The Swiss agricultural sector currently makes little use of the opportunities offered by digitalisation. A charter launched in 2018 aims to further develop the digitalisation of the Swiss agricultural and food sector and to exploit the potential in the interests of all stakeholders.
Since the 1980s, digitalisation has made great strides in the agricultural sector. In animal husbandry, this consists primarily in the use of milking robots; in field crops and special crops, driver-assistance systems are its most common manifestation.
In both animal husbandry and plant production, it is clear that digital technologies are primarily used in Switzerland in order to reduce physically strenuous work and simplify the daily work routine. Digital tools are used very little for management decisions, e.g. for the targeted application of production resources such as manure, plant-protection products or antibiotics.
Different factors are responsible for the current low adoption of digitalisation in practice:
- Some digital applications are not yet sufficiently ready for practical use.
- The various tools and devices are in most cases not networked with one another, making management and information acquisition more difficult.
- There are unresolved issues concerning the technical infrastructure and legal framework.
Charter on the Digitalisation of Swiss Agriculture and Food Production
In 2018, a charter for the digitalisation of the Swiss agricultural and food sector was launched under the aegis of the Federal Office for Agriculture FOAG. By the end of 2019, it had been signed by 110 institutions in the industrial, agricultural, processing, retail and administrative sectors, who thereby undertook to make an active contribution to the digitalisation of the Swiss agricultural and food sector.
Same Goal, Different Challenges
The members of the Charter Association all contribute to the digitalisation of agriculture, whilst pursuing different partial goals and facing different challenges:
The aim of the FOAG is to promote dialogue and data exchange between the various stakeholders. Its key tool in this endeavour is the agricultural policy information system AGIS. Together with the Swiss Federal Statistical Office SFSO and the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office FSVO, the FOAG is engaged in developing a master data concept for simplifying the management and use of public data along the food chain. The networking and valorisation of the data poses major challenges of a technical, operational, legal and financial nature.
Barto AG is developing a digital farm manager which will allow Swiss farmers to document their processes with less administrative effort. The Barto platform is open to all stakeholders, and branch partners can offer their own apps on Barto. Fundamental challenges here are the lack of uniform standards for data exchange and the financing of technical solutions for the small Swiss market. Barto’s main shareholders are Identitas AG and the Fenaco Cooperative Association.
The aim of Agroscope is to use digitalisation and the data it makes available to create added value for the Swiss agricultural and food sector, prioritising the following core areas:
- Production optimisation and data-based decision support, with the aim of exploiting the potential of digitalisation for the Swiss agricultural sector.
- Recommendations for action for practitioners and policy-makers on the basis of knowledge concerning new technologies and how these are adopted and disseminated in practice.
The challenges lie in the breadth of the essential knowledge, the swift pace of technological development and the heterogeneous demands of the individual user groups.
Back in the 1990’s, the agricultural extension centre AGRIDEA developed the farm-management system AGRO-TECH which is still in use to this day. Further digital tools are e.g. the collaboration tool AGRIconnect and the AGRIpedia data collection. AGRIDEA runs pilot projects investigating the combination of face-to-face and online counselling (‘blended counselling’) and looking at whether the provision of advice on simple issues could be delegated to chatbots. The challenges for AGRIDEA are the complexity of the questions, the high costs of development, acceptance, the unwillingness of many customers to pay for digital services, and the different degrees of digitalisation of the customers.
The Swiss Future Farm in Tänikon (canton of Thurgau) is a European Pioneer Project that pursues three aims: to make digitalisation comprehensible for practitioners, to support research and development, and to effect knowledge transfer. The benefits of Smart Farming technologies are evaluated on the Experimental Farm. Its research partner Agroscope Tänikon focuses on whole-farm indicator-based management. A major challenge for the Swiss Future Farm is the compatibility of the digital systems, which is a prerequisite for the networking of operational processes as well as for data exchange with researchers and third parties.
The Swiss Farmers’ Union (Schweizer Bauernverband , SBV) sees its primary task as representing the interests of farming families in the projects in which it takes part. Although the SBV sees great potential in digitalisation, e.g. for saving on inputs such as mineral fertilisers, plant-protection products and antibiotics, or for streamlining administrative tasks, it also sees risks in digitalisation, as regards e.g. data protection. Harvest-related data are a key element of market speculation, and could be used in order to exert price pressure on farmers. The SBV also calls for the examination of the cost-effectiveness of digital technologies in the small Swiss agricultural sector.
Great Interest in Exchange
Just under two years after its launch, the Charter can be seen to contribute to the discussion of current issues on both the national and international level, and the Charter Committee supports the members of the Charter Association in finding solutions and responding to these issues in the Swiss context. For this, it conducts online surveys and conferences (on e.g. data protection and data usage rights) which have met with great interest.
The activities of individual stakeholders reveal the diversity of challenges faced when implementing the Charter guidelines:
- The private sector has the edge in developing new sensor technologies and platform solutions; close interdisciplinary cooperation with the developers is therefore essential.
- Standardising data exchange and coping with high investments is only possible when working in partnership, from cooperation to coopetition (i.e. cooperative competition).
- The interests of the individual stakeholders are highly diverse. This gives rise to conflicting goals which slow down the use of digitalisation. However, discourse between all stakeholders improves mutual understanding and helps us to find broad-based solutions. Compared to the isolated, non-coordinated activities of individual stakeholders, this increases acceptance and the chances of success.
- The networking of the various technologies with each other and with the administrative systems requires the creation of appropriate legal frameworks and regulations for secure data exchange.
The administrative sector could be tasked with the promotion of a data infrastructure that could enable standardised data exchange between the public and private sectors. This would include e.g. the setting of technical standards, standardised programming interfaces and the development of the necessary processes for this.
- To date, the Swiss agricultural sector has used digital technologies primarily to reduce physically strenuous work, and less as a basis for management decisions.
- The Charter on the Digitalisation of Swiss Agriculture and Food Production, launched in 2018, has already been signed by over 100 members of the industrial, agricultural, processing, retail and administrative sectors.
- Major challenges are posed by the exchange and analysis of data, interdisciplinary cooperation, and the legal frameworks which ensure the safety of humans, animals and the environment.
- The Charter serves to network the various stakeholders, who pursue different aims. Discourse contributes to the development of widely accepted solutions.