How is digitalisation changing agriculture and agricultural policy? A European team with the participation of Agroscope, the FOAG and the ETH developed four scenarios from which strategies were derived for the future achievement of agricultural policy goals.
The digitalisation of the agri-food sector is proceeding apace. It is not yet clear how it will change the future agri-food sector. Digitalisation could also affect the achievement of agricultural policy goals, e.g. a secure food supply, the protection of natural resources, and the economic and social attractiveness of the sector. Agri-food policy must prepare for such uncertain future prospects.
To highlight possible trends, we developed agri-food sector digitalisation scenarios for Europe in 2030, and deduced gaps in the achievement of agricultural policy goals from these. The scenarios were developed in a participatory process in a workshop with European experts from science and administration. A Delphi study in which the same people took part furnished the basis for discussion and determined the most important agricultural policy goals.
Four digitalisation scenarios
The scenarios can be described along two axes (Fig. 1). The horizontal axis illustrates how strongly the political, economic and social environment supports the use of digital technologies. The vertical axis shows the heterogeneity of the digitalisation technologies and of their potential use. This yields four scenarios:
- Light Digitalisation: Digitalisation develops as it has to date, with various technologies, companies and organisational forms. The weakly supportive digitalisation environment is dominated by agricultural stakeholders and the government. There is no central control over data. Innovation rates are low.
- Autonomous Technology: Autonomously working and communicating digital technologies of dominant technological companies determine production. The innovation rate in the agri-food sector is high, and data are openly shared.
- Digital Food Business: Digitalised food-industry companies dominate agriculture, which they organise according to consumer data they hold themselves. The influence of the farms and government control of the sector are insignificant.
- Digital Regulation: Digital technologies and data are concentrated in the hands of the government, which strictly controls the agri-food sector with them. Acceptance of this in the sector is low, as are innovation rates.
Implications of the scenarios for agricultural policy
These scenarios highlight different challenges for the future achievement of agricultural policy goals, such as the unilateral focus on the data of food-industry companies, the dependence on algorithms, or obstructed innovation opportunities. Although elements from the four scenarios might conceivably develop simultaneously, strategies for agricultural policy can be outlined.
In the ‘light digitalisation’ scenario, for example, development of digital infrastructure and of skills could help achieve the agricultural policy goals in the future. For the other scenarios, strategies to support special cases, such as agriculture on special sites or care farming, as well as to support the diversity of e.g. farming practices or livestock kept, are important.
- The digitalisation of the agriculture and food sector will also change the future achievement of agricultural policy goals. Agri-food policy must anticipate this and adapt proactively.
- Four scenarios were developed. They differ primarily in terms of how strongly environments support the use of digital technologies, and whether the technologies are controlled by many or few stakeholders.
- Essential strategies for addressing future gaps in the achievement of agricultural policy goals include improving digital infrastructure and skills in the agri-food sector.
- An important complementary strategy is to strengthen the diversity of stakeholders and practices to deal with special cases, as well as to be able to address unforeseeable events flexibly.