For this fifth session of our series of anticipation debates, we welcomed Romain Faroux, AgriTech France consultant, who has more than ten years of experience in the agri-innovation sector after having founded a drone-based agricultural consultancy startup in 2010 on his native farm in Poitou. We discussed with him the current reality of the farming profession and the challenges facing its development.
A complex and heterogeneous reality
If it is possible to formulate relatively simple and accurate observations at the macroeconomic level, as soon as we go into detail, we observe extremely complex and heterogeneous situations. This complexity is due to the multiple facets and skills of an agri-entrepreneur, but also to the fact that no neighboring plots of land are identical, and finally to the climatic changes, which are already quite noticeable and which cause unprecedented climatic phenomena.
The heterogeneity of the players in the AgriTech market relates rather to the different states of progress in the technological transition, more particularly digital, in which the sector is engaged. On this point, everyone is moving at their own pace, Romain Faroux observed a very low digital culture among farmers ten years ago. Today, the distribution is around 80/20%.
20% of farms are committed to the transition, i.e. their farmers are trained and they have the financial capacity to invest: to acquire new tools and implement new methods; the remaining 80% are not ready to commit to this transition for various reasons: lack of cash flow, and the fact that services based on new technologies are still too largely considered as expenses rather than investments.
Among these reasons, Romain Faroux also notes the maturity gap between technological innovations, slowing down their application in a broad sense. This is the experience he draws from his first business venture: AIRINOV. Offering an agronomic diagnosis service using drones, the company encountered the difficulty of implementing its advice in the field, as precision farming equipment was not sufficiently represented on farms. The gap is therefore between technological research and the cost of its application, whether monetary, human or material.
To compensate for this gap, training plays a key role. Its primary objective must be the involvement of the end user. Opt for a pragmatic and realistic approach to the application of an innovation, in order to achieve its goal: that farmers can take advantage of technological advances whose benefits are real and numerous, at a lower cost, and without having to rethink their entire operating model.
The cultural aspect is also very important, and on this subject Romain Faroux drew our attention to a phenomenon that is sometimes underestimated: the trend of a return to rurality among highly educated urban societies. Although this trend is not massive but nuanced, it plays an important role of mutual influence where both sides learn from each other. A common need that has been accentuated after the confinements.
A historical shift
With the technological tools and the climate, the political objectives of the agricultural sector are also changing. The break for farmers seeking to move away from «produce more to earn more» to «spend less to earn more» opens a new historical period. Following the Second World War, the European continent, traumatised by the risk of famine, first sought to ensure food sovereignty.
This approach marked the «glorious 30s». With the creation of the SAFER and the implementation of the CAP, the strategy was to consolidate farms and move towards monoculture. This sequence of structuring will allow the development of intensive agriculture in the following three decades. The 1990s saw the end of fixed prices and the agricultural sector entered the free market. The farmer, who is always adapting, adds to his many hats that of trader… Since 2010, the main issue is the preservation of the environment and the sustainability of practices. A new facet of the farmer’s job means that he has to «reason» his practices and turn to new technologies to help him do so.
At the international level, the balance of power is changing. Before the war in Ukraine, the Russians were engaged in a rapid development of their domestic agricultural production, through the structuring of production basins and transport infrastructures in an industrial logic. Like the Chinese, they have the necessary land and are less concerned than the Europeans about environmental standards, which will allow them to be very competitive on a «low quality, high quantity» strategy. The Europeans, who have been at the forefront of this strategy for several decades, must turn the page because they will not be able to compete. On the other hand, they have the best agronomists and a high-quality terroir that can place them at the forefront of a very interesting qualitative sobriety, but which still needs to be supported in its transformation, with avenues such as carbon storage alongside traditional production.