“Europe focuses on precision agriculture and digitalization”

MEP Jan Huitema

What many people may not realize is that farmers and gardeners produce something valuable in addition to milk, meat and vegetables: data! “In horticulture, it has already gone very far,” says Huitema. “What crops need in terms of nutrition, trace elements, light intensity, CO2 and pollination are accurately calculated up to the milligram or milliliter. It’s all computer controlled. We are talking about precision agriculture. And because of that, we can produce with much less effort. A good example is that we now use six liters of water to grow a kilo of tomatoes while in other parts of Europe, 60 liters are still needed.”

With minimal input maximum output

In addition to horticulture, arable and dairy farming are also using new techniques. “In arable farming, they are also engaged in precision agriculture and abandoning using the same fertilization, lime, trace elements and crop protection products over the entire area of the field or plot (full field). It is going more and more to sector-specific or even plant-specific agriculture. You can give a crop exactly what it needs per square centimeter.”

“You see the same thing in dairy farming. Instead of giving a whole herd of cows the same feed, it is increasingly more individually tuned, and milking is done with a milking robot. All kinds of data are collected, such as milk yield, temperature, and weight per cow, but also what nutrient levels are in the milk. And based on that, calculations can be made on how to manage that cow. That is what the Netherlands does so well, from generic management to micromanagement. As a result, you get maximum output with minimal input.”

More insight through deployment technology

In the Netherlands, we have the most innovative agricultural sector in the world, and it must remain so. Making use of technological innovations, cooperation in the chain, strengthening the position of the farmer; these are some of the preconditional aspects for farmers to establish a more sustainable course. Farmers and horticulturists are ambitious and want to become more sustainable but cannot do this alone. By using one system, all parties involved have insight into the chain. Look at the Global Location Number (GLN), which allows you to record detailed geo-locations (e.g., an agricultural plot or even an individual tree) in an internationally acceptable standardized way, and where you can then register items such as crop protection products that are applied at a certain time to that specific plot. As far as data is concerned, the entire chain depends on the farmer. That’s where it starts. “Yes, that discussion is now coming,” Huitema says. “The data is the property of the farmer, but there must also be a further exchange.”

The insight into the optimal input of a field is created by mapping soil plots using satellite images and drones. “In addition, soil samples are taken to know exactly how the soil is composed and what amounts of lime, fertilization and water are needed in a certain place for an optimal harvest. And it goes even further, because with special technology you can take pictures of the leaf of a plant and see if it has an infection or fungus. By treating them at a very early stage, you prevent the other plants from being infected as well. By using technology, you also need fewer crop protection products.” Such developments are also taking place in dairy farming. “Cows have pedometers and sensors that allow farmers to measure the activity, milk yield and temperature per animal. With these measurements, you can prevent a cow from needing antibiotics or temporarily stopping giving milk. This reduces costs.”

Exchange data in the hub

You would also like to make the exchange of data possible between the different installations. If you have a fertilizer spreader of brand A, it must be able to communicate with the tractor of brand B. And that also applies to the brand of the milking robot and the other systems within the company. It is very important that hubs are created in the sector in which there is cooperation between the suppliers of the milking robot and the animal feed, the cooperatives, and the farmers.

The government should also contribute to this, Huitema believes. “This mainly involves stimulating the use of standards to make data interchangeable between different parties and systems. To reach good mutual agreements, such a hub must be protected: only for those involved. We also see this happening in other sectors, such as telephony, where we want companies to have the same charger. The government can help to achieve that standardization.”

Technology also for sustainability

The technological knife cuts on multiple sides. According to Huitema, it is also an important tool for sustainability challenges. “Precision agriculture and digitalization are important tools that Europe is focusing on to make the agricultural sector more sustainable. Minimal input means fewer raw materials, while you have a much better view of soil and animal health. There is still a great deal to be gained there. The interesting thing about big data is that you learn more, but it also helps to remove human error. It becomes more visible and tangible. One of the reasons the Netherlands is so innovative in agriculture is that farmers live close to each other here. The exchange of knowledge leads to improvement. And if the Netherlands is successful, it will go to other countries very quickly. One misconception is that the use of artificial intelligence would only work for the big farmers. But precisely because the smaller-scale farmers have no or few employees, they often make use of technology.”

Opportunities and threats

So will farming look very different in ten years’ time? “That depends on several things. In the Netherlands, the nitrogen crisis is one of the biggest threats to the agricultural sector. In ten years, much more will be measured with new indicators and sensors. Per small plot of land or per individual animal, it’s becoming clearer what’s needed in terms of input. Another major development is in automation and robotization. What I find very interesting is that the machines are getting smaller. They are so big now because someone is sitting on them; labor is expensive, so you must have a big machine to generate revenue from it. Small machines have the advantage that they are better for soil density. A swarm of small robots can be left to work day and night.”

Regulations needed for chain agreements

What role do farmers’ customers, such as dairy cooperatives and manufacturers, play in all these developments? “These companies are also trying to create a market for sustainable products and want to show consumers why their products are more sustainable. Here, big data can also create more transparency about how a product is produced.”

International regulations, such as the IFS, the standard for assessing product and process conformity for food safety and quality, also play a role. “In the European Parliament, we are also talking about blockchain in the food sector, which prevents fraud in the chain and increases food safety. And here you also need standardization. As far as competition is concerned, it is sometimes difficult to make certain agreements in the chain, because it is quickly seen as cartel formation. Of course, it is good that we are strict about this, but it is different if it has a greater purpose for the consumer, such as sustainability. In the supply chain you must be able to make certain agreements about this. What I am quite proud of is an amendment to the agricultural policy that I have also introduced, which will now provide that space. There will therefore be an expansion in the competition rules in order to make it easier to make agreements in the supply chain about social goals. And that applies vertically and horizontally.”

Towards a green business model

From his dual role as a farmer and MEP, Huitema still has a number of goals. “I would like to further promote standardization from a political point of view – so, see where we can help the sector in this. In addition, I would like to focus on the question of how we can create a green business model that is interesting for the farmer and an investment capacity to invest in precision agriculture. It entails costs and these must be able to be reimbursed. But it leads to less waste and therefore more efficient agriculture.”

Jan Huitema has been a member of the European Parliament since 2014, where he is active on the Committee on Agriculture and the Environment. In addition, he and his father have a dairy farm in Friesland with 130 cows. Therefore, he knows better than anyone the importance of data for the agricultural chain. According to Huitema, the Netherlands is the Silicon Valley of European agriculture and horticulture

About Fresh Upstream

The Fresh Upstream foundation works on one uniform, digital language in the international agro supply chain. From farm to fork: the aim is an agrifood supply chain in which trading partners, government and consumers exchange information in a similar way with understandable and accessible information standards.