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Green Planet

Green shoots for a greying countryside



Most farm managers in Europe are nearing retirement. There is a need to revitalise rural areas in Europe and crate opportunities for younger people. Social scientists are scrutinising the problem of rural decline, highlighting success stories and policy actions and tracking paths back to a more prosperous countryside. 


Farming is an ancient profession. But a problem in Europe is that the farmers themselves are getting old. From the more than ten million farm managers, one-third were over the age of 65 in 2016. Another one-quarter were 55 and over, while only 11% were under 40 years of age. 

It is clear that rural areas need to halt population declines and attract new generations. To turn back the tide and regenerate rural areas, social scientists are unearthing how and why some rural areas are growing and performing better than others. 

This will reveal how farming can seed a new crop of young farmers, as well as encourage green shoots in rural communities, and transform them into more attractive places to live and work.   

‘Farmers are getting old and mostly male. About 13% of farmland is managed by female farmers,’ said Willem Korthals Altes, land development professor at TU Delft in the Netherlands. ‘There is also an issue of declining rural regions, and this all needs new policies.’ 

Specifically, Professor Korthals Altes has examined the aspirations of young people in rural and urban areas in 12 different countries and looked at what actions could be taken to attract newcomers to the countryside as part of the four-year EU-wide RURALIZATION research project. Prof. Korthals Altes and his team have interviewed about 2,000 young people in 20 regions of the EU about their hopes for the future. One surprise was that many people, in cities and the countryside, would like to live in rural areas, often for quality-of-life reasons.

The project aims to identify paths to overcome population and economic decline in rural Europe and seed new opportunities. Right now, the picture painted by statistics is bleak. The EU lost 11% of its farmland between 1993 and 2013, while farms themselves are getting bigger and fewer, which contributes to job losses.  ‘If we look at just the overall statistics, what we found is sad,’ said Prof. Korthals Altes.  ‘So we looked for positive examples that we could learn from and also highlight positive practices.’

Specific case studies have been published, such as an agro-tourism farm in rural Poland set up by newcomers from Warsaw to grow organic crops and run ecological workshops, a community-owned farms group in the Netherlands and a silkworm farm with mulberry trees in Italy. 

Growing trends and recommendations

Rural trends identified in the project included a rise in alternative food systems such as organic farming due to greater environmental awareness.  There were also evolving gender roles in private and working life and diversification of farm business and diversification of rural economies. Two other trends were digitisation of economic activity and the rise of online markets, which can open the gate to new business opportunities in rural regions.

Newcomers into rural areas may be especially important for economic revival, because of their higher education, wider network of contacts and tendency to innovate, the study found.  It also revealed that organic production has increased significantly in most countries, and that this is one of the most important alternative forms of renewal. 

The “young farmer problem” is more marked in some countries than others. Just 3.3% of farm managers in Cyprus and 4.2% in Portugal are under 40, while the figure is closer to 20% in Poland and Slovakia. The problems in one country do not match exactly those in another.

But one common barrier for new entrants to agriculture is access to land, and there is a lack of policies to support people who want to begin farming. ‘We find policies related to the modernisation agenda of farming, but not much about new entrants to farming,’ said Prof Korthals Altes. The project reported on some 64 access to land practices, from partners to the project, that can contribute to rural generation.

No EU Member States have elaborate policies and legal arrangements for providing access to land, says Korthals Altes. ‘The per hectare direct payments that a farmer gets for holding the land in good agricultural condition are in most EU regions higher than the rent, which works out negatively for new entrants,’ notes Korthals Altes. ‘It is a better retirement plan to keep your land with the direct payments, than to rent it out to new farmers.’ Nonetheless, under changes to the new Common Agricultural Policy announced last December, there will be additional support for young farmers’ income, such as national authorities having to direct 2% of local income support to them and young farmers being prioritised to receive basic payments. 

Korthals Altes now plans discussions with stakeholders and for the project to draw up recommendations for rural renewal that local governments and agencies can tap into.

The most obvious recommendation is to make a future in agriculture attractive to young farmers and new entrants. However, a lack of interest among young people to work in the farming sector is a common phenomenon for developed economies, and many don’t look on farming as a prestigious career option, according to Dr İlkay Unay-Gailhard at the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Germany.  ‘When we ask the young people about their image of farming, they state its low income, hard physical work and low prestige,’ she explained. 

