Digital technologies can “massively” help improve efficiency in agriculture and also tackle the climate and nature crises.
That was one of the key messages to emerge from an online debate on Friday 11 June about the role digital technologies can play in agriculture and also in helping to promote environmental sustainability.
Millions of people worldwide have demanded urgent and scaled action on environmental sustainability and, while there is still a long way to go, digital technologies can play an important part, speakers at the event concluded.
That is, provided they are designed and deployed with the kind of positive societal impact that the sustainable development goals outline.
The webinar, organised by The Brussels Times with the support of Huawei, brought up case studies, success stories, and examples of companies and organisations which are already deploying and partnering around digital technologies to tackle such challenges.
The event heard that digital technologies can help in agriculture, strengthen resilience to climate related natural hazards, and improve our capacity to act.
Examples of how digital technologies are, or can be, deployed to help the planet were outlined at the debate which is particularly timely as it comes in the wake of this week’s EU Green Week, the biggest environmental event on the EU calendar.
These kind of collaborations, it was said, will be key to driving progress. The examples shared at the event demonstrate that momentum is building in the ICT sector, particularly in agriculture and farming.
The keynote speaker at this EU Green Week side event was Veronica Manfredi, Director for Quality of Life in DG Environment at the European Commission.
She said, “The health crisis has taught us many things including how we treat human health and our planet. Many deaths are currently directly linked to environmental pollution, which is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss. So we have a huge moral duty to change and also a unique chance to do so.
“The zero pollution ambition of the EU is a huge opportunity and is also something that can attract investment, so this is an opportunity that must be seized by the business sector. Most businesses, however, need to get scaled up to this challenge.”
She said the technologies already exists but added, “So, I invite everyone to get involved in protecting our planet’s health. We are counting on this in order to drive this transition so as to bring as many benefits as possible to both people and the planet.”
Green tech in practice
Audience at the event heard of success stories and best practices from Markus Sax, Project Leader at the Agroscope Institute for Sustainability Sciences in Switzerland, who showcased a project his firm is doing to help farming and agriculture move into the digital age and embrace digital technologies.
He said, “Weed control has, for many years, had its own environmental consequences. But research and industry have joined forces to find ways for weeds to be controlled, sometimes using 5G applications and field robots. This is just the start and the aim is to use 5G apps to help farmers manage their crops in an environmentally friendly way. The possibilities are endless. In the future, we should make better use of robots on fields as they can work all day and night unlike farmers.”
He was asked about the cost implications, for instance, of having robots on farms and conceded, “The energy bill will probably have to go up.”
During the event an online poll was organised with viewers with most people saying there was more need for greater investment in this sphere.
This was seized on by another speaker, René Arnold, Vice President, Public Affairs Strategy at Huawei, who also said, “This is an interesting and timely issue as digital technologies really can help save the planet. There are many digital solutions out there to make agriculture smarter.
“Specific digital technologies can, of course, contribute to this, such as artificial intelligence and also 5G. We also have the use of robotics.”
On data centres, he said, “Our technology addresses the issue of cooling, which is another very pressing issue in data centres.”
He said, “The net benefits of digitalisation in reducing our carbon footprint, for example, with smart cities, are always positive and usually be a great extent.”
Another speaker, Damian Dalton, Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University College Dublin, noted the “huge” amount of data now being generated to offer possible solutions for these problems. But we must also be aware that there is a potential downside to this because this data has to go somewhere, that is, to data centres, he noted.
“With the internet being so accessible, we are generating an exponential growth in data year by year, and that all provides a need for extra storage which in turn can create a huge carbon footprint. So we have to also look at how society is using technology, and we need to educate society that there is a cost for using the internet, nothing is for free,” Dalton emphasised.
“We have to ask if there is enough energy available to supply these centres. If not, we should make efficiencies in these data centres and improve their performance,” Dalton added.
On data centres, Arnold said, “Our technology addresses the issue of cooling, which is another very pressing issue in data centres.”
“To be successful in tacking the climate challenge we have to do the best we can to make that happen. The ICT sector, if used in a sustainable way, can contribute hugely to this and achieving the SDGs. Everyone must change behaviour and alter patterns of consumption we current witness. Again, digital tech can play an important role in this,” Arnold added.
David Meszaros, CEO at SMARTKAS, a company based in the Netherlands, which offers smart agricultural solutions for precision farming, also took part in the 90 minute debate.
He called on more countries to “champion” sustainability but said there were problem areas in traditional farming.
“What makes us different to others in what we do is that we operate in a net zero pollution way and recycle a great deal. The way we operate is independent of the whimsical ways of nature so we can operate all year round.”
Meszaros warned though, “We need to invest more in technology and research and sustainable agricultural practices.”
On the costs issue, Meszaros said, “You have to look at this as a big shift like when we moved from horses to cars. From a farmer’s perspective they will not be harmed as they can produce more with brings great added benefit.”
He said, “Managing the environment, be it for farming or work or living, is the key to the whole story and digital technology can help.”
Meszaros concluded that “the biggest obstacle to all this is the public mindset and also current consumption levels. These are both crucial and we have to overcome this.”
The Brussels Times