Mechanization: the prospects for development in the Old Continent
The historical task of agricultural mechanization has been to increase productivity and make work less tiring. These basic objectives have been achieved and today Europe offers a particularly advanced agriculture concept. However, new challenges, such as those of the quality and healthiness of production, environmental sustainability, and the reduction of greenhouse gases, call into question agricultural mechanization and envisage a new phase also in terms of research and technological development
Agricultural mechanization is one of the pillars of the economic and social industrialized countries’ framework. The availability of ever more sophisticated and performing tools and machinery led to an extraordinary development of labor productivity, allowing agriculture - which until two centuries ago was the main source of wealth and power, absorbing about the 80% of the workforce - to progressively reduce its labor needs, freeing up the human resources necessary for the expansion of the industrial production model and the development of the manufacturing industry and services.
This has meant that today in Europe 5% of the active population (with peaks of 2-3% in the most industrialized countries) is enough to meet the overall labor need for agricultural production and it is, therefore, possible to affirm that the original objective of agricultural mechanization, that is to increase labor productivity, has been fully and completely achieved.
However, other and much more difficult are the new challenges that, at the dawn of this new millennium, agriculture, and with it, agricultural mechanization, are called to face.
The first challenge, well expressed by Expo 2015 “Feeding the Planet – Energy for Life” motto, is the moral commitment to guarantee sufficient food production for the needs of a growing world population which, in many areas, is asking for better quality. This mandatory requirement derives not only from evident ethical criteria but also has an important socio-economic foundation in the recent phenomenon of globalization which, with the great development of the means of communication and the exchanges that it entails, has triggered important migratory flows from the areas of minor development, and in which important hunger and undernutrition problems remain, towards the privileged areas. Flows that cannot be contained and controlled without an adequate commitment to create, in the most depressed areas, better living conditions.
The need for this to take place always respecting and protecting the resources of planet Earth, which are a common good to be preserved and transmitted to future generations, is closely connected and linked to the previous need. Therefore, it is a question of increasing food production in an environmentally sustainable way, that is, respecting the soil and the environment.
The R&D sector in Europe is moving in this direction. The progressive introduction of electronics and information technology, or rather a synthesis of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies), is transforming machinery, from a simple means of increasing the productivity of human labor, into “intelligent” devices capable of interactive with the environment, and processing and transmitting information.
The new precision agriculture technologies, based on the new satellite systems that offer a location accuracy on the order of around one centimeter, and highly sophisticated sensors and automation and regulation systems, allow site-specific operations in which the machinery can read the environment where they are operating, and adapt to the needs of the soil and crops. Therefore, the distribution of chemical inputs can take place only when and where it is actually required, and in the strictly necessary quantity, and actually used by plants (Variable Rate Technology - VRT), thus avoiding the environmental damage deriving from unnecessary product dispersions in the environment. The high precision and accuracy level achieved by localization techniques has led to the development of advanced driving aid systems which, especially with large distribution machinery, provide the operator with indications for maintaining the exact work line, with important benefits, both in terms of productivity, and avoiding overlaps and/or untreated areas. The VRT distribution of fertilizers and pesticides allows to reduce the quantity of product used by 10 to 50%, while the automatic guidance and distribution width control systems leads to a further reduction of the product introduced into the environment on the order of 5-10%.
The increasing precision of GPS systems, the development of new sensors and the exponential growth of the computing power of computer systems, has given a great boost to research on the development of machinery capable of operating autonomously. Even if the technical and scientific difficulties related to their practical application have not yet been completely overcome, robotic solutions are already available that can fully manage the performance of specific operations, such as milking, animal feeding, weeding, etc., while the experimental prototypes of fully autonomous driving machinery, capable of operating without a driver on board, are more and more numerous. Another issue, of particular relevance for the environmental sustainability of mechanization, is the reduction and optimization of energy use, both in economic and energy saving terms and for environmental purposes, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Noteworthy, was the European research and policy commitment to developing renewable energy sources deriving from products and, above all, from agricultural by-products.
In the last decade, there has been a growing development of tractors fueled by biomass fuels, in particular second-generation biofuels, deriving from lignocellulosic materials and biogas, thus allowing a strong reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, in the case of power with biomethane, carbon dioxide emissions are practically canceled, and overall emissions reduced by 80% compared to traditional fuels.
A further element of development, which will play an important role in the evolution of mechanization in Europe, for more rational and efficient use of energy, is the recent and progressive spread of the use of electricity on mobile machinery. Introduced in recent times to replace mechanical and hydrostatic transmissions - compared to which it offers far better characteristics of lightness, flexibility, and ease of adjustment and control - to operate components and operating organs of driving and operating machinery, this form of energy is now the subject of great attention by the manufacturers, also for the electric/hybrid power supply of the main engine of the driving machinery.
In parallel with the great mechanization intended to ensure an economic and sustainable production of the main food commodities, two other important development lines will characterize the European production of machinery and industrial plants in the coming years.
The evolution of food consumption in highly industrialized countries is leading to consumers giving ever greater importance to the hedonistic and qualitative aspects of food.
Specialized mechanization, intended for high-income crops and productions strongly characterized from a qualitative point of view, is a sector likely to have an ever-greater development. Specific machinery for the mechanization of valuable crops in typical areas, fourth range products, fruit nuts, etc., although contained in quantitative terms, will significantly characterize the future development of European mechanization.
Finally, a sector which is neglected today, but which will have to find adequate attention, is that of the development of appropriate technologies to help the progressive growth of agricultural production in less developed areas, where serious and unsolved problems of hunger and undernutrition remain. The prospective analysis of the demographic dynamics shows, with clear evidence, that the disruptive growth of the global population in the coming decades will be concentrated in the low-growth regions and, in particular, in the African continent, which in 2050 will reach a number of inhabitants close to 2.5 billion.
A real and effective process of agricultural development, allowing sufficient food production to meet the needs of local populations, is today an unavoidable moral commitment for industrialized countries. Hence, therefore, the need for the European agricultural machinery industry to bring into play its enormous capital of versatility, experience, and high professionalism, to develop appropriate mechanization, that is sustainable in environmental terms and consistent with economic, social and cultural conditions.
by Luigi Bodria