Aline Bsaibes, CEO of itk, took part in the first round table of La Ferme Digitale organized within the framework of LFDay. The theme of this round table was: “How does innovation transform the farmer into an actor of environmental performance?”.
itk’s decision support tools and their impact on environmental performance
Itk has been existing for 17 years and develops decision support tools (DST) for farmers. In reality it is for the different actors of the agronomic value chain even if the end user is the farmer. This enables him to make better decisions by reducing his risks, for better productivity and better environmental impact.
Our platforms take into account the climate, the water cycle, the nutrient and disease cycle and the impact of treatments. They are used either to make an in-season decision or to make simulations under different climate scenarios or agricultural practices, to see the impact of these decisions on yield and environmental impact.
We have a positive impact on the environmental performance with our tools. For example, in terms of water management, we have tools that allow us to manage water inputs and save up to 20% of inputs. Our tools are available for field crops with Cropwin and in viticulture with Vintel. Moreover, our Vintel decision-support tool has been awarded with the Solar Impulse label for its positive environmental impact and the productivity and profitability it brings to the farmer.
We also have an impact on the environmental performance with our tools for managing fertilization. DSTs limit the excesses that go into the water table or volatilize into the atmosphere and guarantee yield levels and ROI.
The third environmental impact is related to pesticides. We have ecophyto certified solutions, distributed under white label since 2012 on vine protection, which allow us to limit pesticide inputs to their proper necessity. These tools have shown that it is possible to reduce fungicide use by up to 40% depending on the year.
Secondly, our tools also make it possible to establish a link between the energy needs of the plant and its productivity, hence our partnership with Sun Agri for the dynamic agrivoltaism project.
Your tools also make it possible to identify performance bottlenecks, for example in wine. Is environmental performance sometimes hidden beyond the obvious indicators?
To put things in context, today there are specifications that are adapted to a changing climate. These specifications are adapted to an old climate model and as the climate is changing, the practices of the appellations are no longer adapted to these changes. With our tools, we carried out a study which showed that to achieve the same quality, we had to change the practices in relation to the water requirements and the water route requested from the vine. It is therefore in this context that we want to have an impact, and here there has been a deadlock on the appellations.
Itk is currently developing a project on the measurement of carbon storage. Why is this important?
Our models, when they model the growth of the plant and the cycle of this system, also model, as a side effect, the carbon storage that is now becoming a central issue. Firstly, itk is part of the 4 per 1000 initiative that promotes agricultural practices with the aim of storing carbon in the soil. In addition, we have just validated a project in collaboration with Airbus and other partners on optimizing corn production on the scale of an African country, while respecting agricultural practices that promote carbon storage. In concrete terms, when we develop a decision-support tool that allows farmers to decide what they want to do to improve their yield, we take measures that both improve their yield and promote carbon storage. For example, this involves advocating and piloting the application of organic fertilizers, piloting better irrigation management to promote the development of roots, which themselves constitute biomass in the soil and promote carbon storage. There is also post-harvest management of the residues that remain on the plots, but also the management of intermediate crops, that means what happens once we have harvested our plants, which themselves promote carbon storage but also soil regeneration and biodiversity.
Also, on other types of crops such as arboriculture, we can manage the plant cover and their management to improve carbon storage and soil fertility. To give a few figures, according to INRA, if these carbon storage practices are implemented as recommended by the 4 per 1000 initiative, we are talking about an improvement of 4.8 megatons of additional carbon stored in the soil. This corresponds to a 40% saving in carbon emissions by the agricultural sector and 7% of total emissions in France per year.
The impact is measurable and what remains to be done is implementation. Moreover, we are currently working with a French player on how to objectively measure these indicators, to create a carbon label and to monetize this type of service.
Concerning the Green Deal or the Green Pact for Europe that is being drawn up, it aims at environmental measures on a European scale but does not show any willingness to support carbon sequestration. It talks about controlling pesticides and fertilisers, about going to 25% organic, and this on a European scale. If we bear in mind that organic farming has a lower yield than sustainable crops, we still need to feed Europeans, so we are going to become increasingly dependent on other countries, such as Brazil, which deforests in order to produce. The Green Deal, or the Green Pact for Europe, must absolutely include this desire for carbon sequestration, not only on a European scale but also on a global scale, otherwise we are just going to shift the problems to others.
The deployment of precision farming is hampered by the lack of interoperability between systems. Why is this harmful to users? How should the players in the sector solve this problem?
There is a brake on operability. This brake is not technical, but there has to be a real willingness to share services and especially data, and this is a real brake. Today we can see the difference because we are developing much more on the export market than in France. In fact, the players, particularly in the United States, have understood that to move forward quickly, it is necessary to get the “bricks” from the companies that developed them instead of starting from scratch. Today, we have started to do this, even in France. For example, at itk we have a breeding activity and we share all the data we have with the Dairy Breeding Council which shares it with the farmers. The farmers then put the data in parallel with the feeding and health problems they encounter and it is the fact of putting these data together that allows them to improve their decisions.
In crop production we have a brake. We see at itk that we have a “brick” of the system. There are many others with other actors that form these bricks. But today, in France, everyone wants to start all over again from scratch, whereas it is enough to aggregate these bricks that exist on French territory to go faster and further.
There are also the problems of data sharing. There is a dynamic launched by API Agro, a semi-institutional player, which is the concretisation of a data platform initiated by INRA at the request of the Ministry of Agriculture. We are partners with API Agro on an investment programme for the future chosen by the State in which Sun Agri is also a partner and which is called Occitanum. In our opinion, the problem is that if the French players in the subsidiary don’t tell each other that the existing bricks need to be aggregated, the farmer’s data will be sensitive. Indeed, the farmer may be reluctant to share his data because he does not want to share it with his suppliers and customers. So if we have a trusted third party like API Agro and the services become interoperable on this protected data and made available to improve the systems, we will not be able to go to scale.
In the current situation itk may sell 100 licenses, Agriconomy will be able to move forward, but we really want to accelerate, we need to aggregate all of that. Also, once the farmer has confidence that his data is well managed and protected, we need to have interoperable systems like the neighbouring countries are doing. Otherwise, other companies like us will continue to go to players outside France to develop these systems and not develop them in France, because everyone wants to reinvent everything from scratch.
What is the difference between the 4 for 1000 initiative and the low carbon label?
The label is a criterion based on indicators, to know if we are respectful, if we have stored carbon, etc., whereas the 4 for 1000 initiative is there to promote agricultural practices that will help this storage. So the initiative is not a label in itself.
To conclude, how can we continue to increase environmental performance? How can we facilitate the deployment of solutions?
We cannot compete on a local scale all the time on all fronts, even if competition is desirable in order to move forward. The problem of going to scale really requires cooperation, interoperability between services, partnerships, because each of us has a part of the solution. The farmer today sees the benefit of each of these bricks, but going to scale on all of these plots really requires working together so that the services are interoperable.
The farmer does not want to enter his data, the more it can be automated as it is put on tractors and robots, the more desirable it is. Robotisation in agriculture is an area that would benefit everyone, in addition to energy, so all these systems have to work together to go to scale. Otherwise the French players will remain on a small scale and on the farms on which it works. This is, moreover, how it is currently happening in the United States, because we are linked with small bricks in a large system that is moving forward. And if in France and in Europe we are not in the same perspective, we are going to stay far behind.