No lack of interest

But this should not be misunderstood as a lack of interest in agriculture, as seen in the frequent protests by young people against industrial farming practices.  ‘We know digital communications influence the social behaviour of young people and they show more support for ecological farming,’ said Dr Unay-Gailhard.  ‘But we don’t know how they influence their choice of farming as a career option.’

Awarded an EU Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellowship for her a research project Young Farmers, she will interview dozens of young farmers in the US and in Germany about their personal history and about how digital communication messages influenced their career option.  She believes that there is a lack of positive role model images of farmers, and absence of “farmer and mother” as a role model in family farms. 

Dr Unay-Gailhard will also talk to government agencies and non-profit organisations about the use of new media tools – such as interactive online portals, blogs, online agricultural communication and public engagement campaigns and social media services – to assist those at the start of their career and those who might transition towards farming. Career paths are no longer as planned and predictable, and career trajectories can change course. ‘Young people these days can follow rising opportunities,’ said Dr Unay-Gailhard.  

Also, how farms are run is shifting. Advanced digital technologies and robotics are making inroads on some farms, and young farmers may be motivated by the more high-tech, innovative approaches to farming.

Dr Unay-Gailhard will recommend to government agencies and farm organisations ways to communicate digitally with young people.  The hope is that young people will have better access to information on agricultural careers, and reconsider the benefits on offer from a rural career and lifestyle.  

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.

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Green Planet

Climate Change and its Effects on Europe



If one thinks Putin has become a headache, then the future of Europe under the forecast climate change regime is pneumonia. 

According to this scenario, ice melt from Greenland and the Arctic will raise sea levels around FloridaAside from greater and wider coastal flooding, this change will inhibit the regular Gulf Stream Drift that makes its way across the Atlantic warming northern Europe and ensuring the English climate is even milder.  Part of it of course is due to Britain being an island and so enjoying the moderating effects of the sea — again more so because of the Gulf Stream. 

This relatively even weather in England has undergone change.  More frequent 90F and higher days in summer, once relatively rare, is one symptom — the UK just recorded its highest ever temperature of 104.54F.  There have also been heavy rains and flooding notably in December 2020 when a wide belt across the south suffered catastrophic inundation of historic proportions. 

Scientists and the UN confirm an increase in the frequency of natural disasters.  This includes forest fires, hurricanes or typhoons, excessive rains and floods. 

July 14 might be celebrated as Bastille Day and a national holiday in France but in neighboring Belgium it now commemorates the devastating floods in 2021.  Heavy rains and the Meuse river overflowing its banks turned streets into canals in the eastern city of Liege. The floods extended to the Netherlands and western Germany, caused by a low pressure system that stalled for two days over the region.  Rain falling on soil already soaked by spring rains and overflowing rivers (the Meuse in Belgium and Netherlands, the Rhine and the Ruhr in Germany) devastated the area.  At least 243 people lost their lives and property damage was estimated at $12 billion. 

If last year was one of floods, this year it’s drought and dry heat and forest fires — temperatures hitting 117 F in Portugal and an estimated 75,000 acres lost to forest fires; also dry as tinder Italy where the river Po, the country’s longest river, has been reduced to a trickle.

England has been subject to a similar pattern, suffering some of the worst flooding in its history last year and now reeling from forest fires. “I’ve fought wildfires for decades.  None of it prepared me for the infernos this week,” screams a Guardian (July 22, 2022) headline quoting a firefighter.  London fire fighters have just had the busiest day since the Second World War.

When will governments understand that the earth is changing, that natural disasters piling one on top of the other, and that forest fires in Europe, in Australia, in the US and elsewhere plus floods and typhoons etc., are not coincidences? 

One hopes it is soon, and we humans learn to moderate damaging behaviors.

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Green Planet

The Greater Frequency of Natural Disasters and our Response



Photo: NASA

While no one can ascribe specific natural catastrophic events to global warming, their frequency appears to have increased.  So it is that forest fire seasons have lengthened, and more fires occur more often and of greater intensity.

The current disaster in the news is in the Iberian peninsula and across to southwest France.  Almost uncontrollable wildfires have devastated thousands of acres, and one observer pilot flying too close has been killed reports the BBC.  The fires in La Teste-de-Buch and south of Bordeaux have destroyed 25,000 acres.

