Precision Agriculture in Europe                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         June 2003

Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer



While adoption of precision farming has been modest in Europe, participants in the European Conference on Precision Agriculture in Berlin, Germany, June 16-18, indicate that the research and political interest in the technologies is keen. I attended the conference and this article summarizes my observations on the people and the topics attracting attention on the other side of the Atlantic.

Almost 400 participants attended the European Conference on Precision Agriculture which focused on crops. Some 78 participants attend the associated 1st European Conference on Precision Livestock Farming. Precision livestock topics included robotic milking, using the sounds animals make to fine-tune management (e.g. can a cow’s moo tell you if she is contented?), and using remote sensing in grassland management. Participants came from 40 countries. Most of the attendees at both conferences were researchers or students, with a sprinkling of farmers, agribusiness people and farm managers.


Hot Topics

Most of the precision crop farming papers and posters presented had an engineering or agronomy research focus. Almost 30% of the 115 papers in the conference proceedings targeted some type of sensor development. Among these sensor papers, seventeen (15% of the total proceedings papers) treated some aspect of satellite or aerial remote sensing. Eight papers (7% of the total) were on electrical conductivity.

Eleven proceedings papers (about 10% of the total) had some economic content. Three papers reported on farmer adoption, one from Germany, one from Denmark and a third comparing farm information use in the US and Denmark. Only one proceedings paper, from the University of Minnesota, dealt principally with technology transfer issues. US conferences, including the International Precision Agriculture conference held biennially in Minnesota and the Information Agriculture Conference (InfoAg) organized by the Potash and Phosphate Institute (PPI), have typically included more information about technology transfer opportunities and challenges.

Most of the economic analysis used simulation. The plenary lecture on the economics of precision agriculture by Dr. Friedrich Kuhlmann, Giessen University, was entirely theoretical. Only one paper in the proceedings used field data to assess profitability of site-specific management. It was about site-specific weed management in Germany. In addition three posters reported on economic analysis using European field data. After more than 10 years of precision farming research in Europe, I expected to see and hear more about the profitability of the technology  at the farm and/or commercial user level.

Precision viticulture was touted as an ideal precision farming application. The high value of wine grapes and economic importance of quality drives commercial interest in fine-tuning vineyard management. There were proceedings papers on precision viticulture from France, Chile and Slovenia, and a poster from Portugal.

General presentations and posters promoted the potential of precision agriculture in a variety of developing countries, including: Mexico, Iran, Cuba and Mauritius (an island located in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa). Simon Cook, of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in Columbia, spoke on the potential for site-specific management on smallholder developing country farms.


Political Interest

The potential for using precision agriculture to address environmental, food safety, animal welfare and sustainability problems seems to be attracting political attention in Europe. The conference was opened by a video taped address by European Union Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries, Franz Fischler. This was followed by talks by representatives from the German Federal Ministries of Research and Education, and of Consumer Protection, Nutrition and Agriculture.  The German Research and Education Ministry plans to provide 27 million Euros (about US$32 million) in funding for precision agriculture research and education in the 1999 to 2005 period

[NS1] One of the key phrases in the European debate on the future of agriculture is “multi-functional.” The ideal European agricultural system must satisfy many objectives. It should be profitable for farmers, environmentally benign, enhance food safety, preserve traditional landscapes (e.g. hedge rows, small fields, traditional building styles), and provide recreational opportunities for non-farmers. Politically, precision agriculture is attracting attention in Europe as a way to reduce the environmental impact of farming and to enhance food safety through more targeted application of inputs and better documentation.

Ludwig Spanner, a politically active German farmer, focused on the potential for precision agriculture to increase the transparency of pesticide and fertilizer use.


“Precision agriculture builds the trust and confidence of non-farmers because  

 there is data,” he told a plenary session of the conference.


A paper by Ernst-August Nuppenau, of Justus Liebig University, argued that there is a competition for funding between precision agriculture and organic farming in Europe.  He observed that precision agriculture can improve the economic competitiveness of European agriculture, but it needs public funding for research and technology development. In contrast, he argues that organic agriculture does not need research (because it uses mainly traditional technologies), but it must be heavily subsidized to maintain farm family incomes. If a large portion of European agriculture is converted to organic management, the potential area on which precision agriculture can be practiced is limited.



