Innovation vital to farm sector

INNOVATION and agriculture have to go together from now on, European Commissioner Phil Hogan declared in his first major speech since taking office one month ago today.
Innovation vital to farm sector

Addressing the sixth Knowledge and Innovation Summit in Brussels, he agreed with the European Parliament president Martin Schulz when he recently hosted the leadership of Milan Expo.

Mr Schulz said: “Today’s farmers are new Renaissance men: they must possess the right mix of science, economics, entrepreneurialism, and environmental awareness to meet the challenges of the future.”

Decisions taken by the EU over the next five years will impact one way or another on 500 million consumers, 12m farmers, 4m food sector workers, 250,000 food manufacturers, 200,000 wholesalers and 500,000 retailers across the 28 EU member states.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has a current budget of around €58bn, will be central to the deliberations.

Mr Hogan, unsurprisingly, availed of his speech to outline some of his vision for the development of the sector in keeping with the Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness mission at the heart of the new Juncker Commission.

Listing innovation in agriculture as a key priority in his mandate, he said most of the farms of today have little in common with the farms of the 1950s. And the farms of 2050 will probably differ significantly from the farms of today.

“European farming is an innovative sector: farmers have delivered on the societal goals of food security, food safety and quality. They have achieved this whilst protecting the environment and being more resource efficient.

“However, the challenges and also the opportunities that are ahead of us are as great today as they were 60 years ago. Food security is a bigger challenge than ever, with a global population expected to reach 9.6bn people by 2050.

“World food systems will have to increase in efficiency and productivity to ensure that people have access to the food they need.

“We will have to do more with less, through greater use of recycling, up-cycling and above all, wasting less. EU agriculture should be at the forefront of this efficiency drive,” he said.

The former Carlow Kilkenny TD and minister said part of the challenge will be to encourage young innovators to see farming as an attractive, high tech and rewarding career.

“I am glad that the new Common Agricultural Policy goes a long way to increasing the appeal of farming as a career.

“Innovative agriculture should also ensure the protection of natural resources, biodiversity, landscape, soil and water, and increase the environmental and climate benefits that farming provides,” he said.

Commissioner Hogan said the Rural Development Programme will stimulate rural areas to strengthen and diversify economic activity.

The rollout of fast broadband everywhere will see greater use of data collection and data analytics in crop and livestock management. Biomass, bio-energy and the bio-based economy will develop further.

“Innovation is the key to sustainable rural development: through innovation, we can maintain the competitiveness of the agri-food sector and create more and better jobs in rural areas, all the while safe-guarding the planet for future generations,” he said.

Commissioner Hogan said innovation is happening everywhere today. In Europe, scientists, industry and farmers, collectively and individually, are currently working on new ways to produce, store and market food products.

“For example, smart farming systems using cameras, sensors and other forms of technology are being tested to improve irrigation efficiency or reduce use of pesticides by improving detection of diseases.”

Mr Hogan said EU seedbanks contain a wealth of genetic material that can be exploited to develop new varieties.

“Similarly, while people still wonder whether we’ll ever see or even want self-driving cars in our cities, we have automated farming machinery working today. European industry is a global leader in robotic farming – this innovation is already in motion.

“But our agricultural innovation system needs to be strengthened and further developed. There is a massive potential and also a pressing need to do more.”

Mr Hogan said there is evidence the links between research, farmers and the industry are still too weak. Too many innovations are still left unexploited and too many research questions from the sector remain unanswered.

Systems need to be made more efficient and interactive. The new tools the EU have put on the table for 2014-2020 are there to ensure they succeed.

Mr Hogan said he wants to concentrate on three main priorities: increasing the efficiency, sustainability and resilience of primary production, while increasing its capacity for climate change mitigation and adaptation; providing ecosystem services and public goods; and empowering rural areas to enhance support for innovation.

Noting that the European Parliament was the venue for his address to the Knowledge and Innovation summit, he said it felt like a return home, and then he indicated what his approach as a Commissioner is likely to be.

“As those of you who may have attended my hearing in Comagri will be aware, I am a politician first and foremost. The Juncker Commission will be political, in the sense of working hand in hand with the parliament, listening to the voice of European citizens and acting on their guidance,” he said.

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