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Digital technologies for a sustainable agri-food industry

TIM’s agreements with Confagricoltura, Coldiretti and Bonifiche Ferraresi create new opportunities for Italian smart agriculture. Never before has there been such a need to narrow the digital divide in Italy’s rural and inland areas.

09/29/2020 - 04:55 PM

Whenever we come across the terms "Smart Farming" or "Smart Agriculture", we immediately think of technology and the impact of digital transformation in rural areas, especially in terms of improved production efficiency.

This is only partly correct: on the one hand, the technological transformation of rural areas combines traditional practices with cutting-edge solutions; however, the real objective is to improve production with a view to making it more sustainable. This approach is now widely endorsed in the culture of agricultural work, too: farmers know better than anyone else that a harvest reaped from sustainable practices is in the interest of the entire ecosystem, for which their farms are each partly responsible. And this is precisely where technology comes in, to guarantee smart agriculture in the broadest sense of the term.

According to the latest data from the Polytechnic University of Milan’s Smart Agri-food Monitoring Centre, in 2019 the market for digital solutions in the agri-food industry reached 450 million euros, with a growth of 22% compared to 2018. 

These are big numbers for an industry which, for historical and productive structure-related reasons, was not known for being highly innovative in the past. It has to be added that, in most cases, agri-food companies are part of the typical productive fabric of Italy, made up of small and medium-sized enterprises that have been severely impeded by the digital divide and the cost of these solutions.

Many of these factors are changing rapidly. Not only are network operators making huge efforts to bring broadband connection to the rural areas, but, first and foremost, they are increasingly involved in partnership projects with both organisations and associations of the agricultural world.

Global market growth in various areas of the world. (Statista & Statista, 2020)

TIM and Confagricoltura have recently clinched an agreement for the development of smart agriculture in Italy thanks to the launch of the ‘Agritech Innovation Hub’ project. Their objective is to support the economic, technological and social recovery of agricultural entrepreneurs in the post-Covid period.

A Foundation will be set up with the participation of institutional stakeholders and partners of national importance interested in adopting innovative technologies on particularly advantageous terms for industry professionals.

A specific platform will be created for the digitisation of services and data management, and for the creation of integrated and customised offers immediately available to agricultural entrepreneurs. The project also includes a series of training sessions on digitisation processes through the Operazione Risorgimento Digitale  programme, aimed especially at Confagricoltura members.

Digitisation of inland and rural areas is the theme at the core of this agreement, because it will promote the spread of fibre and related services among agri-food companies that produce, process and market essential goods and services.

With technologies like 5G and the Internet of Things, it will be possible to offer them applications such as: 

  • field sensors, which are planted in the ground or installed on crops and continuously measure parameters such as soil moisture, acidity or temperature
  • connected tractors able to move autonomously over the fields to plough, sow or till the soil.
  • smart collars and tags applied to livestock, enabling continuous collection of the biometric parameters of animals kept in stalls or outdoors
  • drones, equipped with cameras, multispectral sensors and GPS geolocation systems, to acquire useful data to obtain orthophotos, vigour indices and prescription maps that help farmers understand the health of crops and the quantity of seed, fertilizers and plant protection products to be distributed.

These are just a few examples of solutions already used in more advanced areas, now just waiting to be rolled out on a large scale in Italy.

Of course, as we have seen, all this is only possible if we bridge the digital divide between cities and rural areas once and for all. The coronavirus emergency has shown the importance of this objective if we want to make Italian agri-food produce even more competitive.  The digitisation of the industry enables farmers to cut costs while increasing productivity, in compliance with the strictest environmental sustainability standards. For this reason, in early September, we entered into another strategic agreement with Coldiretti and Bonifiche Ferraresi, one of Italy’s biggest agricultural companies.

The two pillars of this agreement are:

  • The possibility - thanks to the agreement with TIM - to offer real-time reading of crop health, soil fertility and water stress on Demetra, Coldiretti's Members’ Portal.
  • The enhancement of e-commerce systems through Coldiretti’s Campagna Amica Platform, the large direct sales network with over 1300 markets distributed throughout Italy. 

The agreement is aimed, above all, at enhancing and harnessing the great potential of the tourism and food and wine industries in rural areas: as much as 92% of Italy’s traditional produce originates from small Italian villages with fewer than five thousand inhabitants (Coldiretti-Symbola data), and the digitisation of these areas is unanimously considered to be a precondition for their economic relaunch.

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