Digitalisation in agriculture
The biggest gains from digitalisation in agriculture are expected to come from potentially making productivity more sustainable and from reductions in working hours and workload. This will result in reductions in the use of fertilisers, plant protection products and energy and improvements in animal welfare.
The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture has therefore set itself the task of helping to design the parameters of digitalisation in agriculture. The key question is: what are the implications of the digital transformation for the agricultural sector and how can farmers, the environment and consumers benefit equally from the new opportunities?
Agriculture has already gone digital in many respects: for many years, information technology and electronics have played a key role in farmers' everyday lives. Digital applications provide support in many areas, for instance fertilisation, plant protection and animal husbandry. For precision farming, farm machinery is equipped with smart technologies. Automated work processes are part and parcel of the work on fields and farms. Digitalisation goes beyond this, however, and links a wide range of processes and stakeholders via diverse and extensive data, including farmers, IT service providers, producers of farm machinery, advisers and the public administration.
The BMEL therefore wants to help shape "digitalisation in agriculture” and has significantly expanded its activities in this area.
Digitalisation: examples and opportunities
Agriculture has been a forerunner in using GPS data. GPS control in combination with suitable software can save fuel and optimise the routes of tractors and autonomous harvesters. Weather apps, drones and other data management systems help to optimise soil cultivation and harvesting practices. Digital solutions, such as for initial and nitrogen fertilisation, ensure better and more efficient crop management. Complex processes such as the silage-maize or sugar-beet harvest can be monitored in real time and organised collectively. Feeding robots, measuring devices to analyse the composition of milk or climate management systems contribute significantly to animal welfare and environmental protection. They also serve to reduce workloads. New developments in sensor technology help to record and evaluate animal behaviour.
For almost two decades, agriculture has harnessed many possibilities in order to make the processes as seamless and precise as possible - in line with good practice - and to further optimise smart farming. Hardware and software are being improved continuously and allow for better coordination between tractors and attached implements and for integration of logistics. Agriculture uses input products (such as seeds, fertiliser and plant protection products) and produces goods that are transported and processed until they finally reach consumers.
Many expect that representing and coordinating these material and transport flows digitally will enhance efficiency and transparency and reduced workloads. It is also expected that digitalisation in agriculture will trigger positive effects for the environment due to resources being used more sustainably and tailored applications being developed in arable farming and animal husbandry.
Digital farming: challenges and requirements
Agriculture in Germany encompasses large and small holdings, and full-time and part-time farmers, and is mainly rural. To expand the use of digital technologies in practice, the following requirements must be met:
- The digital infrastructure must be expanded and made future-proof (mobile broadband technology)
- The data flow between products from different manufacturers must be improved
- Appropriate training and extension services must be provided (farmers are not IT experts and need good information to help them make decisions on whether to acquire technology)
- The reliability of technology must be improved
- More research must be carried out on the benefits of digital farming
- Rules must be laid down on data protection, data safety, data sovereignty and other conditions (e.g. regulations on air traffic for the use of drones)
Experts believe that the use of new technologies could lead to the loss of traditional jobs, but that they would in turn lead to new areas of employment. The question arises for agribusinesses as to whether digitalisation is having an impact on company structures or on farmers' workplaces. There are differing assessments as to whether small and medium-sized farms benefit from it. Smaller farms can also take part in digitalisation, particularly by means of digital cross-farm methods.
To tackle the upcoming challenges, the BMEL has significantly expanded its activities in the area of digitalisation in agriculture.
Technical conferences and bodies
Technical conferences serve to gather information on the current state of play, to bring together stakeholders from different areas and to enable the exchange of information between different interest groups. These conferences also aim to present future developments and to discuss with participants opportunities for optimising conditions. The BMEL regularly brings together practitioners, scientists, entrepreneurs and administration staff.
Within the government, BMEL employees work in numerous working groups and bodies. They feed in and represent the interests of the agricultural sector in these bodies.
Promoting research is an integral part of a comprehensive strategy on digitalisation in agriculture. The goal is to promote innovations from the field of digital agricultural technologies in order to improve resource efficiency. By reducing the amount of fertiliser, plant protection products and fuel, sustainability can be enhanced and animal welfare improved while at the same time the workload can be reduced and productivity sustainably increased. Numerous projects on digitalisation in agriculture have been funded in recent years. Digitalisation has also been made a priority area of departmental research and this will continuously be expanded.
