Editorial - what would AI mean for EU agriculture?

Bernard Ader, Vice President of Cogeca, asks what the successful development of artificial intelligence mean for European agriculture.
calendar icon 2 February 2021
clock icon 7 minute read

Back in January, COGECA organised a business forum dedicated to artificial intelligence (AI) in the agri-food system. It was a great opportunity to discuss many exciting challenges and to draw the contours of an “agriculture 4.0” which, like the concept of "web 3.0 or 4.0", is rooted in the sharing of data and its use by a set of intelligent machines.

When questioning new topics and concepts, I think that there are relevant questions and irrelevant ones. To me, it is no longer time to discuss whether these technologies are coming to our farms, they are in fact already partially deployed.

In 2020, it is estimated that farmers will be using 75 million connected devices. It is no longer time to discuss the magnitude of this revolution; we know that it will be huge with profound impacts on our daily work. The overall AI in the agriculture market is projected to grow from an estimated $1.0 billion in 2020 to $4.0 billion by 2026, meaning that between 2020 and 2026 the sector of Agricultural AI will grow by 25 percent yearly.

It is also no longer time to discuss farmers’ appetite for those technologies. Most of us are using one or multiple AI solutions, even without being fully aware of it. We use monitoring tools, mobile applications, software, robots, connected equipment etc. By 2050, researchers estimate that the average farm is expected to generate an average of 4.1 million data points every day.

To me, the most important question that we will collectively have to answer is, “what would the successful development of AI mean for agriculture and the food value chain?” Having seen so many examples and applications during the COGECA Business Forum, I think it is important that we, farmers, are a driving force in this evolution.

Artificial intelligence, at least in the years to come, will remain a tool. A tool by essence is not good or bad, it is what we make of it. It is therefore not a question of being a technophile or technophobe, but it is politically important to define what kind of artificial intelligence we want in Europe. We have to support the boom of European companies and start-ups that seem to us to be the most promising in order to see the success of European champions in the sector. Today the American continent is ahead, and the countries of the Asia-Pacific bloc could also overtake us in the near future. So, what should be encouraged in terms of artificial intelligence? I see at least 3 elements that would make it the positive revolution that EU farmers expect.

1- Artificial intelligence must support the development of "mission-oriented agriculture"

Previous agriculture revolutions put productivity gains at the core of their values. The current climate and biodiversity crisis linked with the need to maintain of food safety are challenging farming and farmers’ missions. We cannot expect the use of AI for the sole purpose of making productivity gains. The final form of these tools should go beyond productivity to integrate goals of being social responsible, environmentally friendly, and popular among farmers.

Water, nitrogen, carbon emission monitoring equipment, blockchain technology, robotics, and chatbots are some example that have the potential to demonstrate those commitments that are so important for end-consumers. Demonstrating our carbon sequestration capacity in a concrete and quantified way, our work on the quality of soils, air and biodiversity should also help design new support schemes and policies that should reward farmers for their services and the missions they are accomplishing for the whole community. No one but farmers have this capacity to produce food and store carbon at the same time. We as farmers know it, and tomorrow we will prove it with the help of new technologies.

2- Artificial intelligence in agriculture must be popular and designed with farmers, for all farmers

A risk already well identified with the development of an “agriculture 4.0” is not to leave someone behind. It is important for farmers to be able to choose the farming practices that they want to apply and that they receive adequate support and guidance in the application of these new practices. The problem with an agriculture that includes more artificial intelligence tools is access and the cost of these technologies, which is often significant and cumulative.

Previous agrarian revolutions have been successful because they managed to be popular. It is important that the development of artificial intelligence services follows the same model and is also accompanied by new business models. This question of the cost of this technology is often forgotten in the Brussels debates. So, while I support the vision of the Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, who believes in smart farming, I think it is important that the Commission explains the mechanisms by which we will enable farmers to make their choices on AI agriculture.

Today, there are two other major obstacles which Europe is trying to respond to with the Green Deal and the new CAP, namely the full deployment of broadband in rural areas and the training of farmers. This might sound like a trivial reality, but it is one that will play a key role in the deployment of these new forms of agriculture. In this regard, it is fundamental to ensure that the Economic Recovery Programme includes, among other measures, support for investment in cutting-edge technologies such as digitalization, AI, robotics, drones or NBTs in agriculture, with adequate budgetary allocations from outside the agricultural budget. We believe in the power of EU common policies and have been supportive of the Commission efforts in the digital single market. We will continue supporting their efforts.

3 – Artificial intelligence in agriculture must be based on the willingness of farmers to share data they own

The introduction of AI provides the power to process huge amounts of data, pooling and exchanging information with multiple data sources to provide decision support systems for to aid farmers and their cooperatives in making complex decisions.

In this regard, farmers and agri-businesses are more than willing to share data with each other and engage in a more open data mind-set if it could enhance their own practices. However, they will only do so if the potential benefits and risks are made clear and when they can trust that these are settled in a proper and fair way through contractual agreements. It is therefore crucial to define key principles of data rights, access rights and data re-use rights. In this regard, the EU code of conduct that Copa-Cogeca signed with other key sectorial organisations back in 2018 was a first way to ensure those rights to farmers. It shows the importance of engaging in a policy dialogue as the technologies will continue to evolve and their side effects need to be curbed. Finally, it’s crucial that data is stored in Europe.

An enhanced role for agri-cooperatives

To conclude, as a representative of a farming Cooperative, I wanted to raise awareness of the important role played by cooperatives. In fact, as I see it in my own organisation, the cooperative model has a lot to offer when it comes to the development and the adoptions of those new technologies.

The efforts of our enterprises in this field are driven by two goals: supporting their farmer-owners in the digital transition and remaining competitive in a more sustainable economy. We are working to assist farmers and members with AI procedures, by providing advice and implementation guidelines, thus adding to a combined sustainable and digital agri-food sector. Moreover, we are investing resources and adapting our business models to explore the potential of these cutting-edge technologies.


However, from a value-driven, innovation point of view, if our cooperative aims to realise any substantial performance gains and positive contribution to social and environmental targets from their AI investments, they must develop and promote an AI capability. We need to foster, within our enterprises, the ability to orchestrate organisational resources and apply computer systems able to engage in human-like thought processes such as learning, reasoning, and self-correction towards operational tasks. Development of artificial intelligence will serve the entire value chain, generating productivity gains, improving logistics and optimising the economy of resources (energy, water, etc).

Consequently, a great effort is still required of our cooperatives that are addressing the most common problems that the sector suffers in relation to new technologies. We still witness a great lack of integration between the systems, an evident digital skill gap at farm level, lack of employee preparation, as well as an insufficient innovative culture and cooperation with other players of the value chain to build a digitally enhanced collaborative economic ecosystem.

With this Business Forum we have demonstrated that Agri-cooperatives can convert traditional business models and conventional agriculture activities into smart ones. We need, however, a favourable regulatory environment that boosts our investments and projects our values towards the future. We need access to finance and support schemes. We need to recognise the value that our cooperative enterprises create to benefit their farmer-owners, the environment, and consumers.

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