Original publication: March 2014
Authors: Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission , Pablo J. Zarco-Tejada, Neil Hubbard and Philippe Loudjani (Monitoring Agriculture ResourceS (MARS) Unit H04)
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Precision Agriculture: An Opportunity for EU-Farmers – Potential Support with the CAP 2014-2020

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Precision Agriculture (PA) is a whole-farm management approach using information technology, satellite positioning (GNSS) data, remote sensing and proximal data gathering. These technologies have the goal of optimising returns on inputs whilst potentially reducing environmental impacts. The state-of-the-art of PA on arable land, permanent crops and within dairy farming are reviewed, mainly in the European context, together with some economic aspects of the adoption of PA.

Options to address PA adoption are discussed, including measures within the CAP 2014-2020 legislation and the important contribution of advisory services across Europe.

Precision Agriculture (PA) is a farming management concept based upon observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops, or to aspects of animal rearing. The benefits to be obtained are chiefly due to increased yields and/or increased profitability of production to the farmer. Other benefits come from better working conditions, increased animal welfare and the potential to improve various aspects of environmental stewardship. Thus, PA contributes to the wider goal concerning sustainability of agricultural production.

The implementation of PA has become possible thanks to the development of sensor technologies combined with procedures to link mapped variables to appropriate farming practices such as tillage, seeding, fertilization, herbicide & pesticide application, harvesting and animal husbandry. The key feature of PA comes from positioning systems, principally Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) that are a major enabler of ‘precision’. PA is most advanced amongst arable farmers, particularly with large farms and field sizes in the main grain growing areas of Europe, USA and Australia, and where a business model to maximise profitability is the main driver. Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) and auto-guiding systems are the most successful applications on arable land showing clear benefits in nearly all cases. For Variable Rate Application (VRA) methods, such as optimizing fertilizer or pesticide use to areas of need, the success varies greatly according to the specific factors of the application.

For fruit & vegetables and viticulture, machine vision methods have brought benefits to products which are typically of high value and where quality is key to obtaining a high price. Additionally, for such crops and also for arable areas, irrigation is under increased scrutiny since water shortages are more frequently occurring whilst availability on intensive agricultural areas requires precise management. Hence, PA technologies that use accurate indicators of water stress are employed to maximise the water use efficiency. Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) relying on automatic monitoring of individual animals is used for meat, milk and egg production and for monitoring animal behaviour, welfare and productivity and also their physical environment.

The present briefing, based on a detailed review, confirms that Precision Agriculture can play a substantial role in the European Union in meeting the increasing demand for food, feed, and raw materials while ensuring sustainable use of natural resources and the environment. Nevertheless, the adoption of PA in Europe encounters specific challenges due to the sizes and diversity of farm structures. An assessment of the potential actions to support the adoption of PA by medium and smaller sized farmers is identified as an important enabling step. In particular, the new EU Common Agriculture Policy provides a key opportunity with a number of instruments and measures, identified in the current briefing, which are available to be used by the EU Member States competent authorities. A number of recommendations are proposed:

  1. There is a need of appropriate guidelines and implementation assistance to EU Member States. A study is needed to identify regions and typology of farms most appropriate for PA and to potential support measures. Also, the development of an EU ‘precision farming calculator’ tool, made available for differing farming systems and including environmental benefits, would bring decision-support value to farmers and advisers.
  2. This should be accompanied by research and development studies. Pilot studies are required to define, monitor and evaluate specific programmes and measures. An example is to improve the assessment of environmental impact, including the wider environmental footprint beyond farm-level. The benefits of PA for more efficient water productivity management is an additional area of high importance for study.
  3. The roles of the Farm Advisory Services (FAS), and the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) on Agricultural Production and Sustainability already established within the CAP implementation could be fostered. These instruments allow Member States to share knowledge and expertise and then draw conclusions concerning advice and research needs for wider use within Europe.

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/529-049

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