Mapping Europe's sustainable farming future
EU-funded researchers have developed mapping tools and calculators to help farmers use water and fertilisers more efficiently, maintaining yields while cutting costs and limiting the environmental impact.
© Fatima Project. People and technology
While intensive crop production provides a secure supply of affordable food, the practice also consumes vast amounts of water and pollutes the soil. For example, farmers often apply fertilisers uniformly and unnecessarily across an entire field.
More sustainable crop management strategies and production systems are vital to ensuring Europeans have access to good quality food that doesnt compromise the environment or public health. This means optimising yield and farm income with a minimum of nutrients, water, energy, pesticides and herbicides.
The EU-funded FATIMA project has sought to address these challenges through the development of operational large-scale precision farming tools and the creation of a dedicated stakeholder community to facilitate future cooperation. Tools include a range of high-resolution maps and calculators for determining nutrient and water requirements, which means that farmers can fine-tune the amount of nutrients and water they actually need. This helps to avoid over-fertilisation and save water.
We provided farmers and decision makers in seven pilot areas across Europe with a range of maps predicting fertiliser and water requirements of their crops, says FATIMA project coordinator Anna Osann from the University of Castilla-La Mancha (UCLM) in Spain.
FATIMA precision farming tools were developed using Earth observation and wireless sensor networks according to local needs and deployed on the ground.
In Spains arid La Mancha region, for example, the focus was on ensuring efficient water and fertilizer use. In Marchfeld, Austria, a key concern was water quality problems due to intensive agriculture. Thesaly, Greece, meanwhile, has been declared a vulnerable region due to groundwater nitrate pollution.
Tools were then made accessible on an online geographical information system, or webGIS. Comprehensive guides for crop monitoring, management zoning and nitrogen balance were also made downloadable.
Already long before completion of the project in early 2018, the FATIMA webGIS became a platform where SMEs could reach potential customers with new mapping tools and farmers could find solutions tailored to their needs.
The webGIS, along with the various FATIMA mapping services, has been driven by the needs of farmers in each pilot area, says Osann. Some tools are already on the market.
The Spanish SME AgriSat Iberia, for example, is currently commercialising its services through an agreement with project coordinator UCLM, similar to Italian SME Ariespace and Austrian start-up GreenSense.
Another innovative tool is an irrigation and fertilisation scheduling service that provides weekly maps of crop water requirements and maps of nutrient requirements over the growing season.
Business cases were developed that respond to local and regional requirements and roadmaps for the sustainable maintenance of these platforms have been developed for each region, says Osann.
Another development is a farm-level cost benefit analysis, a complementary tool that helps farmers decide which technology to adopt or service to buy. The tool enables farmers to assess farm profitability on the one hand and the economic feasibility of a specific FATIMA service on the other.
Transition to sustainability
FATIMA also explored farmers preferences and willingness to adopt new mapping technologies in the short-term, as well new production methods over the longer term.
Surveys and focus groups from all seven pilot areas were conducted, and results relating to both short-term and long-term strategies analysed. This led to the identification of specific conditions deemed essential for FATIMA services to flourish following project completion.
These include successfully demonstrating and validating tools by core users, achieving a critical mass of committed users, as well as recognition and support by policy and decision makers, says Osann.
Ultimately, precision agriculture optimising input management according to nutrient and water requirements as championed by FATIMA is only one step towards more sustainable agriculture.
While necessary, it is not sufficient for making intensive agriculture truly sustainable, says Osann. In the long term, changes in agricultural practices such as crop rotation, and transformation to more sustainable production systems such as organic agriculture, are also required.