“Digitization is an Important Pillar in the Sustainable Transformation of Agriculture”

Andreas Schweikert, agriculture officer of the digital association Bitkom, on the interaction between ecology and technology and the challenges that digital developments bring with them in agriculture – such as the serious danger from hackers.

Ecological agriculture – pure nature – and digitization – pure technology – does that fit together for you?

Absolutely. Digitalisation and nature are not contradictory. The goals of organic farming are environmentally friendly production and species-appropriate animal husbandry. Digitalisation is a tool to achieve exactly these goals.

Moreover, without technological progress, we would not be able to meet the high demands placed on agriculture today. 70 years ago, a farmer fed about 10 people, today there are more than 135. Without tractors and mobile mechanical harvesters, this would not have been possible. Digitalisation is a technological development that not only ensures higher productivity, but also takes greater account of environmental concerns.

Federal Education Minister Anja Karliczek (CDU) said that the mobile phone standard 5G was “not necessary on every milk churn”. What is your position?

It is a fact that the use of digital technologies in agriculture requires good connectivity right down to the field and into the barn. Currently, data transfer with machines is still mostly done via USB sticks. This is not the solution in the long term, especially since cloud-based applications, drones or field robots will play an even greater role in the future.

However, 5G is currently not an issue at all for many farmers, especially since there are currently no applications with the need for such data transfer rates. They would be happy if they had 3G or 4G. That is why we need more speed in network expansion, especially in rural areas. It can take three years from the planning stage to the commissioning of a mobile phone mast. That is too slow. Rapid simplification of licensing procedures and openness to innovative installation methods could help. Moreover, wireless data transmission is not limited to mobile radio. WLAN, Bluetooth or other radio technologies such as LoRaWAN can be good alternatives.

Are you making demands on politicians?

In the coming years, the Federal Government would like to promote the establishment of local, so-called ad-hoc networks. Farmers can thus acquire 5G frequencies and use them on their farms.

This will be the solution for some farmers. In order to complement these measures in a meaningful way, agricultural holdings which neither currently nor foreseeably have mobile or fixed network connections with sufficient bandwidths should be supplied with complementary technologies such as broadband Internet via satellite. Here too, support measures that are neutral in terms of competition should be considered, for example by subsidizing one-off acquisition costs.

The expansion of the fixed network must not be neglected either. In order to ensure fast Internet connections throughout rural areas, the public sector is called upon to provide support where economic expansion is not feasible. For these under-served areas, public funds are also needed to promote the expansion of fibre optic networks, taking into account sufficient investment protection. Fibre optic expansion requires simpler application and approval procedures. One of the objectives must be the complete digitization of all approval processes under the law on road traffic for fixed and mobile networks. In addition, the potential of alternative laying techniques, including above-ground laying, should be exploited to a much greater extent in order to leverage cost-cutting and acceleration potential in the expansion of fibre-optic networks.

How can farmers with poor grid supply help themselves?

If the network supply is poor, it will be necessary to lay new fibre optic cables. Local authorities have a central role to play here, as they are required to initiate the appropriate funding procedures. In addition, satellite connections can improve supply in the short term. Numerous offers are available on the market for this purpose. Mobile radio can also be an alternative to fixed network connections.

Where do you see special opportunities for environmental protection and sustainability in digitization?

I am convinced that digitization will be an important pillar in the sustainable transformation of agriculture. Changes are needed to reduce the ecological footprint and combat climate change – and digitization can help. Precision farming applications such as the site-specific application of fertilizer or pesticides can help to save resources, promote biodiversity and maintain soil fertility.

Digital technologies also make it possible to create more transparency and thus build a digital bridge to the end consumer. There is an increased awareness among the population of regional and sustainably produced food. Information about the origin or the cultivation method can be recorded digitally and communicated to consumers in a secure way via technologies such as Blockchain, so that the aspect of sustainability can be better taken into account when shopping.

In addition, there are digital business models such as food platforms or digital farm shops that convey food directly between farmers and consumers – transparently, regionally and in an uncomplicated way. There is great interest and Corona has strengthened this trend.

Plant growth control by satellite, automated fertilization, GPS-controlled agricultural machinery, digital farm shops – data is collected everywhere. What about their use?

For us it is clear that data is the basis for digital agriculture. The farmer must be in control of what happens with this data. This is a basic prerequisite for confidence in the use of digital applications in agriculture.

The use of data can, however, offer farmers concrete added value and make their work easier. That is also how farmers see it. Our current survey has shown that most farmers are willing to share their farm data, especially if it means, for example, less bureaucracy for them or if it allows them to detect and repair damage to agricultural machinery at an early stage. In order to tap the potential, it is therefore important to promote the free exchange of data and avoid data silos.

Is it sufficient for digitization to deal with the offers, or should farmers and sellers make use of external support?

One of the biggest obstacles to digitization is the lack of knowledge and digital skills. In case of doubt, it is certainly advisable to seek external help.

In future, however, it will be important to start early. Digital skills should be taught to a greater extent already during studies or training. We advocate integrating digitization more strongly into curricula – not only as a subject in its own right, but also as a cross-cutting tool for making agriculture more sustainable.

What measures should farmers and companies in the organic sector take to protect against hacker attacks and data loss?

There are small, simple measures that anyone can take without much effort or external help. For example, the password should be at least eight characters long and contain both upper and lower case letters as well as numbers and special characters.

Regular updates are also important. Security gaps are usually programming errors through which viruses and malware gain access to data. Security updates close these gaps. Therefore they should be installed as soon as possible.

However, the highest commandment always remains: use common sense. Especially with dubious mails and inquiries. Banks and other companies never ask their customers by e-mail to enter confidential data on the net. These mails are best deleted immediately.

It is important that farmers take the dangers posed by cybercriminals seriously – and act accordingly. A farmer has to be a professional in a job – but not a perfect IT security expert. The market for security service providers is large and offers the right services and products for everyone. That’s why it’s worth finding out more and getting competent help.