On the way to a digitally integrated agriculture?

In two newly published reports TAB sheds light on development trends in digital agricultural technologies and analyses the opportunities and risks of a systemically integrated agriculture. The corresponding Policy Briefs are now available in English.
Digitalisierung der Landwirtschaft Andrii Yalansky/123rf.com
Digitisation raises hopes for more efficient and sustainable agricultural production Results from the TA project

Agriculture is a highly technical economic sector whose production processes are based on the use of natural resources and the keeping of animals. How the increasing demands for climate protection, sustainability and animal welfare can be reconciled with the task of food security is a highly virulent question that has also repeatedly occupied TAB. Digital innovations, which are supposed to enable highly precise, data-driven agricultural production, have raised hopes of being able to better balance this area of tension. As early as 2005, precision agriculture was the subject of a TAB study - the TAB reports and Policy Briefs no. 31 and no. 32 , which have just been published, provide an updated overview of the state of digitisation in agriculture and the associated social perspectives and challenges.

The digital applications used in livestock and crop production are extremely diverse, ranging from technical hardware such as GPS control, drones, robotics and sensors to smartphone apps and cloud-based farm management software. It is often said that agriculture is a digital pioneer, which may be true if the technology on offer alone is taken as the yardstick. But the extent to which innovative digital technology is actually already being used on farms is still unclear due to a lack of reliable surveys. A significant application hurdle for many farms is the relatively high investment costs, which, in conjunction with economies of scale, mean that the economic use of many digital processes can only be expected for larger farms. In view of the existing structural change in agriculture, an important political task is to ensure equitable access to these technologies. Another controversial issue is who should have access to agricultural data and be able to profit from its commercial use. Many farmers are concerned that the existing monopolization tendencies in the upstream and downstream stages of the value chain (and thus the dependencies of smaller farms) could be further strengthened.

The central promise of digitization is to be able to control agricultural production processes more efficiently, which in principle can lead to both environmental benefits and operational savings. However, the magnitude of these savings is not easy to determine, as local production conditions have a strong influence on the reduction effects that can be achieved in practice. An important framework condition is also the degree of networking of the individual technologies. The potential of digitization can ultimately only be exploited if agricultural production on farms is "intelligently" networked with upstream and downstream value creation processes (manufacturers of inputs such as seeds and pesticides, food retailers, etc.). However, this is based on prerequisites - such as broadband coverage, provision of open machine interfaces and free availability of geodata - that have not yet been fully realized and make Agriculture 4.0 still appear to be a vision of the future. Options for action such as improving the infrastructural framework conditions, ensuring the participation of smaller family farms and, in general, the data sovereignty of farmers or closing knowledge and research gaps are discussed in Working Report No. 194. The report concludes by stating that a forward-looking design for numerous questions is dependent on answers that point beyond agriculture and concern, for example, competition policy.

TAB-Fokus issues no. 31 and No. 32 (en/ger) as well as the full project reports in German are available online.

Results at a glance are presented on the project page Digitisation of Agriculture.