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Czech agriculture goes digital as science meets with farmers

Close collaboration between scientists, researchers and farmers has helped agriculture in the Czech Republic to take significant digital steps and increase its competitiveness, analysts told EURACTIV Czech Republic.

An increasing number of Czech farmers have embraced the idea of “producing more with less input” through the application of technology-based precision farming practices.

There are already about 250 milking robots in the Czech Republic. There are also automatic floor cleaners in cowsheds, which suck up the slurry and remove it. This progress is also visible in the Czech fields, with tractors connected to the Internet.

“Czech farmers are the world leaders in using these technologies. Approximately three-quarters of Czech farmers use some of the precision farming systems,” Veronika Hlaváčková, director of the Institute for Agriculture Education, said.

Precise equals ecological?

Analysts suggest that modern technologies will inevitably prevail in the agriculture sector and have a multidimensional role to play in reducing the use of pesticides and bureaucracy for audit authorities.

“We can dramatically reduce inputs thanks to robotization, especially the consumption of pesticides and water,” Vojtěch Kotecký, an environment protection expert, said, adding that robots apply much fewer herbicides and more accurately compared to conventional spraying.

“Although the Czech herbicide consumption fell by 19% between 2009 and 2016, robotics could bring result in even more dramatic drop,” Kotecký said.

The digitisation of the EU farming sector has become a priority for EU policymakers. The European Commission recently submitted to the EU member states a draft declaration titled “A smart and sustainable digital future for European agriculture and rural areas”.

According to the document, EU member states recognise the “urgency” to speed up the introduction of new technologies in order to address increasing challenges related to the environment, economy and society.

Scientists and farmers

The digital revolution in agriculture would never have been possible without research, development and its subsequent implementation. However, linking scientists and farmers is not an easy task.

“So far, the connection between the research sphere and agricultural practice has not been ensured. A number of research projects concerned areas that have not been very useful in practice or on the contrary farmers have been unable to get to useful research results,” Hlaváčková explained.

Almost three years ago, a Technology Platform for Agriculture was established in the Czech Republic, and Veronika Hlaváčková has been the main coordinator.

Thanks to the cooperation and direct communication between farmers and scientists, Czech agriculture is gradually being modernised and refined, she said.

“Over decades, Czech researchers in collaboration with major agricultural machinery manufacturers and Czech farmers have been the creators of many solutions such as sensors, soil probes and work algorithms that help to maintain or improve soil quality. And not just in the Czech Republic,” Hlaváčková said.

Modern technology in agriculture does not only mean the replacement of forks with robots and drones. New ways of growing plants are also being explored so that a crop grows while costs decrease.

The new technology is being tested first with pilot companies, so-called demo-farms, before engaging in the normal agricultural activity. One of them is Bureš Farm where the cultivation of supporting crops is tested.

“A total of 100 hectares of winter wheat are sown on demofarm and surrounding farms with a slug as an auxiliary crop. The stands are being closely monitored and the data are used to verify the research outputs,” said Jindřich Šmöger.

“In agriculture, the result is not visible from one day to another; it is a long-distance run. It is necessary to introduce new technologies in practice, first on smaller areas, then on larger and then of course in different conditions,” Šmöger added.

The potential

Miloslav Klas, the Director of the Agricultural Society Chrášťany, said there was great demand for precision agriculture.

“It is a dynamically developing field where many research teams, both foreign and domestic, operate. Precise farming methods and procedures begin to standardise and are finally prepared in such a way that they can be used effectively for their benefit by a large part of farms in the Czech Republic,” Klas said.

According to him, the development of precision agriculture is also boosted by the fact that most Czech agricultural holdings are led by university level experts.

“There is a new technological stage of agricultural production development ahead of us. It will bring many new opportunities, which would have been difficult to achieve before,” Klas concluded.

[Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos, Sam Morgan]

 

Source: https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/czech-agriculture-goes-digital-as-science-meets-with-farmers/

Butterfly numbers down by two thirds, German scientists find high-intensity agriculture reduces number of butterfly species in adjacent areas

Meadows adjacent to high-intensity agricultural areas are home to less than half the number of butterfly species than areas in nature preserves. The number of individuals is even down to one-third of that number. These are results of a research team led by Jan Christian Habel at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Thomas Schmitt at the Senckenberg Nature Research Society.

