Europe will remain an important supplier of agricultural goods in the future but the greatest untapped potential lies in Africa, which could become the “bread basket” for the rest of the world, the president of Yara, a multinational fertiliser and crop nutrition company, told EURACTIV.
Svein Tore Holsether also said digital technologies like precision farming were the best way to boost agricultural production.
“While we still see the potential for increasing productivity and sustainability of European agriculture, the greatest potential we see is in Africa,” Holsether pointed out.
“Today €29.6bn ($35bn) is spent every year on importing food, while there is a great untapped potential for higher productivity as the continent holds 65% of the world’s arable land,” the fertiliser company boss said.
For Holsether, a key challenge is to make African smallholders more productive and sustainable, something he said will take time.
“This will have a tremendous impact on food security and rural development on the continent, but will also mean that Africa can play a role as a bread basket for the rest of the world,” he said, adding that European agriculture will still play a key role in the future of world farming.
The UN projects that the global population will rise to more than 9.7 billion in 2050 and exceed 11.2 billion by 2100, which will call for a dramatic increase in food production.
This is the main argument of the agri-food industry, which has expanded its activities across the world, focusing on densely populated and “forgotten” agricultural markets, like those in Asia and Africa.
Via partnerships with smallholders who follow specific sustainable cultivation protocols, big agri-food multinationals are trying out solutions to feed a fast-growing population, while keeping climate change in check.
But environmental NGOs often see the challenge in very different terms. Referring to data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Greenpeace argues that the world already produces more than one-and-a-half times enough food to feed everyone on the planet.
Greenpeace points out that for the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth and attributes high hunger levels to poverty and inequality, not scarcity.
CAP and technology
Yara, which uses technology to increase the accuracy of fertiliser inputs, believes that it is possible to feed a growing population but that policymakers should focus on innovation-driven solutions such as precision farming.
“In order to do so, we need to continue to raise agricultural productivity and increase yields while also improving the quality of the produce. Innovation and precision farming will be the key to success,” Holsether said, admitting, however, that none of the current trends or innovations could provide a quick fix-solution.
“Combinations of different approaches, adapted to very diverse, local agricultural circumstances, will have to prove themselves safe and sustainable in the long run,” he stressed.
Precision or smart farming is based on the optimised management of inputs in a field according to actual crop needs. It involves data-based technologies, including satellite positioning systems like GPS, remote sensing and the Internet, to manage crops and reduce the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water.
The discussion about the EU’s post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has begun and precision farming is set to take centre stage. However, issues ranging from e-skills, affordability, proper broadband infrastructure and big data management are yet to be tackled.
A recent study published by the European Commission’s science hub reiterated that the application of precision farming practices in the EU could help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, boost farm productivity and economics.
Holsether stressed that EU farmers, and especially smallholders, should therefore be granted the proper digital tools in order to enter this new era.
“Typically, the investment threshold is too high for this group, and grants or subsidies should be made available for precision farming equipment. Also, internet connectivity across Europe, including rural areas, will be required,” he noted.
In an interview with EURACTIV, Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan admitted it was “unacceptable” to have white spots in EU rural areas, where there is no broadband.
However, it seems the Commission has a limited role and the EU member states are responsible for their own timetable for broadband roll-out.
For Holsether, a public and a private sector collaboration is needed to face the challenges of climate change and food scarcity.
“To include precision farming as one way to make farming greener in operational EU budgets such as the CAP is something we would support, as the CAP is a policy instrument which is well suited to bringing new technology into operation.
“We believe European agriculture is actually ready and asking for this next step,” he said.
Individual farming is not dead
Farmers have expressed concerns that the introduction of technology in the farming sector will simply increase their dependence on big agri-food players, further concentrating production in the hands of a few big companies.
Lidia Senra, a Spanish leftist lawmaker in the European Parliament’s agricultural committee, recently told EURACTIV that technology could indeed help in the fight against climate change, the right to food and employment. But in reality, she fears it would have the opposite effect.
Technology and innovation “are being used to encourage further concentration of wealth and to make the vast majority of society more precarious and poorer,” she said, adding that smart agriculture used the same logic.
But for Yara, the individual farmer will still play a key role.
“We see that the farming profession is becoming more complex and comprehensive, and cooperation between farmers and other actors in the agri supply chain will become increasingly important,” he noted.