Conservation farming and digitalisation are two transitions the farming world needs to come to terms with. These root-and-branch changes are having to be implemented at an unprecedented pace, not to mention under equally unique media pressure. It is no exaggeration to call these shifts revolutions. They are radically different in nature. The former is biological, systemic and natural, and being conducted within the farming world, while the latter is highly technological, electronic, and “imported” into agriculture. It is making huge strides forward, and harnessing innovations such as robots, sensors, precision agriculture, platforms and direct communication. It might well give rise, gradually, to a big bang in the agricultural landscape, equivalent to the one caused by the arrival of motorisation.
What these two revolutions have in common is that they are radically changing farmers’ practices, and sometimes even their vision of their role. The changes therefore provide motivation for farmers with pioneering spirit, but they are causing the vast majority of their colleagues a great deal of anxiety.
The four agricultural revolutions
To make the period we are living through even more complex, the agricultural world is having to deal with two other revolutions. The first entails agriculture’s entry into the market economy. The gradual but continuous withdrawal of the public authorities from market management is going hand-in-hand with price variability, even if the overall trend is not unfavourable. The second revolution is commercial. The onus is now on farmers to produce what the (local, national, regional, European and world) markets demand, and not the reverse – i.e. to find outlets for produce. Agricultural sectors are now discovering what a customer really is, and having to adopt a fork-to-fork mindset. French farming is thus having to adapt to four rapid and simultaneous revolutions.
Furthermore, these parallel revolutions are highly interconnected. Digital technology will make it easier to record agricultural environmental management practices, enabling secure traceability throughout the food chain. This will build the transparency demanded by consumers in order to restore trust in French farming. The transition to conservation agriculture (also known as agricultural environmental management) also meets the demands of citizens and consumers for more natural food. It will be facilitated by digitalisation, although the digital revolution will not drive the conservation farming revolution, contrary to what those who take an ultra-technical view of the evolution of agricultural think.
This shift to agricultural environmental management is a profound change in the technical system of agricultural production. The new vision of farming could be summed up as a drive towards maximising the production of biomass, in line with the demands of citizen-consumers, while minimising the environmental footprint of agricultural enterprises. Some people are even considering going further and using agricultural practices to decarbonise the economy or restore damaged environments. In this analysis we will focus only on the technical dimension of conservation agriculture which, in addition to its technical and biological components, is taking on the features of a more overarching social movement incorporating communities and consumers.
There are two key strands to minimising farming’s environmental impact: reducing the use of scarce resources as far as possible, while also limiting agriculture’s discharges into the natural environment. In broad terms, this means consuming less fossil energy, and reducing the use of chemical inputs (fertilisers, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides).
A new approach to agriculture
Farmers will seek to get the most out of biological processes to aid production, and will also try to maximise the use of photosynthesis. People often talk about ecologically-intensive farming, which seeks to enhance and maximise the effectiveness of biological processes. Fundamentally, this new approach relies on non-labour and reducing tillage, ensuring permanent soil cover, extending crop rotations and therefore diversifying production, an increasing reconnection of arable and livestock farming, the search for maximum interactions between productive plots and their environment (hedgerows, agroforestry), and in many cases less consideration is now given to growing single varieties than to variety mixtures or crop combinations. The reconnection of arable and livestock farming will take place on the farm itself (mixed conventional farming) but also through alliances between complementary farms. Value will be derived from the forage produced by crop farmers between two cash crops as livestock farmers feed it to their herds, for instance. This is referred to as crop-livestock integration beyond the farm level. Tests are under way whereby herds eat the grass growing between rows of vines, for example, just as in the Champagne or Beauce regions flocks of sheep are again being grazed in fields after harvest.
Similarly, there will be much more interest than before in the full “closure” of the cycles of elements in order to limit environmental impacts and optimise the economic management of agricultural businesses. This applies to the nitrogen, carbon and phosphorous cycles. This circular economy approach paves the way for partnerships such as the links mentioned above between livestock and arable farmers, or a biogas plant managed by a farming group. It has a collaborative and neighbourhood dimension, as in traditional swaps of straw for manure.
This new approach to agriculture is clearly not a return to farming as practised by our grandparents, even if it does incorporate a much more natural dimension. It is a proactive vision, and essentially preventive rather than curative. Since the 1950s the focus has been on developing high-yield varieties and breeds for which we have sought to provide a stable environment so that they can express their full potential. For example, farmers try to destroy all aggressors beyond a certain infestation threshold (diseases, pests, adventive species). In conservation farming, the focus will instead be on maintaining balances over periods of several years, and thinking increasingly in terms of cultivated ecosystems. For example, farmers will sow a blend of species that will thrive in their environments in different ways depending on the level of minerals or moisture available in the soil.
