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11th Jul 2020

Warning of agricultural 'digital arms race' in EU

  • 'We are watching an agricultural digital arms race where the winner will dominate and control our food, countryside, and the farmers that feed us,' said Friends of the Earth Europe (Photo: David Stewart)

Friends of the Earth Europe has called on the European Commission to regulate data generated in agriculture via new technologies to avoid a few global corporations consolidating their dominance in the farming and food chain.

"Europe is on the verge of allowing centralisation and concentration of [farming] data at an unprecedented scale, with the absence of any regulation," a new report published by the NGO warned on Wednesday (19 February).

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Digital farming, sometimes called "precision agriculture", refers to a technology-enabled approach to monitor and optimise the processes along the agricultural value-chain.

However, the report reveals that these innovative practices threaten to turn farmers into "data harvesters" - dependent on agribusiness and tech corporations if left unregulated.

"Unless regulation is brought in, farmers face a dystopian future, abandoned to giant corporations who seek to gain unprecedented control over Europe's fields," said food campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, Mute Schimpf, who added that this is "an avoidable crisis", where the EU must protect its farmers.

In 2017, a European Parliament study already pointed out that "those who own the data can direct and control the data sets, are in the central position of power to create the added value and earn a major share of income generated in agriculture".

In the last decade, investment levels have significantly increased in the digital farming sector, with this market expected to reach over €10bn by 2025.

However, according to campaigning NGO, the key players in the digital farming market - Bayer/Monsanto, DuPont/Dow, Syngenta/ChemChina, BASF - have a long record of pushing environmentally-harmful industrial agriculture in the EU.

"We are watching an agricultural digital arms race where the winner will dominate and control our food, countryside, and the farmers that feed us," Schimpf warned.

Digital dependency?

The European Parliament has previously acknowledged that there is a "high risk" that European farming becomes dependent on non-European companies for digital farming, what may lead to "anti-competitive practices including price discrimination and speculations in commodity markets that may affect food security".

This presents a challenge for the commission, which wants to reduce such dependencies along the digital value chain, according to a draft of the European Data Strategy seen by EUobserver, which is to be published on Wednesday.

However, according to Friends of the Earth Europe, the commission's regulatory approach is unlikely to propose rules to govern the fast-developing digitalisation of farming - despite their potential harm for the objectives of the Green Deal.

Meanwhile, the EU Court of Auditors recently called on the commission to improve to use of new technologies for monitoring environmental requirements and develop further action plans under the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).

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