Germany is home to roughly 33,500 species of insects — but their numbers are decreasing dramatically. Of the 189 species of butterflies currently known from Germany, 99 species are on the Red List, 5 have already become extinct, and 12 additional species are threatened with extinction.

Now a team led by Prof. Jan-Christian Habel of the Department of Terrestrial Ecology of the Technical University of Munich and Prof. Thomas Schmitt, Director of the Senckenberg German Entomological Institute in Muencheberg in Brandenburg, has examined the specific effects of the intensity of agricultural use on the butterfly fauna.

Reduced biodiversity also on areas around intensively cultivated fields

The research team recorded the occurrence of butterfly species in 21 meadow sites east of Munich. Of these study sites, 17 are surrounded by agriculturally used areas, and four are in nature preserves with near-natural cultivation.

They recorded a total of 24 butterfly species and 864 individuals in all study sites. Specialists among the butterflies were particularly dependent on near-natural habitats, while the more adaptable “generalists” were also found in other grassland sites.

“In the meadows that are surrounded by agriculturally used areas we encountered an average of 2.7 butterfly species per visit; in the four study sites within the protected areas ‘Dietersheimer Brenne’ and ‘Garchinger Heide’ near Munich we found an average of 6.6 species,” adds Prof. Werner Ulrich of the Copernicus University in Thorn, Poland.

Negative impact of the industrialized agriculture demands rethinking

“Our results show an obvious trend: in the vicinity of intensively cultivated fields that are regularly sprayed with pesticides, the diversity and numbers of butterflies are significantly lower than in meadows near less used or unused areas,” explains the study’s lead author, Prof. Jan Christian Habel.

“Our study emphasizes the negative impact of the conventional, industrialized agriculture on the butterfly diversity and shows the urgent need for ecologically sustainable cultivation methods. Additional field studies may aid in identifying individual factors responsible for the insect die-back and in implementing appropriate countermeasures,” adds Schmitt in closing.

 

Journal Reference:

  1. Jan Christian Habel, Werner Ulrich, Nina Biburger, Sebastian Seibold, Thomas Schmitt. Agricultural intensification drives butterfly declineInsect Conservation and Diversity, 2019; DOI: 10.1111/icad.12343

 

 

 

Source: Materials provided by Technical University of Munich (TUM).

Responsible innovation key to smart farming

The so-called ‘fourth agricultural revolution’ must provide social benefits and address potentially negative side-effects of agri-tech

— by University of East Anglia, UK

Responsible innovation that considers the wider impacts on society is key to smart farming, according to academics at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Agriculture is undergoing a technology revolution supported by policy-makers around the world. While smart technologies will play an important role in achieving improved productivity and greater eco-efficiency, critics have suggested that consideration of the social impacts is being side-lined.

In a new journal article Dr David Rose and Dr Jason Chilvers, from UEAs School of Environmental Sciences, argue that the concept of responsible innovation should underpin the so-called fourth agricultural revolution, ensuring that innovations also provide social benefits and address potentially negative side-effects.

Each of the previous revolutions was radical at the time – the first representing a transition from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture, the second relating to the British Agricultural Revolution in the 18th century, and the third to post-war productivity increases associated with mechanization and the Green Revolution in the developing world.

The current ‘agri-tech’ developments come at a time when the UK government has provided £90 million of public money to transform food production in order to be at the forefront of global advanced sustainable agriculture. Many other countries are also prioritising smart agri-tech.

This, combined with private investment from organisations including IBM, Barclays, and Microsoft, means that ‘Agriculture 4.0’ is underway, with technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics increasingly being used in farming.

Dr Rose, a lecturer in human geography, said: “All of these emergent technologies have uses in farming and may provide many benefits. For example, robotics could plug potential lost labor post-Brexit in industries such as fruit picking, while robotics and AI could enable better chemical application, saving farmers money and protecting the environment. They could also attract new, younger farmers to an ageing industry.”

Writing in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, Dr Rose and Dr Chilvers warn though that agri-tech could also have side-effects, bringing potential environmental, ethical, and social costs.