A key aspect of digitalisation consists of establishing an efficient digital infrastructure. The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) is leading this process. With the federal funding programme on expanding broadband infrastructure, the BMVI aims to create highly efficient broadband networks in areas that have so far had inadequate coverage. The national government provides substantial funding to implement projects on broadband expansion.
Since 2008, the BMEL has been assisting in improving the connection of underserved rural areas to the broadband networks under the Joint Task for the “Improvement of Agricultural Structures and Coastal Protection” (GAK). The special framework plan for rural development provides additional funding.
Structure of the BMEL
When the new government took office in 2018, activities on digitalisation at the BMEL were intensified once more. With its past, present and future measures, the BMEL's aim is to continue to be a close partner for the agricultural sector at national and international level in the field of digitalisation. The objective is to help shape the framework for digital farming in such a way that farmers, the environment and consumers can benefit equally from the new opportunities and the potential risks can be reduced.
The structure of the BMEL was therefore adjusted. A new Commissioner for Digitalisation was tasked to coordinate all activities in the area of digitalisation, new divisions were set up and every directorate-general appointed a digitalisation officer. Additional funding was provided by the federal budget to foster digitalisation in a targeted manner.
Establishing trial fields on agricultural holdings
Digitalisation in agriculture brings together two highly complex systems. The parameters of digitalisation in agriculture must be designed to enable the opportunities provided by digitalisation for practitioners and society to be better utilised while also being able to react better to challenges and obstacles. The objective is to promote technologies that enhance sustainable production in the agricultural sector.
To meet this objective, it is intended that agricultural holdings should collaborate to test and evaluate different technical solutions and products. The essential tasks in agricultural holdings for arable farming (foreign trade) and livestock husbandry (domestic trade) will all be reflected in the trial fields. Expert practitioners and specialists from agriculture machinery manufacturers, from software development, service providers, advisers and researchers will cooperate very closely to speedily advance digitalisation in agriculture. The deadline for submitting proposals was autumn 2018. 25 proposals were submitted. The best proposals will be chosen in a competitive process and the first field trials launched in 2019.
Establishing a competence network on “Digital technologies in the agriculture sector”
The competence network will summarise and evaluate the results of the work carried out on the trial fields and draft further proposals for measures while it will also analyse current trends and challenges from all areas of digitalisation in agriculture and come up with solutions. The competence network will be made up of an interdisciplinary team of researchers, entrepreneurs and practitioners. Experts from the trial fields will also join the competence network. The network is planned to be launched in the second half of 2019.
Expanding infrastructure in rural areas
An efficient digital infrastructure providing universal coverage in rural areas is the prerequisite for successfully applying digital technologies in the agricultural sector. The expansion of digital infrastructure must therefore be reinforced. The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) is the lead ministry for expanding digital infrastructure.
The BMEL is committed to ensuring that the interests of the agricultural sector and rural areas are taken into account. Corresponding demands for the infrastructure to be expanded are addressed to the BMVI. Further opportunities are also being exploited to make funds available for expanding the infrastructure via the second pillar and the Joint Task for the Improvement of Agricultural Structures and Coastal Protection (GAK).
The development of the new 5G mobile broadband standard, in particular, is of key importance for a seamless exchange of data between machines. The BMEL has successfully advocated that specific features of the agricultural sector are already taken into account during technical development and license auctions.
Provision of geo-data and meteorological data
There is now a range of programmes that make available a large number of remote sensing data. These make a key contribution to the efficient use of digital technologies. The resolution of the available images and the quality of data continue to improve. A significant contribution is made in this regard by new European remote sensing satellites that have been launched over the past few years (“Copernicus Programme”) and more are due to be launched in the future. To be able to use data meaningfully, it is, however, vital to make the relevant data easily available from the large data pool. At the same time, many stakeholders are not aware of how much quality data is already available, and often for free. The BMEL is working on disseminating this information.
To this end, the BMEL is developing internet content, a technical centre for geospatial information and remote sensing at the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food, and a research centre for remote sensing in agriculture at the Julius Kühn Institute. This is where all scientific questions on remote sensing in relation to agriculture are dealt with.