Authors: Tobias Menne, global head of digital farming, Bayer AG

Insects, diseases and weeds are a farmer’s worst nightmare — pests cause severe crop damage and jeopardize harvests. Modern crop protection can help a farmer overcome these challenges and produce sufficient safe and affordable crops. In most cases, stress factors affecting plants are only detected when much damage has already been done. At this point, there is often little choice but to apply crop protection products to cure what little can still be saved.

Innovative digital farming technology can help to address this challenge. For example, satellite imagery and drones can deliver detailed field observations, and remote sensors can take regular pictures and measure the emitted radiation in a range of wavelengths. These non-visible bands reveal a wealth of information about the condition of crops, such as their overall vitality. This way, stress factors that endanger plants can be detected long before they become visible to the human eye.

By integrating historical data, a farmer can foresee the spread of pests and diseases or pinpoint them at an early stage. This data is used to generate detailed real-time field maps that allow for the precise application of crop protection and other valuable inputs. Bayer’s “Field Manager”, for instance, provides farmers with instant access to field-specific actionable strategies for the most efficient application of crop protection. As a result, harvests will less often be lost to diseases and the application of agricultural inputs can be optimized so that the perfect amount is used exactly when and where it is needed.

Stress factors that endanger plants can be detected long before they become visible to the human eye.

Sustainability through digital technologies

Digital farming paves the way for a new agricultural revolution that makes farming smarter, more efficient and sustainable. As more available data is combined with a farmer’s experience, the options for action improve. Optimizing the decision-making process in the agricultural sector will not only preserve the environment, but also stimulate economic growth by increasing the sector’s competitiveness through gains in productivity and cutting costs.

Huge potential especially for smallholder farmers

Digital farming is opening up opportunities for all farmers and will help drive sustainable agricultural productivity. Small farmers in extremely rural areas, and even smallholder farmers in developing countries, are the ones who could profit most: In many cases they have less than ideal access to agricultural inputs, finance and credits, storage and professional advice and are therefore the furthest away from an optimal agricultural management. Better access to professional advice is something that can have a great impact and is scalable via digitalization. For example, at Bayer we have developed the “WEEDSCOUT App”, which automatically recognizes weeds on the basis of a photo. The first step to getting rid of weeds is knowing what kind of weed you are dealing with. Through mobile applications, farmers can be supported to make better decisions based on data, which may not have previously been available to them — saving time, lowering their costs and increasing their profits.

Great opportunity at European level

Given its tremendous opportunities, digital farming should be on top of the EU’s strategic agenda. Setting the course in this field now could create a competitive advantage for European farmers and agricultural industry alike. Europe should seize the moment and take the lead in shaping the next generation of agriculture.

Digital farming is about to revolutionize agriculture — not only in Europe, but worldwide.

To unlock the full potential of digital farming, the EU needs to create the right regulatory environment and set the right policy incentives. The following set of measures could be a starting point to this end:

Promoting Digital Farming through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): Building on the ongoing debate on the future design of CAP, a positive step would be to make the case for a prominent role of digital farming in the ongoing reform process, and use EU funds to support farmers who have already taken steps towards digitalization, plus encourage ones that have yet to do so. The provision of targeted financial support would strongly increase the likelihood of a farmer’s transition to data-based farming techniques. In addition, CAP reform could also include greater support for educational measures, such as digital skills trainings.

A well-developed digital infrastructure, especially in rural areas, is a precondition for digital farming.

Improving digital infrastructure: A well-developed digital infrastructure, especially in rural areas, is a precondition for digital farming. By making sure that data can be transferred quickly and reliably, the EU can strongly contribute to the full achievement of digital farming’s potential. National governments and EU institutions have to work hand in hand: At national level, adequate investments into broadband infrastructure are crucial, but they need to be better coordinated and should also focus more on rural communities.

Enabling targeted data use: The exchange of data between farmers and technology providers like Bayer is of great importance. This does not mean that data will flow without any set of rules. We believe the best approach would be one in which partners jointly agree on rules, such as through well-defined service agreements or a general code of conduct. We think that the collection, use and storage of data must be clear and transparent, and a win-win business model is vital.

Let’s be clear: Digital farming is about to revolutionize agriculture — not only in Europe, but worldwide. Setting the right course now gives the EU the opportunity to shape this process for the benefit of growth, a competitive agricultural sector and a more sustainable way of farming in Europe.