Yannis Krarmitsios takes an in-depth look at the challenges for European agriculture and food security in the 21st century and how to address them through the adoption of new agricultural technologies.
The challenges of our century for European agriculture and food security.
European agri-food production represents today one of the biggest economic sectors in the EU. 22 million farmers and agricultural workers are involved in agricultural production. Around 44 million jobs are active in food processing, food retail and food services depending on agriculture. The EU is a net importer of raw agricultural material (cereals, trees, plants, vegetables, fruit, coffee, seeds), a balanced exporter-importer of meat and animal products, and a net exporter of processed food and drinks.
That balance indicates that Europe has achieved a high level of agricultural production, food industry and food security. We see however reasons to be worried. The rest of the world is going to become richer and more populous. Its population is projected to jump from 7,5 to 9 billion people by 2050, with higher GDP per capita than today. The developing countries will consequently retain their agricultural production for themselves and will export less and more expensive commodities to Europe. As a result, European agri-food industry is likely to face big challenges. Our trade deficit of raw agricultural materials is expected to grow further. Europe will thus need to become more food sufficient. However, its limited geographical space and the scarcity of water and other resources due to climate change might make that task difficult. Moreover, we need to develop farming policies that would contribute less to climate change. European Commission’s analysis shows that by 2050 the agriculture sector can reduce non-CO2 emissions (e.g. methane) by between 42 and 49% compared to 19903.
In this context, European agriculture will need to be swiftly modernised. It has to adopt all new technologies which are going to revolutionise the way we produce and also consume food.
Go green fast
Time for a European Green Revolution: the new technologies that we need to adopt.
The “Green Revolution” historically refers to a set of renovation of farming practices of the 1940s, 50s and 60s that increased agricultural production worldwide. It is credited with saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation. It involved the development of high-yielding varieties of crops, modernisation of farming techniques, expansion of irrigation and wide use of hybridised seeds, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
Now that the 21st century world is entering a new phase of population expansion, as well as environmental threats, Europe will need to initiate a new Green Revolution. European agriculture needs to adopt a whole new set of technologies that would increase farming efficiency and also respect our natural resources. It would be worth citing here some of those new technologies, which should be embraced by the EU farmers as a matter of urgency:
Precision farming• precision agriculture or “satellite farming” is a farming management technique based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops. The goal of precision agriculture is the accomplishment of a whole farm management to optimise returns on inputs while preserving resources. The practice of precision agriculture has been enabled by the advent of GPS;
• crop sensors: instead of prescribing field fertilisation before application, high-resolution crop sensors inform the farmers of the correct amounts needed. Optical sensors or drones are able to identify crop health across the field, by the use of means such as infra-red light;
• rapid iteration selective breeding: This is a new type of selective breeding of new varieties, where the end-result is analysed quantitatively and improvements are suggested algorithmically;
• robotic farm swarms: under this technique, agricultural robots operate with thousands of microscopic sensors with no human intervention. These robots monitor, predict, cultivate and harvest crops from the land;
Robotic farming• closed ecological systems: These are the ecosystems that only rely on matter exchange inside the system. Such ecosystems process waste products into oxygen, food and water to support their production;
• synthetic biology: it includes the broad redefinition and expansion of biotechnology, with the ultimate goals of being able to design, build and remediate biological systems. It is a discipline that uses engineering principles to design and assemble biological components;
• vertical farming: This would be a natural extension of agriculture in urban areas, whereby vertical farms would cultivate plant or animal life within high buildings. The advantages of such an option include year-round crop production, urban food autonomy and reduced transport costs.
Policy priorities for the next generations
These are just a few examples. Many more technologies are under development. Some of them are expected to be scientifically and financially viable within the decade of 2020s.
The EU must focus its funding and research on ensuring their integration into the ordinary agricultural production of Europe.
Farmers must be swiftly trained to adopt them and use them in their best interests.
Agricultural schools and universities must be supported in studying and developing them further.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) should allocate more resources for their development and wider adoption.
Only 6% of EU farmers are aged under 35. Therefore those technologies, and especially precision farming, should be seen as a good chance to attract young people and help achieve a much-needed generational renewal in the sector.
The entire European agricultural policy must develop around those new revolutionary tools. They are meant to offer to the next generations higher agricultural yields, better food quality and higher protection of our nature and resources.