As in most of the world precision agriculture adoption has started either with yield monitoring or with variable rate application. Danish researchers report that about 400 farmers use yield monitors with GPS in their country, but only ten of them are equipped for variable rate application. Some 30 contractors do variable rate application in Denmark.

The chlorophyll sensor for controlling nitrogen application seems to be the most wide spread type of variable rate application in Europe. For example staff of the Swedish farmer’s cooperative reported some 30 sensors being used in their country, 24 of those by custom operators on about 1000 ha (2500 acres) per unit.  Some 15 chlorophyll sensors are being used in Germany. The chlorophyll sensor is being criticized for focusing only on reflectance. A crop may be pale green for a variety of reason, including water shortage and pest damage, as well as nitrogen requirements.

The yield monitor adoption estimates in Europe are being complicated by the practice of major combine manufacturers of selling their machines with yield monitors standard. For example, estimates of the number of yield monitors in Germany in 2000 ranged from 150 to 500, but now some observers estimate that there may be as many as 10,000 yield monitors in the country. For comparison purposes there are 30,000 to 40,000 combines equipped with yield monitors in the US, with about one third of them being used with GPS. [NS2] As in the US, some of the combines sold in Europe with a yield monitor standard are never linked to GPS.

Yield monitor use in southern Europe continues to be low, with estimates of 50 in France, five in Spain and three in Portugal. Hypotheses on why yield monitor use in southern Europe remains particularly low include: 1) presence of traditional agriculture resistant to new technology, 2) small field areas limit potential gains from within field management, 3) fields have been adapted over the centuries to follow topography and soil type and consequently may be quite homogeneous, and 4) privacy concerns about the information falling into the wrong hands (e.g. creditors, environmentalists, service providers)[NS3] . Southern European growers often do not want custom operators to know their yields and field areas.

As in the US, precision agriculture adoption in Europe tends to occur in “hot spots”. One of the key adoption hot spots is eastern Germany, where many of the huge state farms from the communist era have been divided into 1000 ha to 2000 ha (2500 to 5000 acre) privately owned operations. Field size on these farms (often >50 ha) is frequently larger than whole farms elsewhere in Europe. These farms have the scale and field size to benefit from currently available precision agriculture technology. Agro-Stat, a precision agriculture consulting company with headquarters at Baasdorf in eastern Germany (, serves some 200 farms with 100,000 ha (250,000 acres) of cropland. About 20% of this area is being managed with variable rate fertilizer based on yield potential derived mainly from aerial and satellite images of the previous year’s crop.



As in the US, the development and adoption of precision agriculture in Europe is a slow process. The small size of farms and fields in most of European agriculture limits economic gains from currently available precision farming technology, while the population density, and public concerns for the environment, food safety and animal welfare means that those potential benefits of precision agriculture are being given more attention. Many speakers mentioned the need to demonstrate the monetary and non-monetary benefits of precision agriculture, but relatively few presentations focused on benefits at the farm or commercial level. Part of the problem is that justifying precision agriculture in European agriculture will probably require placing a value on the health, environment and other non-monetary benefits. In the US we have taken the easy way out and focused almost entirely on the monetary benefits of precision agriculture. I hope that the Europeans devise ways to value the non-monetary benefits, so that we can learn from them

On going contacts between precision agriculture researchers, agribusinesses and farmers throughout the world are essential for the future of this technology. Resources for precision agriculture research, business development and technology transfer are very limited. Duplication of effort must be kept to a minimum, while learning from the successes and failures of others must be maximized. The next European Precision Agriculture Conference is planned for Uppsala, Sweden, June 9-12, 2005.

 [NS1]I don’t know the actual distribution, but since this is EU there is a high probability that it will actually happen. The stereotype is that EU funding is very difficult to obtain, but very stable once you get it.

 [NS2]I think that the numbers from John Stafford that we have been using for yield monitors in Europe, are actually yield monitors operated with GPS.  We don’t have estimates of yield monitors without GPS, though I hope to have those numbers from Germany very soon.

 [NS3]The privacy concerns in southern Europe seem to be related to the information falling into the wrong hands (e.g. creditors, environmentalists, service providers).  No one mentioned the data storage, analysis and sharing issues.