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Assessing the impacts of digital technologies in agriculture – cost, benefits and potential for sustainability gains


Digital technologies in agriculture and their potential to increase farms` economic and sustainability performance, facilitate work and enhance working conditions has received huge attention in the political sphere in recent years. Agriculture has to play a key role in achieving environmental and climate ambitions in the EU, and digital technologies offer opportunities to increase the sustainability performance of the agricultural sector. However, there is still a huge “gap” between the portfolio of digital technologies offered at the market and the actual uptake and use by farmers in the EU. Moreover, while the potential of digital technologies to better tailor agricultural production is widely acknowledged, there is little knowledge about the actual reduction of negative environmental and climate effects due to their application.

Studies show that among key uptake barriers hindering the farmers to make use of digital technologies are a) a lack of knowledge about those tools in general, as well as their costs and benefits, b) a lack of overview of the strengths and weaknesses of certain tools in the huge portfolio offered on markets and the suitability to address farm-specific needs, and c) a lack of believe in the added value of digital technologies for the management of a farm. An additional barrier to the uptake of digital technologies by farmers presents the effort needed to become familiar with new tools. For many farmers the real demonstration of effects as well as “hard figures” of production effects are important to be convinced to apply a certain method/ technology. Also cultural aspects play a role in the perception of digital technologies.

The effectiveness of digital technologies as it regards sustainability gains between laboratory conditions and the environmental and socio-economic reality vary.

Independent assessments of the effects of the use of the range of digital technologies tools under ideal and real-life conditions are essential for policy development, monitoring and evaluation. For many environmental parameters, the final impacts of farming can only be assessed with a huge time lag/ delay or are hardly measurable at all. The more important it is, to have figures, which impacts certain farming practices may have.

In addition, policy-makers and administrations are challenged by estimating rates for supporting the use of digital technologies in agriculture as well as the effects of employment structures in rural areas.

Against this background, independent quantitative and qualitative assessments of the multiple costs and benefits and potential sustainability gains of digital technologies are essential. It is also important to make those assessment results of possible effects of digital technologies feasible, assessable and usable, particularly for farmers, their advisors, and policy-makers, as it may form a stepping stone to facilitate the uptake of digital technologies in the sector and may facilitate the design of tailored policy measures.

Proposals should cover all of the following aspects:

  • Demonstration of the costs and benefits for farmers/farms of the use of digital technologies for individual production steps (e.g. in per ha calculations and livestock surveillance) as well as for following a “whole-farm approach” which is applied, e.g. in the use of some Farm Management Systems under real testing conditions and with quantitative and qualitative assessments.
  • Analyses and developed assessment approaches representative for the EU under consideration of the various biogeographical conditions, and several types of farms and farmers under consideration of different business models, e.g. cooperative purchase of equipment, use of contractor services etc.
  • Stock-taking of results of former or still ongoing Horizon 2020 projects falling directly or indirectly under the scope of this theme, e.g. Smart-AKIS[[The Thematic network Smart-AKIS was funded under call Horizon2020 ISIB-02-2015, see]], to capitalise those findings and draw lessons learnt.
  • Provision of innovative decision-making support on the selection and use of digital technologies.
  • Generation of information and knowledge for the design of policy measures.
  • Recommendations, under which conditions/ in which way digital technologies deliver best results for a farmer and on business models for financing/ for financing their use.
  • Generation of innovative tools making the results of the projects easily accessible and usable for the different target groups (at least farmers and advisors), e.g. cost calculators.
  • Facilitated qualitative and quantitative assessment of the (positive and negative) environmental effects (e.g. reduction of inputs/ emissions) of the use of digital technologies in agriculture.

Projects are expected to foster the development of capacities for assessing the contribution of agriculture to sustainability ambitions through the development of assessment approaches, analyses, and knowledge generation on the impacts, especially the costs, benefits and potential sustainability gains and losses, through the application of digital technologies. Projects are expected to make a significant contribution to establish a basis for the development, implementation and evaluation of sustainability- and data-related policies at regional, national and EU level and reaching related objectives, including Green Deal ambitions, CAP, the White Paper on Artificial Intelligence, and Sustainable Finance.

Proposals should cover all of the following aspects:

  • Testing of digital technologies in agriculture under real production conditions.
  • Consideration of farmers´/ producers´/ contractors´ behaviour.
  • Representativeness of analyses and developed assessment approaches for the EU and associated countries for several types of farms and farmers.
  • Links to relevant EU policy monitoring and evaluations and statistical systems.
  • Exploration of the potential of digital technologies use in agriculture as means for independent monitoring.
  • Recommendations under which conditions/ in which way digital technologies deliver best sustainability performance.

Tools developed within the project(s) are to be linkable to Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems in Member States.

The multi-actor approach must be implemented, involving at least scientists and representatives of the agricultural sector. They are encouraged to envisage collaboration with Digital Innovation Hubs[[For more information on Digital Innovation Hubs, please see]] supported under the Digital Europe Programme is regarded as beneficial for the overall results of the projects.

If involving machinery companies, selected projects should build their work on digital technologies and machinery from at least three companies and brands.

The possible participation of the JRC in the project will ensure that the approach proposed will be compatible with and improve the tools used at the European Commission.