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Research Headlines - High-tech farms for a sustainable future

© Eaknarin #186418561, 2018. Source:

Agriculture and food production are facing serious challenges. A growing world population means food needs to be produced more efficiently with less waste and environmental damage.

Climate change threatens to disrupt traditional practices and supply chains. And past agricultural productivity growth has come at a heavy environmental cost including deforestation, loss of biodiversity and the overuse of agrochemicals.

Simply put, ‘agri-business as usual’ is unsustainable and needs to change.

The EU and EU countries have recognised these challenges and are acting on them. ‘Precision farming’ is part of their response. It refers to the development of new technologies to shift farming from the traditional ‘industrial’ one-size-fits-all approach towards sustainable, made-to-measure, targeted practices that produce more while consuming less.

The EU-funded ICT-AGRI 2 project coordinates national funding to boost research into robotics and information and communications technology (ICT) specifically for precision farming.

It brings together government ministries, national funding agencies and research organisations from across the EU who have agreed a ‘Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda’ to guide and fund both EU and national precision farming efforts.

“The closeness of our partnership to national policymaking and funding decisions means we have successfully put ICT and robotics firmly on EU and national agendas, which was not the case before,” says project coordinator Niels Gøtke of the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation. “Together we can agree and implement an agenda for the future and we also have gained buy-in from many agro-industry and farming organisations.”

Co-funding to face common challenges

In addition to strategy development, ICT-AGRI 2 partners have identified and co-funded agricultural ICT and robotics projects. “Small or large groups of Member States came together to fund projects of common interest – meaning particular common challenges faced by their own farmers,” says Gøtke.

In the HAPPY COW project, for example, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland worked together on sensors and software to detect hormonal changes in dairy cattle and improve the economics of breeding on organic farms.

FI-ORAMA partners from Cyprus, Denmark and Germany meanwhile developed a Farm Management Information System (FMIS) for precision agriculture in orchards and vineyards.

And in FarmFUSE, funding from Greece, Turkey, Germany and Belgium enabled the deployment of a multi-sensor platform to measure key soil properties and determine crop and soil management needs to enhance yields.

While most ICT-AGRI 2 projects are quite small, they are still getting noticed.

“Ten years ago, there was less commercial interest in precision agriculture but today we see much more attention paid by farmers and farming stakeholders,” says Gøtke.

“Partly, this is because precision farming technologies, such as multiple sensors, drones, satellite mapping and powerful computer information systems, are all becoming much cheaper.”

And this, according to Gøtke, makes such technologies available to small farms rather than only large holdings. “And there are many more small farms than large ones and they form the supporting backbone of rural economies and employment,” he notes.

Results not under wraps

ICT-AGRI 2 has identified open access to research results as vital for uptake and implementation. In the past, information was protected by companies that had made significant investments. However, that is now changing, according to Gøtke.

“With a raft of new ICT-driven technologies on offer, we see many new players entering the marketplace for precision agriculture technologies who take a more open approach,” he says.

“This is vital for a wide and optimal uptake of precision agriculture by farmers on the ground.”

The EU launched ICT-AGRI in 2009 as a European Research Area Network (ERA-NET) to unite and guide research efforts in the field of precision farming.

Gøtke says the next phase of ICT-AGRI will involve a wider, holistic approach that integrates precision agriculture into the whole farm-to-fork value chain.

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