In Portugal, 75,000 acres have been devastated by fires this year.  One cause is the dry heat and soaring temperatures, drying out the countryside.  They have hit 47C (117F) in Portugal and above 40C (104F) in Spain.  Residents have been evacuated from the danger areas and a pet rescue operation is ongoing.

Planes are dropping fire retardant chemicals, and helicopters collect sea water from the coast then return to douse the flames.  The high temperatures, the drought and their consequences have not spared neighboring countries.

In Italy, the country’s longest river, the Po, has diminished to a trickle in places and the tinder-dried countryside in its valley is under a state of emergency.

Along other parts of the Mediterranean, the conditions are similar.  In Greece, there are fires southeast of Athens about 30 miles away in Feriza; also on the northern coast in the island of Crete where seven villages near Rethymno have been evacuated. 

The opposite side of the Mediterranean has not been spared.  Fires swept through several provinces in Morocco and one village in the Ksar el-Kebir area was destroyed. 

According to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, the earth should respond naturally to ameliorate global warming.  Unfortunately, human interventions like cutting down forests have damaged its ability to do so.  Is runaway global warming then our future?

The answer has to lie with the same humans, being the only species with the knowledge and faculty to respond to the challenges.  The means are available, from CO2 capture to altering our own behavior.

Work on additives (like oil and fats) for cow feed have helped reduce emissions by 18 percent in Australia where almost 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from ruminants.  Even more promising has been the addition of seaweed which when mixed in small quantities (3 percent) to the diet have reduced their emissions by 80 percent.

In the meantime, we have to change our ways:  Growing our own vegetables — delicious and easy as they grow themselves with minimum care … and have you tried ripe tomatoes fresh from a vine?  Even easier to buy now as plants are sold at food supermarkets.

Eating less meat, walking or cycling instead of driving for short trips and so on.  It is easy and just a matter of habit.  In the end, it is up to us as to the kind of earth we want to leave behind for our children and grandchildren. 

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Green Planet

Interviewing Fabio Domenico Vescovi – Agronomist and Earth Observation Specialist



Fabio Domenico Vescovi is an Agronomist & Earth Observation Specialist. He is currently Senior Data Scientist & Technical Lead at Cropin. Fabio develops applications of satellite technologies in tropical countries for the insurance sector (drought and floods). He studies crop biophysical parameters to inform an index-based insurance system and develops AI algorithms based on DataCube and Machine Learning. Fabio has had an international career spanning Germany (Bonn University), Italy (OHB) and UK (Airbus). He has also been deeply involved in various African countries, working with different stakeholders to enable easier data-based access to micro-credit and micro-insurance for farmers. Fabio has a PhD in remote sensing applications in agriculture.

You are using satellite data to track droughts and floods to grow crops more efficiently. Which other companies are doing this globally? 

At Cropin we use satellite data along with other types of data such as weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics etc. to create AI models that bring predictive intelligence to agriculture and make it more efficient, productive, and sustainable.

There are a host of organisations in this sector offering services which target this challenging area. We believe that the challenges faced by this sector are many and complex and not one player can solve them all and thus a thriving global agritech ecosystem is a great enabler to truly accelerate progress of the agriculture ecosystem. The industry itself is at an evolving phase and technology adoption in the global agriculture arena is still a long way to go. Arable land across the planet is estimated to be 1.4 billion hectares and in terms of being able to digitize and impact the planet’s agri-value chain, the agritech sector is still miles away, but we sure are headed in the right direction.

Why are you passionate about the agriculture sector? What has inspired you to be a part of this field? 

My family and ancestors were all Italian farmers and despite growing up in an urban environment I always had a passion for environmental sciences, agriculture and the socio-cultural connections between our environment, our people and myself.

Tech-enabled services for farmers can be unaffordable for many farmers in a country like India. Do you think India can implement them at a mass scale? 

