can aim specifically at SMEs in order for them to both become more sustainable and increase the level of production, despite their dimension. The speaker pointed out that SMEs are poised to be the main enablers of the green transition in Europe, which is also due to the fact that EU legislation connects the conditionality of subsidies for farmers to the quality of practices from an environmental perspective. According to the speaker, this approach would encourage more farmers to adopt digital technologies more than simply subsidising the use of digital tools. Indeed, Mr Schilthuis explained, the organisational innovation of farms is central to the F2F Strategy. Regarding the comparison with the rest of the world, Mr Schilthuis stated that it is true that Europe is primarily composed of smaller farms, however, he added that cooperation between stakeholders will not only level the field in terms of competition but will also allow the gathering and sharing of a valuable amount of data that can be used to monitor and implement best practices. Indeed, he stated, the organisational innovation of farmers would empower them to play a more central role in the green transition. As a result, the speaker concluded, Europe would be in the position to have a say on global standards not only regarding sustainability but also concerning trade as it would be pointless to set such standards at the European level if Europe would then import food produced in a non-sustainable manner.

Turning to Mr Neves, the moderator asked his opinion on the way forward for the uptake of new technologies.

Mr Neves started by saying that there are many ways whereby data can be accessible for farmers. However, to achieve this, a proper connectivity network and communication infrastructure will be essential as, without it, it would be extremely difficult to allow the free circulation of information to make the best use out of the digitalisation process. The speaker further clarified his statement by explaining that, according to research, the deployment of fast broadband infrastructure for connectivity will be able to generate a growth of 7% GDP. Moreover, these results are applicable in several other sectors of the economy beyond agriculture, further proving that such infrastructure will be crucial in the coming years. For this reason, he specified, companies that operate in this sector are fundamental and must be taken into account in the setting of the European digital agenda. Besides the direct economic benefits of these technologies, Mr Neves highlighted that it is also important to consider the social added value, as they will give farmers the means to better understand, use and implement innovative practices in their daily operations. The speaker also addressed the fear that AI and robotics will reduce the number of jobs available. Indeed, he explained, jobs will not be lost, but rather they will change in nature. In fact, through digitalisation, it is estimated that around 18 million jobs will be created. In conclusion, Mr Neves highlighted two further main areas that will play a relevant role in the future. First of all, he pointed out that privacy and security will pose substantial challenges in terms of regulation. For this reason, it will be fundamental to include both the industry and citizens in the process of defining the regulatory framework. Secondly, building trust for consumers will also be crucial as it is necessary to set clear regulatory lines in terms of legal responsibility.

Addressing a question to Mr Heikkilä, the moderator asked about the concerns related to the sensitivity of data and how it would be possible to find a balance between data protection and free sharing.

Mr Heikkilä began by stating that in its data strategy the European Commission advocates for a single market of data where non-personal data can flow freely in the EU and across different sectors for the benefit of all. However, European rules on privacy, consumer protection as well as competition are to be complied with. The speaker highlighted that the European Commission is in favour of pooling data in common data spaces in key sectors, but it also underscores the importance of setting clear and fair rules for access to and re-use of data. Mr Heikkilä subsequently explained that, as regards agriculture more specifically, almost all the EU Member States have signed a declaration to support the use of digital technologies in agriculture, including the creation of a European data space for agricultural and food applications.

The rest of the debate and the Q&A session covered the following issues: The view of the Commission on the future of agriculture; the prevalence of big farms over SMEs in the future; the repercussions of data sharing among competitors; the regulation of technologies coming from third countries in the F2F Strategy; How can the EU manage to impose a global standard for sustainability; the approach that Europe should take in order to adapt to the technological developments of the farm-tech revolution; how to provide the digital skills to workers to facilitate the change; the social and cultural impact of mechanisation; how to encourage collaboration among big farms, SMEs and other actors.

Want to know more about the issues discussed in this debate? Then, take a look at the selected sources provided below!

Priorities of the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the European Union

Sustainable Development Goals, UN

A European Green Deal: Striving to be the first climate-neutral continent, European Commission

From Farm to Fork: Our food, our health, our planet, our future, European Commission

A European approach to Artificial Intelligence, European Commission

Artificial Intelligence: A European approach to excellence and trust, White Paper, European Commission

Declaration of cooperation: ‘A smart and sustainable digital future for European agriculture and rural areas’, European Commission

Multiannual financial framework 2021-2027, European Commission