Precision Agriculture in Europe
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.
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
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,
(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.
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
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.
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
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. 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,
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
(http://www.agro-sat.de/), 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.