“In light of controversial agri-tech precedents, it is beyond doubt that smart farming is going to cause similar controversy. Robotics and AI could cause job losses or change the nature of farming in ways that are undesirable to some farmers. Others might be left behind by technological advancement, while wider society might not like how food is being produced,” said Dr Rose.

“We therefore encourage policy-makers, funders, technology companies and researchers to consider the views of both farming communities and wider society. We advocate that this new agricultural tech revolution, particularly the areas funded by public money, should be responsible, considering the winners, but particularly the potential losers of change.

Dr Rose added: “This means better ways, both formal and informal, to include farmers and the public in decision-making, as well as advisors and other key stakeholders sharing their views. Wider society should be able to change the direction of travel, and ask whether we want to go there. They should be able to question and contest whether benefits to productivity should supersede social, ethical, or environmental concerns, and be able to convince innovators to change design processes.

“Responsible innovation frameworks should be tested in practice to see if they can make tech more responsible. More responsible tech saves controversy, such as that surrounding genetic modification, ensures farmers and the public are behind it, and can help to deliver on the policy objectives.”

Original article: Agriculture 4.0: Broadening Responsible Innovation in an Era of Smart Farming

 

Young people and women in EU farming

The EU farming sector is faced with an ageing population. In 2016 only 11% of farm managers in the EU were young farmers under the age of 40 years, according to Eurostat.

According to European Parliament surveys, even though EU assistance has been available to young farmers for more than three decades, the ‘young farmer problem’ seems to remain.

The European Commission’s proposal for the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has set nine objectives, one of which is generational renewal. The CAP budget will play a key role in achieving these goals but its future level is uncertain because member states are still discussing EU budget priorities for the period 2021-2027.

Another issue is the role of women in EU agriculture. Eurostat data from 2013 shows that on average around 30% of farms across the EU are managed by a woman. The differences among member states are remarkable, ranging from just over 5% in the Netherlands to around 47% in Lithuania.

In February 2017, the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee and Women’s Committee approved a report calling for an enhanced role of women in EU farming.

EU lawmakers believe that women have a key role in helping to revive rural areas as well as avoiding further urbanisation.

“This report highlights the multifunctional role of a rural woman – as a mother, a homemaker, a worker, an educator, a manager of a family farm, a guardian of culture, heritage and tradition,” Croatian MEP Marjiana Petir told EURACTIV.com.

Similarly, a global study carried out by Corteva Agriscience found that discrimination against women in the farming sector is still widespread.

“Empowering women could help revive rural areas and meet rising food demand,” the report said.

 

 

Source: https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/special_report/young-people-and-women-in-eu-farming/

 

Citizens are fed up with industrial agriculture

Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was a big issue at this year’s Green Week in Berlin. With all the billions of euros available, the agro-ecological transition is more than possible, especially if subsidies to agribusiness and factory farms were stopped, write Harriet Bradley and Trees Robijns.

Harriet Bradley is EU Agriculture and Bioenergy Policy Officer at BirdLife Europe. Trees Robijns is Agriculture and Bioenergy Policy Officer at NABU, a German environmental organisation.

We are at the End of the International Green Week in Berlin, an international exhibition of the food, gardening and agriculture industries. While the businesses and marketing people were focusing mainly on digitalisation and high tech, NGOs and civil society took the opportunity to raise the alarm about the real problems. The loudest voice could be heard during the protest march: we are fed up with industrial agriculture! (Wir haben Agrarindustrie satt!).

For the 9th year and this time supported by over 100 organisations and more than 35,000 people, the streets of Berlin were filled with demands for low-impact farming, animal welfare, climate justice and good food, for thriving family farms and rural communities, for biodiversity, for pesticide-free farming, for development cooperation based on ecological principles, and for a just and ecological reform of the EU’s farm subsidies, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

That last topic – the CAP – was quite a big issue at the Green Week, and, even if the industry – and a big chunk of the Green Week organisers – pin all their hopes on high-tech ‘solutions’, civil society turned the spotlight on the politicians and how they are not even acknowledging the real issues of huge insect and farmland bird declines, the disappearance of small farmers and the sustainability of animal production.

In the same week, yet more studies and media revelations reminded the public of the sobering reality of Europe’s current farming model and subsidy system, calling the bluff on the shiny propaganda of the official Green Week fair.