We are very aware that farmers will face challenges to afford high-end digital and predictive intelligence solutions which brings a meaningful difference to their lives. This is the reason Cropin works via a B2B and B2G business model. We work with large food processing companies, food retailers, seed and agri-input manufacturers, agri-lenders and insurers, governments and development agencies who in turn work with huge numbers of farmers and large areas of farmlands. So, the cost of the technology is borne by our customers and the benefits of higher efficiency, improved yields, lower inputs costs and better sustainable operations benefit all the stakeholders including the farmer. Another important benefit of our B2B and B2G approach is that it also helps us create impact at scale in global agriculture vis-à-vis working directly with individual farmers.  

What is Carbon farming? Which countries is it being implemented in? 

Carbon farming is a new term but an old practice. I think that people practiced Carbon farming since the time agriculture was invented. One of the simplest examples of Carbon farming is the circulation of organic matter in the form of manure from the stall to the soil. In turn the soil provides food to the animals in the stall. There were many similar Carbon cycles and sub-cycles across people and cultures, where organic matter was recirculated and eventually regenerated.

Nowadays this circularity in Carbon has been slowly destroyed by a mixture of industrial and commercial processes, which though very productive, are not sustainable for the environment.  Just to give you a negative example, Europe is a strong importer of soya, sunflower, and cereals from Brazil, which is now clearing their forests and depleting their soil organic matter to farm these products. However, there is no process in place to return that Carbon from Europe to Brazil to the soil from where it was taken. Only money is returning. We were able to put in place a system which is perfect economically but unsustainable ecologically. Like in a bank, what the soil gives us is a loan, not a donation.

How can AI be used for sustainable agriculture? 

Digitization and AI can be leveraged at scale to increase efficiency, productivity, and sustainability in farming. To leverage AI for farming, Cropin undertakes the complex process of ‘agri asset computation’ which brings together satellite imagery, historical and forecasted weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics, and other farming insights all under one umbrella to build knowledge graphs for hundreds of crops and crop varieties across the globe. This data is then used to build AI models for any farm plot, region, country, or crop in the shortest possible time. This provides insights and recommendations on various aspects of farming operations – from selecting the right crops and seeds, the right time for sowing and harvesting, the optimal use of water resources and adoption of the right farming practices etc. All this enables much more sustainable farming.

At Cropin, we have already computed 0.2 billion acres of farmland in 12 countries, and we have an ambitious target to compute and build predictive intelligence “on-tap” for 1/3rd of the planet’s cultivable lands by 2025. By doing this, we are helping solve planet scale challenges such as food security, environmental sustainability and better livelihoods for farmers.

How can farmers be empowered globally? 

Farmers are supposed to be the most empowered category in the world, they should dominate even kings, like for example in the American and French revolutions. But the world has become oblivious to this. People forget about farming and the role of farmers, especially the small holder ones. Nowadays if you ask a European child: “Where does this milk come from?”, the answer you may get is: “Well, from the fridge!”. So, milk is perceived as an industrial product and this is ironically not wrong, because the number of industrial processes occurring on every drop of milk from milking to drinking is overwhelming. So, behind a common farm or diary product, we do not see a natural environment anymore but rather a complex system of industrial procedures.

Farmers can be taken onboard of the political arena only if they speak the language of marketing, behave like industrial entrepreneurs, have the knowledge of engineers, act like politicians and talk like salesmen! How can we figure out the farmers role in a complex society which forgotten the importance of farming?

Even in climate change, the only ones empowered to make a significant change on millions of hectares are the small holder farmers. They can play a key role in agro-forestry and Carbon sequestration, much more than any other industrial process. But they are not aware of the processes and of their potentials, and neither is society. We need an educational process involving both agricultural and industrial sectors to raise awareness on their potential.

Finally, a personal question – Is doing a PhD and life as a researcher fulfilling? 

It is, but I must accept that the academic context of a PhD and the lifestyle of a researcher moving across various countries to attend congresses are so different than the cultural context and environmental conditions of a farm. I can’t simply mix the lifestyle of a farmer and that of a researcher. Anyway, whenever I try to do so or I spend some few days in a family-run farm in an African context (e.g. currently I am writing from a small holder farm in Mwingi, a rural area in central Kenya, not even completely electrified) then I get the best results of my research and I grow in the knowledge of how the farming world really is, when we speak about farming, even Carbon faming. My lovely farmers and I dream to raise our common voice and bring awareness on the real role which farming and research can play together: my PhD is not a barrier, it is the way to open my mind to their culture and learn more.

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