Depending on how heterogeneous a field is, this or that species will grow best depending on locations within the plot. Livestock farmers will perhaps look for animals that are a little less productive but less sensitive to environmental variations, for example. Farmers will therefore have to develop a much more systemic approach to their profession and their practices, which will have increasing agronomic and zootechnical elements.
Precision agriculture, digitalisation and robotics
How will this revolution be able to harness the benefits of the digital revolution?
New technologies will allow the use of more and more sensors and facilitate the real-time transmission of the data they gather. An increasing number of fixed autonomous sensors will be installed in fields, including humidity and temperature sensors, and others will be worn by animals, including pedometers and accelerometers. Some will even be placed inside animals’ bodies, such as ingested thermometers in the stomachs of cattle, and vaginal probes. We will see the development of mobile machine-embedded sensors, and others measuring the biophysical parameters of crops in real time, such as sugar levels, the flow of sap in stems, and moisture deficit. Clearly, this will help make technical interventions much more precise. But at the same time, it is a highly technical approach that seeks to achieve the extreme optimisation and streamlining of “traditional” agriculture rather than a move towards the natural and systemic conservation farming described above. It is a difficult balance to strike.
A balance must be found between what is often termed precision (arable and livestock) farming, capable of correctively determining the correct, limited scale of intervention at the right time and in the right place, and a preventive, systemic approach enabling a cultivated ecosystem to produce without the need for curative treatments. Digital technology will make it possible to target interventions, but also, through data processing, to forecast and anticipate, simulate and safeguard. Lastly, robotisation opens up the prospect of precisely mechanising tasks and therefore developing or redeveloping non-chemical practices; think weeding robots.
What then ultimately is precision agriculture? It is the ability to decide on and carry out the best technical intervention in the right place at the optimal moment. It makes it easier to plan ahead of time and to act precisely in terms of space, whether in relation to a plot, an animal or a building. It means delivering a targeted intervention to an animal, providing it with exactly what it needs, when it needs it. It is also a new opportunity to consider animals individually on the basis of their own performances and situations, rather than making decisions on a herd or flock level. This focus on the individual rather than the group makes it possible to factor in heterogeneity. And the greater the heterogeneity, the greater the gains. When this form of farming is more developed it will for instance significantly change practices in pig farming, where the base unit is currently often a herd of thirty fattening pigs. This is potentially a real technical step-change enabling both an increase in yields and a reduction in inputs. For example, farmers might be able to automatically modulate the dose of weed control, irrigation and fertiliser within a plot based on soil conditions, the previous year’s yields, and measurements of the condition of vegetation. They will be able to automatically adjust feed portions based on instant readouts of each animal’s individual performances. It will also be possible to instantly adjust devices according to changes in the environment they operate in.
The result will therefore be improved efficiency with better technical performances, reduced costs and a lower environmental impact. In addition, it will be possible to automatically track and document interventions in time and space. Precision agriculture is ultimately only a set of supplementary, sector-specific techniques. We will probably go further than the technical optimisation of current practices and create levers that have the potential to change the whole agricultural ecosystem. Thanks to a measured – and, let us never forget, a more systemic – form of agriculture, we will be able to intensify farming in an environmentally friendly way.
The digital and conservation agriculture revolutions will therefore transform the farming landscape by changing production techniques, methods of oversight, and the skills needed to succeed. The role of the farmer will change radically as a result. In the past farmers needed technical skills. Several years ago they began to need management and sales abilities, and now “managerial” strategic and interpersonal skills are required. In other words, farmers still need to be excellent technicians, but they also need to become good business leaders. The arrival of digital technology in agriculture will also surely give rise to the need for new skills, or at least new behaviours and ways of thinking.
We are taking stock of the foreseeable scope of the coming transformation and the crucial need for new skills to be acquired not only by farmers but also throughout the related advisory chain. Given the climate emergency, this change will also need to be brought about at an unprecedented speed.
Conservation agriculture will be a form of farming that makes greater of use of skills and knowledge and consumes fewer inputs.
Member of the French Academy of Agriculture
NB This articles includes long extracts from the book “Vers un Big Bang agricole, la révolution numérique et l’agriculture” [Towards an agricultural big bang: the digital revolution and farming], published by Editions France Agricole Sept 2016