Agriculture and rural areas may not be the first topics that come to mind when we think about how new technologies are reshaping our societies – but they are in fact on the point of a major digital transformation, which was high on the agenda at the 2019 Digital Day.

The importance of agriculture and rural areas in Europe goes without saying. Rural areas represent over 80% of EU territory, and the EU’s agricultural sector is one of the world’s leading producers of food. European agriculture guarantees food security and quality, and provides millions of jobs for Europeans. At the same time, our expectations of the farming sector are very high. We expect to be able to buy food that is high quality, safe, and affordable. Many of us also want to know how our food is produced and to be reassured that this happens with minimum environmental damage and usage of precious resources such as water and energy. The agricultural industry faces multiple challenges – and digital technologies can help it to meet them.

New fields of operation

Technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, high performance computing, the Internet of Things and 5G have the potential to make farming more efficient and productive, and more sustainable. They can also power digital services that improve quality of life in rural areas and attract young people to agriculture and rural business opportunities. Not only that, but if we want the whole EU to experience a successful digital transformation, we must ensure the rural communities that make up such a large share of its territory can fully participate. For the moment, use of digital technologies in these sectors remains relatively low but the first steps have already been taken.

I have been impressed to see how European researchers and farmers, supported by the EU and its member countries, are finding ways to digitise agriculture and rural life. For example, labour shortages can often be a problem for farmers. The Sweeper harvesting robot, developed by an EU-funded project, uses advanced AI and robotics technologies to scan sweet pepper plants, detect ripe produce, and harvest and deliver it into a fully optimised and automated pepper production system for the horticultural sector. You can see how it works in the project’s own video. Thanks to the Internet of Food and Farm 2020, another ground-breaking EU project, we may soon see fields where two or more tractors are operated by a single driver, weeds are eliminated with surgical precision, and fertiliser is applied in the places where it is most needed. The farmer’s job is simply to monitor the field operations carried out automatically, and focus more on market choices and communication with customers. Take a look at this project’s story

Working together at EU level

Ensuring that the farming sector and rural areas are fully connected to the digital economy and our connected society is a major priority for the EU. At the recent Digital Day, 24 EU countries signed a Declaration of Cooperation on ‘A smart and sustainable digital future for European agriculture and rural areas’. Two further Member States will sign very soon.

The Digital Day also saw a lively panel discussion on these topics. Ministers from across the EU stressed the importance of human-centric technology development, of digital skills and education in rural areas, and the community aspects that must be supported in parallel to the digital transformation of the agricultural sector. I am pleased to note that all countries recognise the importance of working together, and with the European Commission, to improve the competitiveness of the EU’s agricultural sector and the well-being of citizens in rural areas. As ever, we are stronger together than when we act separately.