And the fact that there is a lot of ‘bluff’ to be called across the EU is illustrated by the following examples from Germany.

  • The biodiversity crisis: where German scientists showed a real insectageddon inside nature protection areas. While the WHO is pointing at the carcinogenic effects of pesticides like glyphosates, the former Agriculture Minister Schmidt gave the go ahead to renew the controversial herbicides’ licence without the consent of his government colleagues causing a big popular uproar.
  • The horrendous animal welfare situation which has been exposed by video material, shot by undercover activists in factory farms.
  • And last but especially not least: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), where the Scientific Advisory Councils to both the agriculture – as well as the environment – ministry strongly criticise the policy, which spends most of the money on flawed direct income payments that are free of any meaningful conditions.

After all this science and public uproar, it is astonishing how many EU governments and Members of the European Parliament are happily taking very clear positions to weaken down the policy, while Germany remains mostly silent.

Those speaking up are pursuing an aggressive simplification agenda: making eco-schemes voluntary, further weakening environmental spending in Pillar 2 and ring fencing money for direct income payments instead, hollowing out the basic principles of the ‘conditionality’ (the baseline for payments, previously called ‘cross compliance’ and ‘greening’), bringing in even more income support tools that harm the environment like risk management etcetera, etcetera. The list just goes on and on.

It is time to show where you stand now. Today the Agriculture Ministers of each EU country are meeting again, and they are discussing the green architecture and the ‘new delivery model’ which promised a new CAP focused on results and higher environmental ambition. We expect Germany and all other Member States to inspire us with their vision for the future of food and farming, and therefore call on ministers to stand up for nature, climate and nature-friendly farmers by supporting:

  • Real money for nature, the environment and climate: The next CAP needs to deliver at least €15bn per year for effective biodiversity measures, to be funded out of an overall 50% ring-fencing across the CAP for all environment and climate measures.
  • An end to perverse subsidies by ending the harmful aspects of coupled support, investment aid, areas of natural constraints payments, risk management and direct payments
  • Real law enforcement by strengthening the conditionality for farms getting subsidies, including setting common baselines such as 10% space for nature on all farms
  • A strong accountability and performance framework, including SMART objectives and rigorous indicators, the inclusion of environmental authorities and public interest civil society organisations in decisions on how the money is spent and finally sufficient penalties and incentives systems for Member States so as to encourage strong environmental ambition and punish cheating

With all the billions of euros available, agro-ecological transition is more than possible, all the more so if subsidies to agribusiness and factory farms were stopped. All that is currently missing is the political will to stand up to the intensive farm lobby and agribusiness interests.

In just a few months time, Europe will go to the polls. The result will have a huge impact on biodiversity, climate and long-term food production, but also on our fundamental values and rights as both citizen’s and civil society organisations. Let’s make the CAP another reason for Europe’s citizens’ to believe in Europe, and answer their demands for a fundamental reform towards environmentally sustainable farming, before they cast their vote.

 

Source: https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/opinion/citizens-are-fed-up-with-industrial-agriculture/

 

CSIC is evaluating the influence of ozone in the soil microbial quality

CSIC is using different approaches to evaluate the influence of ozone (O3) in the soil microbial quality.

For example, the biomass of the soil microbial communities is analyzed through the extraction and quantification of fatty acids from soil by gas cromatography (Pictures 1). In addition, the activity of microbial communities is measured thorugh different soil enzyme activities, such, urease, alkaline phosphatase and β-glucosidase (Picture 2), which are related to the cycles of nitrogen (N), phosphous (P) and carbon (C) in terrestrial ecosystems, respectively.

The results indicate that ozone may impact in the biomass of the soil microbial community, but also in the activity of soil enzymes. Ozone also enhanced the decomposition of soil organic matter and, hence, increased the content of water-soluble C and N fractions. In some cases, the greater availability of water-soluble compounds in treated samples can be responsible of the reduced enzyme activity by negative feedback mechanisms.

        

Picture 1. Process of extraction and separation of fatty acids from soil (left panel) and gas gromatograh utilized for measuring microbial fatty acids (right panel).

 

 

Picture 2. Examples of some soil samples utilized for analyses in AgRemSO3il (left panel) and colorimetric reaction for measuring soil phosphatase activity (right panel).