Expert opinion

Why is adoption of precision ag so slow?

Precision agriculture is a win-win. But if that is true, why is the adoption of precision agriculture so slow?

The introduction of precision agriculture technologies on farms will help changing agricultural production into a more sustainable activity. Policy makers, farmers’ organisations, technology providers and environmental organisations all agree: if farmers use precision agriculture they will improve on their so-called ‘environmental performance’ while maintaining or improving the farm economy. Precision agriculture is a win-win. But if that is true, why is the adoption of precision agriculture so slow?

Societal demands on farming increase

“Farming is simple, but not easy”, a farmer once said. Simple in its clear objectives, but complicated in the continued response to weather, growth conditions and markets. And it is getting more and more complicated as societal demands on farming increase, like higher sustainability standards to reduce environmental and climate effects, increased transparency while increasing the efficiency of production.

One of the options to deal with this growing complexity is the use of information technology: computers, robots, sensors and data analytics to facilitate decision making.

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incomes in agriculture are generally low and young generations seek their prosperity rather in cities. Precision agriculture can increase attractiveness of farming as occupation. - Photos: ANP
incomes in agriculture are generally low and young generations seek their prosperity rather in cities. Precision agriculture can increase attractiveness of farming as occupation. - Photos: ANP

An important aspect in the use of information technology is the more precise treatment per unit of soil, per plant or per animal. In agriculture, many innovations tend to move towards monitoring at individual level and responding to that also at the individual level. This is generally known as precision agriculture.

Precision agriculture is a key to increase environmental performance while improving yields and reducing inputs and costs

Once started as an approach to deal with soil variations within a field, it has now become a concept for farm management where farmers make decisions about their daily work based on measured values and work with technologies that can handle these individual responses. Although in arable farming its focus is to optimise crop cultivation, the expectations of precision agriculture are in reducing external inputs (water, fertiliser, crop protection agents) and improving soil quality and yields.

Hence, precision agriculture is a key to increase environmental performance while improving yields and reducing inputs and costs. Similarly, in dairy and livestock farming, sensor systems measure behaviour and health condition of individual animals, allowing farmers to make better informed decisions on treatments, thus improving animal welfare and production.

Agriculture has become a difficult dossier

For policy-makers, agriculture has become a difficult dossier. In the past 70 years, Europe has developed a food production sector that guarantees self-sufficiency and food security. Breeding, mechanisation and the use of all kinds of agri-chemicals has created a highly productive and efficient farming sector. The side effects of this high standard of production now become visible. Agriculture is a very large contributor to man-induced greenhouse gas emissions and is an important source of local environmental decline.

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The overall complaint is that the technology is too expensive, too complex and farmers don’t have a reasonable outlook on the return on their investment.
The overall complaint is that the technology is too expensive, too complex and farmers don’t have a reasonable outlook on the return on their investment.

Furthermore, incomes in agriculture are generally low and young generations seek their prosperity rather in cities. Policy makers are therefore very cheerful about precision agriculture as this could bring a multiple win: improve environmental performance and improve yields, farm income, increase attractiveness of farming as occupation and social conditions in the rural areas.

Greener and cleaner agricultural production

The use of precision agriculture technology could trigger a big transition in agriculture, also the manufacturers of machines and inputs agree: Their innovations focus no longer on mere productivity, but on a greener and cleaner agricultural production – of course keeping in mind the economic sustainability on the farm.

Another interesting aspect of precision agriculture is that it creates new jobs in the rural area: all these high-tech equipment needs to be operated, maintained and repaired. Also, sensor systems, drones and robots need to be connected and their data must be analysed and translated in actionable knowledge.

The few reports available on the use of precision agriculture technologies are not very optimistic

Despite all this very good news and incentives, the few reports available on the use of precision agriculture technologies are not very optimistic. Not many farmers use precision agriculture technologies, although the percentages vary by region. The overall complaint is that the technology is too expensive, too complex and farmers don’t have a reasonable outlook on the return on their investment. And across Europe, country- or region-specific issues arise, such as the non-existence of a services sector for these high tech equipment, or lacking broadband connections to handle the data.

Satellite navigation

When we look at the process of technology adoption, in particular of such complex systems as precision agriculture where various types of technologies are needed, it generally starts with the adoption of a single technology. For instance in Europe in arable agriculture this is the satellite navigation. When farmers are used to that, they will enlarge and invest in other technologies. After time, farmers will have adopted a changed way of working which cannot do without the technology to perform. This gradual transition starts with front runners and technology savvy optimists, who will need to prove that the technology works before the majority joins too. With every transition, there are a number of pessimists that will never consider to adopt the new technology of behaviour.

Reaping the win-win benefits of precision agriculture can only be achieved when these technologies become mainstream. It is therefore important to understand first of all the current percentages of users of different technologies, and moreover to understand both the benefits farmers perceive as well as the drawbacks that keep them from using precision agriculture technologies.

EU-wide survey

In a joint effort, COPA-COGECA, CEMA and several European organisations started a EU-wide survey. The survey is sent to both adopters and non-adopters because its goal is to find out how many farmers take up the technology and their motives. Maybe even more importantly are the reasons why other farmers do not use the technology. Giving the societal need to change the way we produce our food, all stakeholders are very interested in understanding how the adoption of technology is progressing.

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The survey will provide a better image of the adoption of precision agriculture and will provide policy makers with a clear agenda what to do to make Europe more green.

Have you not yet filled out the survey? Please go to this website and choose your language to answer the questions. It will take you less then 10 minutes and your opinion counts!

5 categories of precision agriculture technologies

Precision agriculture technologies can generally be grouped in 5 categories: first of all is the satellite navigation an important enabling technology in the arable and vegetable farming. Satellite navigation helps farmers to guide their machine with the desired precision to avoid gaps and overlaps in all field work and the revisit the same traffic lanes in the field without compacting too much soil. The second technology is the monitoring technology, from satellite to in-field sensor and everything in between. These monitoring technologies provide information on the status of soils, crops, barns, animals and other conditions, like for instance the weather or indoor climate. All these data needs processing and integration, leading to data management and analytics as a third category of technology. An important discussion here is about sharing data between the different stakeholders, as these data might represent economical value, which is yet to migrate into accepted models for data sharing and management. Based on these data, decision support tools are the fourth category. Tools that help farmers create actionable knowledge and facilitate evidence-based decision making. And this leads to the 5th category of technologies consisting of the robotization and the automation of all kinds of mechanisation machinery, to indeed do this precision agriculture.

Also read: Is technology the way to improve farming?

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