Tools & data

Background

The future of AI in the EU: possibilities and challenges

How will artificial intelligence (AI) affect EU farmers? Bernard Ader, vice president of Copa-Cogeca, the united voice of European Farmers and Agri-cooperatives, answers our questions. “It is essential for cooperatives and their farmer-owners to clearly understand the potential benefits and risks involved,” he says.

What can European farmers expect from EU policies on AI? And in which areas does AI benefit farmers?

“We are not aware of any concrete examples of AI already being used in farming practice, but the introduction of artificial intelligence provides the power to process huge amounts of data, pooling, and exchanging information with multiple data sources. It also provides decision support systems for complex choices that farmers and their cooperatives need to make. This gives farmers and their cooperatives a powerful tool to yield significant gains in terms of efficiency and productivity.

It will be key to handle essential repetitive and diverse agricultural tasks such as weeding, harvesting crops, or milking cows. The same goes for the processing facilities for packaging logistics handled by our cooperatives.

Artificial Intelligence also has a positive impact on working conditions, as it helps optimise the labour process and helps in accompanying farmers which can be significant for our sector. The same thing goes for farm and enterprises safety. We see that artificial intelligence can also support us in overcoming these huge problems.

Additionally, AI can support us in tackling environmental and climatic challenges, especially in reducing the impact on the environment, reducing our carbon-footprint, and improving the functioning of the value chain.

Agri-food cooperatives increasingly face the challenge of sustainable production. We are investing to improve the scope of innovations, preserve the integrity of the ecosystem, and improve the use of natural resources.”

Has Copa-Cogeca also considered the possible disadvantages of AI?

“Data forms a fundamental infrastructure within the economy, and increasingly in the agri-food sector, with many arguing that data ‘is the new oil’. Our top priority is to now ensure that the value generated from data can be passed on to farmers.

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 were given 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 is crucial that data is stored in Europe.

Cogeca and Copa are aware of this and we are working on these issues. We have recently worked on our contribution to the European Commission’s communication on Shaping Europe’s Digital Europe, where we stress a few essential elements. Agricultural systems need to evolve due to the volume and complexity of farm data being generated.

It is essential for cooperatives and their farmer-owners to clearly understand the potential benefits and the risks involved

People play a central role in digital technology and agri-cooperatives are well aware of how to manage the human challenge, as skilled people are always needed. We will need specialised new roles, new teams will need to be created, and we will need to create new skills and working methods.

Moreover, in line with one of the core cooperative principles, we will need to focus on trainings and advice. It is essential to disseminate the knowledge to members and employees and make them aware of the benefits that come with these capabilities.

In all of this, it is essential for cooperatives and their farmer-owners to clearly understand the potential benefits and the risks involved. This is the only way in which we can be more open to changes and engage in a more open, digital mindset.”

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Bernard Ader: "AI gives farmers and their cooperatives a powerful tool to yield significant gains in terms of efficiency and productivity." - Photo: Copa-Cogeca
Bernard Ader: "AI gives farmers and their cooperatives a powerful tool to yield significant gains in terms of efficiency and productivity." - Photo: Copa-Cogeca

Currently, AI is mainly in the hands of large multinationals and tech companies. Due to the widespread adoption of AI in agriculture, they will be even more influential in the food chain. How do you perceive this development?

“Indeed, other players from within the agri-food chain, as well as newcomers to the industry (such as the digital champions) are ready to jump on these business opportunities. For this reason we need make sure that our cooperatives – which are owned by farmers – have the appropriate support from the EU to harness the AI capabilities and create value for their farmers, their operations, their customers, and the environment.

To outsiders, an AI-controlled system can seem like a black box. The creators (hopefully) know how the system works, but have they adjusted the system for the benefit of the manufacturer (e.g. pesticide supplier) or have they created it with the farmer’s benefit in mind?

“It is essential to resist the technology push and design systems that are market-based. When these systems come to be developed by agri-cooperatives, by definition they will be designed based on the farmer’s needs – this is the ultimate objective of any cooperative.

As a user, I have learned that technology is intensely personal: you just need to ask someone why they prefer iOS over Windows

The real challenge lies in understanding the emotional aspect of using AI and in promoting its uptake. As with every technological revolution, the philosophy of user experience promotes physical and digital interaction. As a user, I have learned that technology is intensely personal: you just need to ask someone why they prefer iOS over Windows.”

Should AI-driven tools be measured up to a certain standard to allow farmers to use them interchangeably and irrespective of the brands of equipment they own? And what are the rewards of investing in new technology?

“Interoperability is essential, and new opportunities for investment in sustainable economic activities are coming. The mantra ‘What a farmer cannot do by himself can be done together’ is more than relevant when it comes to investments. It is why the development of AI through cooperatives makes sense.”

Could AI-driven precision farming tools also be offered to farmers within the framework of a large, European cooperative? The scenario: one EU-controlled organisation that offers every EU-farmer access to satellite imagery, weather data, crop scouting services, et cetera. Farmers could then subscribe to such a service and pay an annual fee.

“This is exactly what it is happening in the field, and these services are not always necessarily monetised because they create win-win situations where the farmers and their cooperatives gain in efficiency and sustainability.

Technologies for the agriculture and agri-food sector must be affordable. AI is one of the tools for responding to environmental issues and climate change.

How will agriculture 4.0 affect current EU-farmers? Will smaller farmers disappear, and will we see less, but bigger “autonomous” farms spread across Europe?

“This where the cooperative models come in handy once more as a key tool, as it is almost impossible for small farmers to make investments in this area. Through cooperatives, small farmers can form a part of agriculture 4.0 and remain on the market.”

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