Jan Huitema: EU should make space for innovative farming

Jan Huitema talks milking robots, LED lights in greenhouses, drones delivering plant protection and the wonderful world of innovative agriculture.

By Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson is Managing Editor of The Parliament Magazine

23 Feb 2016

Agriculture has always been an innovative sector. Farmers have always had to adapt to changing circumstances, new practices and changing techniques and production methods, much like any other economic sector.

For Dutch MEP Jan Huitema, it's agriculture's innate dynamism that if properly focussed, will ensure that Europe's farming community can be at the forefront of, and benefit from, the current digital revolution.

However, technological change has never been as intense or as potentially transformative as the change that the digital revolution promises.


For Huitema, himself a farmer, it was important to do something to help keep Europe's agriculture sector at the forefront of technology uptake.

"There were two reasons for coming up with my own-initiative report on enhancing innovation and economic development in future farm management," says Huitema.

"Firstly, that agriculture - unfortunately often seen as a problem sector by some MEPs here in the European Parliament - is actually part of the solution to tackling some of the big issues such as climate change, air and water pollution and animal welfare."

"Secondly, that Europe makes better use of the innovative power of farming while ensuring that any legislation developed in Brussels doesn't stifle competitiveness. We should give farmers more room for entrepreneurship and more room to innovate."

Farmers and businesses within the agricultural sector, he says, like any other entrepreneurs, "come up with new technologies and innovations and new insights, but legislation here in the EU doesn't always allow for them to fully use that technology."

Huitema says he also wanted to show that, "we are quite far ahead already, to show that agriculture is one of Europe's most dynamic economic sectors. But consumers and citizens don't know about just how cutting edge contemporary agriculture is, and that the picture they have is often very romantic and old fashioned. So that's also part of the logic behind this report."

The potential of enhancing innovation within Europe's agricultural sector hasn't been fully recognised, he says, adding that it's transforming agriculture.  "As far back as you can remember, agricultural performance has improved. Now this change is rapid, because now we have new technology and with digitisation it's transforming things."

He foresees numerous economic and environmental benefits. "For example, in precision farming you can reduce the amount of plant protection material needed, or the amount of fertilizer required, or even the amount of water."

Huitema argues that the advances in farming technology will help predict where crop pests will strike, or whether they will strike in one specific place in a field. "You then don't have to spray the whole field. This is the same for fertilizers or water."

The technology of precision farming does exactly what it says on the tin, "It's very precise." It's similar for livestock production; technology is allowing farmers to prevent sickness or disease.

"We can see before an animal gets sick that perhaps they could be treated early, maybe without even needing medicines. The more you know, the better you can manage, the less input and medicines and antibiotics and other things you'll need."

Innovative new technologies can also provide rural jobs and close the gap between farmers and consumers. "I think that when you make the agricultural sector more attractive, the rural area becomes more attractive, so there is a multiplier effect not only for agriculture but also for other companies that want to invest in rural areas as well."

New business models are shortening the food supply chain so that farmers are becoming better placed to sell directly to consumers using new innovations like social media, and digitisation. But he warns that EU policymakers must ensure that farmers have the tools to do so.

"In the Netherlands, farmers are investing in technology such as milking robots. As long as farmers see the benefits of innovation, they will invest."

The development of agricultural drones in precision farming is a typical example of the way innovation is driving job growth, he says.

"We need people to create the software to make these new technologies help. Big data can help you make decisions as a farmer, but someone has to analyse that data, someone has to make the applications for farmers."

However, countries with modern and high-tech agricultural sectors such as the Netherlands, the UK and Spain may well be in a position to take advantage of the opportunities of technological innovation. Yet how will this work in countries that are not so modern agriculturally?

"It's not a zero sum game," says Huitema, "it's very important that we leave room for entrepreneurship and innovation."

"There are front runners, but for those that come behind, the innovations that are perhaps now on the shelf and are proven to work. So it's a sharing of best practices as well. There's something in it for everyone."

Huitema makes the point in his draft report that agriculture needs to "better align" with other industrial sectors.

Explaining, he says, "I think, for example, that agriculture can play a very important role in the circular economy. Science and technologies that are used in other sectors can be combined to work in agriculture's favour."

So that whole big data thing, the Internet of Things, you see that in other sectors as well. Why can't we use it? The milking robots I mentioned earlier use technology from NASA. What about using LED lights in greenhouses? There is so much that we can learn from other sectors.

He says that his report has generally been welcomed by MEPs in the Parliament's agriculture and rural development committee.

"Everybody in the committee, I think, has realised that innovation can be beneficial." He says he's been impressed by the different angles and approaches that MEPs have taken to his ideas.

"Innovation is a broad brush and that's what I wanted to say. I don't want to say in my report that we should all become organic or have only intensive farming. No, I think that innovation from different angles and perspectives can in itself help farmers."

"We should make space to use those innovations and to focus on that. It's better for the environment, better for farmers and better for our competitiveness."