Ladies and gentlemen, I’m very happy to be here in beautiful Lisbon for the Agri Innovation Summit 2017. I want to thank our Portuguese hosts for their warm welcome, and I want to especially thank all the groups responsible for organising this important event.

 

Bridging the digital divide is one of the most fundamental challenges facing agriculture and rural areas today, and policymakers everywhere need to do more to help build that bridge.

 

Before outlining how we get there, it is always useful to remind ourselves why this is so important.

 

The urban-rural digital divide is not just an imbalance of technology or connectivity: it is an imbalance of opportunity.

 

Digitisation has a lot to offer rural communities and in the not so distant future, it could help make rural areas more attractive places to live and work. Technological change, in particular digital technologies, will make it possible to develop new business models and create high value jobs in rural areas. Rural citizens will be much less disadvantaged in terms of access to culture, education, or services, and the prosperity gap between rural and urban areas should be reduced.

 

There is a growing realisation that our rural areas have so much to offer when it comes to solving many of our 21st century problems. When it comes to climate and environmental action, or developing the bio-economy and circular economy, or creating high-quality jobs in the agri-food and broader rural economy, who is better placed than rural area to deliver real results?

 

And it is clear that this potential will only be fulfilled if rural communities are given the full benefits of digitisation and connectivity.

 

Therefore if we are serious about keeping rural communities strong and sustainable in the coming decades, we need to act NOW.

 

But let us be clear; this will not happen without determination and engagement. We need to invest to turn promises and potential into real change on the ground. We need to invest in business hubs, we need to invest in infrastructure – notably to address the huge rural-urban gap in the provision of broadband – and we need to invest in local capacity building and in innovative ideas. We need to help the people behind these ideas to develop them and take them to market.

 

We have seen it happen. Communities throughout the Union have managed to turn the ship around. Some do it with public support, others without. But they all have one ingredient in common: strong local engagement! I believe this is the approach we should follow at policy level also.

 

The good news is that we are not starting from scratch – the train has well and truly left the station. The CAP and a number of other EU policy and funding streams are working in unison to deliver results.

 

Providing connectivity and digital solutions is one of the areas where the CAP can and should improve its contribution to the rural economy. We know that the CAP needs to do more to boost investment, growth and employment: a greater focus on digitisation and innovation should help us to advance in this direction. And the CAP must also do more to contribute to the fight against climate change, and help us to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

 

New technologies will help us to get the balance right between better economic performance and the need to increase the environmental and climate action by farmers.

 

This change towards a knowledge-based agricultural model needs to be accompanied by a reinforcement of the linkages between the CAP and other areas of EU action like the digital economy.

 

According to the recent public consultation on modernising and simplifying the CAP, 63% of respondents support a more extensive use of e–government services, a better use of databases & more technologies to reduce farm inspections.

 

When it comes to rural development, one of the key recommendations of the Cork Declaration is that we need to work together, across policy fields and borders to promote rural prosperity. We have launched such a work stream with the initiative on Smart Villages which you will discuss more today.

 

But rural innovation and prosperity is not just a concern for the CAP but for all funds and policies active in rural areas.

 

Research and innovation policies have a key role to play in helping the farming, food and bio-based sectors.

 

Ensuring long-term food and nutrition security, providing the basis for healthier diets, addressing environmental and climate sustainability or boosting the sustainable growth of rural territories: none of these can happen without significant investment in research and innovation.

We need to rethink the way we farm and market products, and the way we modernise and valorise our territories, while nurturing our ecosystems and the health of our citizens.

 

This requires new technologies, new business models, and new forms of organisation and cooperation which will generate more value and greater sustainability and resilience for all.

 

I am delighted to see the wealth of concrete issues covered by the first 400 EIP-AGRI operational groups which have started under the rural development programmes.

 

These groups hold a fantastic potential for creating innovative solutions - you heard many examples in the sessions yesterday and you will see even more as we progressively raise the community of operational groups to 3200 by the end of 2020. The results of these projects are being pooled into our EIP-AGRI platform, and they clearly illustrate what can be achieved when we join forces to solve common challenges:

 

To give just one example: in Hessen, Germany, farmers, millers, bakers and scientists are working together on producing protein-rich wheat with less fertilisers, leading to a branded "groundwater protection bread" bringing higher income to all.

The main themes for Operational Groups fit our European and global agenda for sustainability very well.

 

While operational groups are working at regional and national levels, over 100 European and international projects are working on similar issues but at larger scales, benefiting from the doubling in EU funding for agricultural research and innovation under Horizon 2020.

 

The cornerstone of our work is "the multi-actor approach", in which farmers, scientists and other actors work together to design solutions that have high chances to be implemented.

 

61 Horizon multi-actor projects are already running, 20 of which were showcased yesterday. By 2020, the EU will invest over €1 billion in 180 Horizon 2020 multi-actor projects: two thirds of the overall budget. This represents an unprecedented support for farmers to sit into the driving seat.

 

This is not always easy for actors on the ground: it requires early engagement, trust and respect, facilitation, advice and new skills.

 

But we can already see the benefits. The EU is changing the way agriculture research and innovation is done. One participant out of two in the multi-actor projects selected between 2014 and 2016 had never participated in EU projects. This is 20% more than in regular projects. These 400 newcomers are agricultural organisations, advisors, technical institutes, chambers of commerce, demonstration farms, regions, local authorities: in other words, people on the ground!

 

And it is only now that our framework will begin to demonstrate its full potential: now that operational groups can exchange knowledge with Horizon projects and maximise knowledge and innovation creation and uptake.

 

But we need to do even more. We need to accelerate the uptake of innovation and technology in the sector, on-farm but also at every level of the value chain. Innovative solutions in many cases already exist, but we need to do more to get them where they are needed.

 

When I visited the Joint Research Centre in Italy earlier this year we explored the possibility of using satellite technology to assist in farm controls, which could eliminate a huge layer of costly bureaucracy.

In July I visited the Innovation Campuses of John Deere and Claas in Germany, and they are making astonishing strides in on-farm precision agriculture. These solutions have the potential to transform the efficiency and sustainability of holdings of all sizes.

 

And we should not shy away from looking to the European Investment Bank for help and ideas. I believe they could play a larger role in helping local authorities and rural communities get access to much needed project financing.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the right place at the right time. This Agri-innovation summit is the first major event which brings all the pieces of the "big picture" together: the LEADER Local action groups, the EIP-AGRI operational groups, Horizon 2020 projects and the EU rural networks which connect them all: ENRD and EIP-AGRI.

 

I would like to hear your ideas for how the work on Smart Villages and rural innovation should develop in the future; what you believe EU policies can and should do promote innovation for rural businesses and services; and how we make sure that rural interests and aspirations are better reflected on the EU research agenda. 

You are aware that my services and I are currently preparing a Communication on the future of the CAP. I am confident that many of the ideas and actions discussed here at this conference will be reflected in this important document.

 

The next CAP needs to take into account the digital transformation and we need to look for the best way to ensure policy delivery.

 

By working together, across the policy spectrum and by involving all relevant stakeholders - farmers, researchers, investors and policymakers – we can make real progress to bridge the digital divide. Thank you.