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Digitisation of agriculture

What can digital agricultural technologies do and what are the consequences of systemically networked agriculture? The project dealt on the one hand with the optimization and automation of specific agricultural production steps or functions with the help of digital individual applications (smart farming), and on the other hand with the comprehensive networking and evaluation of data within the framework of overarching management systems (Agriculture 4.0).



Background and central aspects of the topic

Digitisation results in a transformation of entire areas of life and economy. Even agriculture – which in Germany is characterised by a high level of mechanisation and automation – is not exempt from this development. Numerous innovative agricultural technologies for which digital data processing is a decisive factor are at an advanced stage of development or even ready for practice:

  • Robotic applications i. a. for automated mechanical weed control, fruit harvesting or milking of cows;
  • Drones for mapping agricultural land or assessing the condition of soils and crop populations etc.;
  • Automated agricultural vehicles based on satellite navigation systems;
  • Sensor technologies in crop production (e. g. for measuring soil and harvest parameters, disease infestation or nutrient supply of crops) and in animal production (e. g. for measuring the feed intake or animal health parameters).

Digital technologies of this kind generate potentially huge amounts of data (Big Data) which, in turn, can be linked to external data sources (weather data, geodata etc.). By means of appropriate analytical tools (e. g. apps, web-based management systems), it is possible to draw conclusions with regard to an optimisation of individual production steps – a process referred to as smart farming or precision agriculture. This mainly concerns a more differentiated and targeted cultivation of agricultural land (fertilisation, pest management, choice of appropriate varieties). The hope is that – just like for Industry 4.0 – digital agricultural machinery can be networked to build comprehensive production systems (cyber-physical systems) in order to flexibly control agricultural production processes and to ensure a more transparent, resource-efficient and sustainable design of those processes. Moreover, in agricultural technology, digital technologies have the potential to initiate changes in upstream and downstream value chains (e. g. agricultural machinery manufacturers, food industry, retail sector). As a consequence, structures, processes and responsibilities in agriculture might change fundamentally.

Meanwhile, the developments described here are being increasingly discussed in politics and in the public using the term »Agriculture 4.0«. In general, it can be observed that in the debate and in available publications reference is often made to successful stand-alone applications and their potentials. However, there are still major uncertainties with regard to the questions of how a comprehensively networked Agriculture 4.0 could be implemented and which consequences would be involved. Agriculture 4.0 still is a vision of the future and various obstacles must be overcome to make this vision a reality: On the one hand, these obstacles include infrastructural problems such as the often insufficient Internet access in rural areas, missing standards and interfaces as well as insufficient availability and usability of public data. On the other hand, several open questions arise as to data privacy and security, liability, transfer of decision-making competencies and to impacts on agricultural structures (e. g. effects on employment, implications for smaller farms). Altogether, this is a topic that shows a strong need for political guidance in order to ensure that the potentials mentioned – particularly the chance for a better reconciliation of economic and environmental objectives – can be tapped.

Objectives and approach

To deal with this thematic field, it makes sense to differentiate between two different levels: The optimisation and automation of specific agricultural production steps and functions by means of digital stand-alone applications (smart farming) on the one hand and comprehensive networking and data analysis within the framework of cross-cutting management systems (Agriculture 4.0) on the other hand.

For this reason, the project is divided into two phases: In the first project phase, the primary goal is to provide a systematic overview of the status quo and trends of digital agricultural technologies – regarding both hardware and software. For this purpose, relevant fields of technology (robotic applications, drones, sensor technologies, automated agricultural vehicles) shall be assessed discussing not only the current status quo of technology development, but also tangible potential applications, relevant R&D stakeholders and projects as well as methods of integration into software-based tools for data processing and analysis. Moreover, anticipated paths for further technological development as well as operational, infrastructural and legal framework conditions of a successful implementation shall be examined. In 2005, the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag (TAB) presented an overview of the related topic »Precision Agriculture« (TAB working report no. 106) which can be used as a basis for a follow-up discussion.

The second project phase shall focus on cross-cutting issues of the systemically networked agriculture. It shall provide a systematic analysis of the risks and opportunities involved in order to be able to assess the consequences for the further development of agriculture at an early stage. In this context, particular emphasis is put on the effects of networking on small and medium-sized farms on the one hand and on the potential contribution of digitisation to a socially and ecologically acceptable as well as economically successful agriculture on the other hand. Other questions pursued in this project relate to (new) legal issues as well as to infrastructural framework conditions (Internet, open data, standards). Finally, parliamentary needs for action and potential options for action with regard to shaping the framework conditions concerning agricultural policy, research policy and law shall be pointed out.

Project progress

Within the framework of the first project phase, four external short expert analyses were prepared which provide a concise inventory of specific fields of application for digital processes and the technologies involved, namely with regard to the state of the art and utilisation, networking opportunities, perspectives and framework conditions:

  • Topic 1: Robotic applications in crop and animal production. Examples for this topic include i. a. automated mechanical weed control, robots for harvesting fruits in crop production and milking robots in animal production. Current and future robotic applications have been identified systematically.
  • Topic 2: Automated agricultural vehicles and use of satellite navigation systems. In this short expert analysis, the status quo and perspectives of self-driving agricultural machines, their linkage to satellite navigation systems as well as other fields of application of satellite navigation systems have been examined.
  • Topic 3: Drones in agriculture. This topic deals with the use of drones for mapping agricultural land, collecting data with regard to the condition of soils, assessing the condition of crop populations etc.
  • Topic 4: Sensor technologies in crop and animal production. This expert analysis provides a systematic overview of the different sensor technologies and their potential applications in crop production (e. g. for measuring soil and harvest parameters, nutrient supply of crops as well as weed and disease infestation) and in animal production (e. g. for measuring the feed intake, animal health parameters, animal activity) as well as their potential linkage to management techniques and information tools.

As part of the second phase of the project on questions of systemically networked agriculture, two external expert analyses were drawn up on the key issues of the effects of digitization on farms as well as new business models and the question of data sovereignty. In preparing the final report, a further focus was on the question of what contribution digitisation can make to ecologically compatible agriculture.


Earlier publications on the topic