The Mission of Switzerland to the European Union organised a short conference on “How ICT is going to change the agro-food sector in the next ten years” on the 15th July 2015 in Brussels. The development of the Internet and easier access to mobile applications, drones and other Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) at a cheaper price have allowed an important development of ICTs in the agro-food sector. Four panellists involved in the sector of agriculture discussed about the impact that ICTs have in the agro food business.
What are the opportunities provided by ICT in the agro-food sector?
As explained Pierre Treinen, Director of the Rural Economy Office of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, ICT are especially useful in precision farming in terms of getting accurate data on the inputs needed, which helps in using resources in a more efficient way (less pesticides for instance in the crops or adapting the feedstuffs of the cows depending on the precised analyse of the nutriments of the milk produced) and in having the less impact on environment as possible. It fosters a more sustainable agriculture and it can reduce the costs for the farmers (when using lower inputs for a better quality of the product).
Using ICTs opens new opportunities to sell products: time and place are reinvented thanks to the Internet, according to Professor Krijn J. Pope, business economist at the Agricultural Economics Research Institute (LEI) in the Wageningen University and Research Centre in The Hague. Thus the food supply chains are organised in a new way, encouraging shorter supply chains with direct links between the producers and the consumers. A mobile application can for instance put directly in contact the consumers with the farms who are directly selling their products.
In addition, data collected could also help the reinsurance companies to predict the loss assessments in advance and to have better modelling and trend predicting, as explained David Mäder, Rural Development Manager and Product manager for Agriculture in the Swiss Reinsurance Company in Switzerland. The aggregation of data helps to have a more macro-level monitoring and facilitates the anticipation of losses in case of unexpected events (storms – droughts …).
Challenges to overcome for a better use of ICTs in the agro-food sector.
Most of the ICTs are using directly the Internet, so a high-speed Internet connection is needed. In 2013 only 25.1% of rural areas were covered by the Next Generation Access (NGA = at least 30 Mbps) compared to 68.1% in urban areas, thus the use of ICTs are embedded by the poor quality of the connections, particularly in the mountainous remote areas.
ICTs allow an easy collection of data. But the question of the ownership of the data (the farmers directly, the software, the government or the paying agencies?) and the question of the aggregation of the data facilitating an easy analysis of all the data collected are challenges still remaining. Indeed, data need to be collected in a harmonised way to allow further analysis at regional or national level and these data should sometimes be analysed by experts. Strong links between researchers and farmers are thus needed to facilitate the links between the collection of the data, their analysis and what could be useful for the farmers on the ground.
In addition, there is a gap of generation between young farmers, who are easily willing to use ICTs and to share their data, and older farmers, who sometimes remain reluctant to their use. To facilitate the use of ICTs by all, several measures could be envisaged: training in agricultural schools such as in Luxembourg, using advisory organisations that can help older farmers in using the ICTs or increasing the networking between researchers and farmers to encourage innovation adapted to the needs of all farmers.
Finally, following questions asked by Euromontana, the panellists shortly presented two ICTs particularly useful for mountain areas. Indeed in Switzerland, as detailed Adrian Aebi, Deputy Director General in the Federal Office for Agriculture in Switzerland, many farmers are doing direct marketing on webpages and on mobile applications, promoting the pastures and the good quality of the grass eaten by the cows, which produced the milk used for their famous cheeses. Another example was a mobile application that could facilitate the localisation and monitoring of animals when they are spread on large fields or pastures.
It is expected that more and more ICTs will be used in the coming years and the panellists encouraged the European Commission to facilitate the aggregation and standardisation of data at EU level, for instance through a research project.23 July 2015