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The Future of Farming: A Crucial Crossroads at the European Elections

by Stephen Gardner, FiscalNote

The question looms large: Will the upcoming changes in political and regulatory landscapes be a harbinger of hope for the agriculture sector? Read on for insights from the live FiscalNote event in Brussels.

Agriculture EU policy

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With farmers’ protests still fresh from the first quarter of 2024, the European landscape is not only divided but also ripe with opportunity. As the region gears up for elections in June, a unique window opens to reset the conversation around farming and move beyond the polarisation, according to speakers at the April 18 FiscalNote “EU Agriculture Policy: Elections, Regulations, and Future Directions” panel discussion in Brussels.

EU rules imposed on farmers are often seen as excessive and unrealistic, weighing down the sector with extra costs that make it difficult to turn a profit. The opportunity lies in blending technology and tradition to inform policy that bolsters, rather than hinders, farmers and that paves the way for innovative solutions that address not just the profitability but also the sustainability of farming against the backdrop of climate change.

As we stand at this crossroads, the question looms large: Will the upcoming changes in political and regulatory landscapes be a harbinger of hope for the sector? Read on for insights from the live FiscalNote event.

Regulatory Battles

Significant battles over new rules that affect farmers have characterised the current European Parliamentary team, said Garance Debost, FiscalNote agriculture policy analyst, at the event. Rule changes under the current European Parliament have included new laws on fertilisers, but some other dossiers have proved highly problematic.

Of particular relevance for farmers, a proposed law on the sustainable use of pesticides — aimed at halving its uses by 2030 — was withdrawn early in 2024. Meanwhile, one of the “big unknowns of this mandate,” according to Debost, is the EU Nature Restoration Law, which has been approved by the European Parliament but put on hold by the Council of the EU. The law would set targets to restore habitats, with farmers in the vanguard. For example, it would set out requirements for the restoration of peatlands currently used for agriculture.

The trend in new regulations that impact agricultural producers has been to “reduce the toolbox” for farmers, said Hannah Phillips, head of EU public affairs at agricultural science and technology company Syngenta. There is the perception that farmers are being pressured to, for example, cut pesticide use significantly while facing the challenges of staying competitive in the face of climate change. Farmers must also deal with supply-chain difficulties and relationships with retailers in which producers have little power to influence prices.

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The Role of Technology in Modern Agriculture

In response, Phillips said, the essential recognition should be that technology will be part of agricultural sustainability. “If we're not going to use a conventional pesticide, what actually can we offer to farmers to tackle weeds in corn, for instance?” she asked.

Technology could provide many options to maintain or increase yields while moving away from harmful practices. One example Phillips cited is soil health profiling: providing precision mapping and analysis of soils to understand down to a very detailed level where fertilisers need to be applied and where they don’t, thus saving farmers money on inputs.

Another area, for which Phillips said an EU “dedicated framework” is needed, is biocontrols, or products based on natural micro-organisms or microbes used to combat pests. At present, biocontrols are treated in the regulatory process like conventional pesticides and take five to seven years to pass through checks and come to market. In the United States, the same process takes two to three years, providing a greater investment incentive for companies compared to Europe, she said.

Modern digital predictive tools also have the potential to make a huge impact on farming, said Thomas Zoellner, co-founder and secretary-general of FarmTech Society, a non-profit that works on controlled-environment agriculture (CEA). Even 20 years ago, computer modelling that overlaid meteorological information with crop-disease data did have striking predictive impacts, he said. In one comprehensive series of trials, 16 over 3 years, such modelling reduced the need for chemical fungicides by 49 per cent. At the time, understandably, this was seen as clashing with the business model of suppliers of pest control companies, at the time the industry did not see any value in the use of data applied decision-making tools (and the actual use of data) but needed to sell greater volumes of conventional products. Today, the emphasis on sustainability and the recognition of the value of data in digital decision-making tools are certainly becoming mainstream as an important service selling analytical and modelling decision-making tools and new business models to farmers, this type of technology is now ready for much more widespread adoption and needs to be supported and recognized by regulators.

Meanwhile food production from controlled environment agriculture, such as greenhouses — an area in which Belgian and Dutch growers are world leaders— enables the very precise use of inputs and allows plants to grow with a reduced exposure and the risk of disease, Zoellner said. Vertical farming in which even the amount of light plants are exposed to is controlled optimally; is a similar development. Such types of food production might be removed from traditional images of “natural” farming, but they mean “you can grow in a very predictable way; thanks to a wholesome biomimicry application,” This EU-developed technology has the potential to enable wider agriculture to adopt the advantages in the indoor young plant propagation, being transplanted later on from inside to outside at a robust stage to grow out in the field in a shorter period and less need for pest control and resources such as water and fertilizers. Zoellner added.

Overall, the main focus should be “convincing people that innovation is part of the solution” to the massive sustainability issues in agriculture, Phillips said. The next European Commission should “focus on the carrot rather than the stick in the next mandate.”

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An Ageing Business

Zoellner said that technology could also help with a huge issue for agriculture: the age profile of farmers.

This is a “global problem,” he said. “The average age of a European farmer is 67 years and many of those farmers have no successor,” he said. Though more technological approaches are making inroads, “there’s still a huge amount of farmers out there who are analogue 100 per cent.”

The digitalisation of farming could help to create a new notion of farming or farmer that could bring many more potential workers into the business, where new career opportunities will open up, he argued. This should be a task for the new European Commission and European Parliament — to “give that a vocational track, because agriculture is really a vocational profession.” Such an approach could help make greater use of digital technology in farming more mainstream — and overcome a current impasse in which take up of agricultural innovation is happening only slowly.

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