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Why data analytics in agriculture is critical to the Green Deal


14 Apr 2022


Climate & Environment

Author: Brecht Seifi – SAS European Institutions

How can we make agriculture sustainable without preventing farmers from thinking innovatively and continuing to produce affordable food of the highest quality? The answer to this question is essential if we are to meet the ambitious targets of the Green Deal. Fortunately, policymakers can count on the help of data and analytics to predict the impact of decisions and strategies.

In every company, agility has become the most important word in the dictionary. It allows business leaders to absorb shocks, such as the recent pandemic and the effects of lockdowns. Similarly, farmers and policymakers must also be agile to cope with unpredictable elements like climate change and severe weather events.  

Crises situations can put severe pressure on crop supplies, which can lead to escalating food prices. Countries can decide to limit or stop exporting to EU countries, forcing EU policymakers to look for alternatives. In this context, a dataset and analytical model can provide more insight into what is available and what impact a decision will have in the long run.  

Just as most industrial companies today rely on data and analytical models to make processes more efficient and improve the quality of their products, the agricultural sector could really benefit from predictive tools. Not just to find solutions to urgent crises, but also in the long run to combat climate change. In fact, data and analytics will be critical for the EU to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. 

Database for agriculture

Part of Europe’s plans is the Farm to Fork strategy that seeks to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly. To achieve these goals and those of the Green Deal, the European Union needs to evaluate policies in real-time and get quick feedback on the impact of their decisions. And eventually even predict the outcome of policies. To do this, they need to gather data and develop analytical models that turn the data into valuable insights. In fact, a database for tracking farming policy already exists … 

FADN is a successful solution built by the Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI) together with the Analytical framework of SAS. On a yearly basis, this gathers financial, economic and structural data from 85,000 European farms. The benefits of this data model work in two directions. On the one hand, policymakers can use it to adjust their decisions. And on the other hand, using the data for benchmarking helps farmers improve the performance of their farms. 

Turning EU farms into local data factories

In the next step, the current data network will likely be extended into a Farm Sustainability Data Network (FSDN) that includes a broader set of indicators on the sustainability performance of farms. The prelude to this was FLINT, a European Commission-funded project that translated 31 relevant themes into a list of specific data items to be collected on farms. Agriculture is a living system that responds to a complex web of influencers, such as weather, the economy, and climate shifts. Data feeds should therefore also be dynamic and reflect these constantly changing conditions. 

Ultimately, every EU farm could become a low-cost, local data factory that shares information with other farms and policymakers. In this way, we can build models across farms, regions and even member states. This will lead to numerous digital twins that represent distinct segments of the farming value chain and capture changing climate patterns and their impact on agricultural production. 

Instead of just looking back at historical data, predictive models look forward and reveal the expected outcome of policies. As a result, farming will become more sustainable while consumers will benefit from lower food prices. It may even lead to more intelligent land use and improved water quality. In Florida, for example, SAS technology has been used to drive policies that make the state’s watersheds more resilient. 

Observing the unobservable

Stopping climate change and living up to the ambitions of the Green Deal will be an enormous task to which all EU citizens have to contribute. But without analytical models and algorithms, we are facing an impossible mission. Not only does advanced analytics allow us to analyze vast amounts of data, we can also include factors that were previously unobservable to policymakers. Think of the benefits of carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and access to great nutritious and affordable food. However, before we can build the models that do the magic, we first need to get the data in order. That is why we need to structure both the FADN and FSDN as resources to collect and iterate data. 

In the fight against climate change, according to the World Bank, policies should focus on practices that simultaneously reduce emissions, increase resilience or adaptation, and improve productivity. As agriculture is a seasonal process that restarts every year, we will have to pave the road to success as we ride on it. Only analytics can help us meet this challenge and develop thoughtful policies that farmers understand and embrace. It will lead to smarter farming and food production with a positive impact on our farmers’ income, the EU economy, our health, and, of course, our planet. 

Discover our eBook “How data-driven policies can make EU agriculture more resilient.” on the SAS EU Knowledge Hub.