EU rural digitalisation push must support farmers in crisis
While perceptions of an out-of-touch, elitist Brussels have driven mounting public frustration in Europe's rural areas, a sea change for these communities could be on the horizon. The EU and Germany are leading the way on "smart villages," a rural development approach that places digital innovation at the heart of efforts to "unlock the potential of our rural communities," as EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski stated in a conference on 27 October.
To accelerate this agenda, which encompasses areas of intervention ranging from public services improvement and green economy to precision farming and SME development, the European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee adopted a resolution on 25 October that notably supports a financial commitment from the Common Agricultural Policy's European Regional Development Fund.
This timely initiative encouragingly signals that Brussels is listening more closely to the struggles of rural communities and valuing their economic, environmental, and cultural importance. Yet the ultimate success of the concept of the smart village in catalysing the revitalisation of rural regions will depend on addressing its broader threats beyond lagging digitalisation.
Rural Europe's untapped potential
As EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has recognised, "rural areas are the fabric of our society and the heartbeat of our economy" and "a core part of our identity and our economic potential." The importance of these agricultural regions – which account for over 80% of the bloc's territory and nearly 30% of its population – has been sharply revealed by the Ukrainian conflict's disruption of food supply chains. And beyond their contribution to the continent's food production and security, rural communities play a crucial role in the continent's nature conservation, cultural heritage preservation, and decarbonisation efforts.
But lagging digital infrastructure is holding back rural areas from reaching their full potential, particularly in terms of job opportunities and the quality of public services, contributing to a demographic decline that threatens rural Europe's long-term sustainable development. High-speed Internet access is available to a meagre 60% of the EU's rural households – far behind the bloc-wide average of 86% – while less than half of rural inhabitants possess basic digital skills, a figure that exceeds 60% in urban areas.
For the "smart villages" approach to bear fruit, high-quality digital connectivity in rural communities must therefore be significantly expanded. With the robust digital infrastructure in place, rural regions will be able to take full advantage of innovative digital solutions to revolutionise the agricultural sector and grow local economies, such as those used in precision farming, which incorporates Internet of Things (IoT)-connected sensors, AI-powered drones and other advanced technologies that allow farmers to boost yields while slashing inputs, costs and environmental impact – crucial at a time when the continent needs to reconcile food security, economic and climate pressures.
EU farmers under the gun
The support that digitalisation will provide EU farmers is particularly crucial considering the current headwinds that they are facing, which threaten to undermine their vital contributions to the bloc's prosperity.
Some of these challenges are man-made, such as the Front-of-Package (FOP) food labeling debate heating up in Brussels which could result in further woes for agri-food producers. The European Commission has committed to introducing a harmonised FOP system in a bid to tackle unhealthy diets and improve public health. Yet one of the most prominent candidates, France's Nutri-Score, directly threatens the rural producers preserving Europe's culinary heritage. More precisely, its imbalanced algorithm assigns unfairly negative scores to staples such as Spain's jamón ibérico, France's Roquefort cheese, and Greece's olive oil by assessing their salt and fat contents without regard to normal portion size, putting these pillars of rural cultures and economies at a significant competitive disadvantage.
Nutri-Score's absolutist and prescriptive approach to food labeling not only fails to capture the wider health benefits of these products, particularly when consumed in moderation but completely overlooks individual differences in health and dietary needs. These fundamental flaws were highlighted at a European Parliament roundtable event held on 26 October to discuss the main FOP contenders under consideration ahead of the Commission's decision in 2023, where expert nutritionist Professor Luca Piretta said that Nutri-score's shortcomings made it a "misleading" and "counterproductive" system.
While the Commission will seemingly not be choosing Nutri-Score in its current form, it should take care not to adopt a system with similar flaws and instead opt for a more progressive, personalised, and educational system.
Climate change adding fuel to the fire
Compounding man-made threats such as an imbalanced FOP labeling system, the natural threat of climate change and its associated extreme weather events are putting ever-greater pressure on the very same rural producers of the continent's heritage foods, with hostile environmental conditions making it increasingly difficult for them to abide by the strict production regulations imposed on Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) goods.
Europe's devastating 500-year droughts of last summer parched the grazing fields that dairy farmers rely on to feed their cows, severely impacting the production of French PDO cheeses, many of whose producers had to apply for exemptions to avoid what would be an economically catastrophic loss of this label. What's more, heatwaves and droughts dried up Italy's Po River to record lows, disrupting the water supplies essential to Parmigiano cheese production, while creating feed shortages for Spain's Iberico pigs – from which Spain's famous jamón ibérico is produced – and fuelling wildfires that decimated Greece's olive groves.
The deteriorating climate situation has made adaptation measures increasingly vital for rural areas in terms of protecting farmers and ensuring food security as well as maximising their potential to drive the green transition, all of which the EU's "smart villages" digitalisation agenda can support.
And while agriculture has been and will continue to be the bedrock of rural economies, digitalisation will crucially create opportunities for economic diversification by making rural areas more attractive for businesses and investment. This development will generate much-needed employment in rural communities, in turn helping to reverse the tide of demographic decline and laying the foundation for sustainable growth.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)