As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
EU boost for crop decision-making
by Arable Farming Magazine November/December 2022 issue
A five-year €5 million (£4.4m) EU-funded project* to encourage wider use of decision support systems to control pests on farms went live in September. Andrew Blake examines what is behind it.
How can you tell whether there is a need to treat crops against pests, diseases and weeds? Developers of decision support systems (DSS) maintain that the research and trials behind them supply the answers.
While plenty of farmers appreciate that, a relatively recent survey found rather more remain to be convinced.
“Farming must address the key challenge of increasing production of affordable food to meet global demand, while minimising environmental impacts.”
So says Dr Mark Ramsden of ADAS, which leads the five-year, 28-partner project under which the UK has received the most funding from the EU.
He continues: “Crops affected by invertebrate pests, weeds, or diseases – collectively ‘pests’ – are less productive, and plant protection products pose an environmental hazard.
Decisions “Integrated pest management [IPM] DSS are accelerating uptake of computer-based systems to support decisions by farmers and advisers.
“Increased DSS uptake should lead to improved decision making on-farm, offering better timing and targeting of plant protection products and their integration with non-chemical methods of pest control.
“This should ultimately lead to less use of pesticides – and, potentially, fertilisers – with consequent benefits for society in terms of reduced diffuse pollution and reduced environmental harm.”
Sixteen workshops across 12 European countries in winter 2019/2020 drew 380 survey responses showing 56% of farmers had never used a DSS.
This project aims to better understand why DSS aren’t being used and address those barriers,” says Dr Ramsden.
He lists the following barriers and explains how they are being addressed: Barrier: Farmers/advisers are unaware of available DSS Action taken to tackle it: “We are creating an online platform, as a community of DSS developers, users and wider IPM stakeholders, to provide access to DSS.”
Barrier: DSS are not user friendly Action: “The platform is farmer-led in design and consistent across DSS to ensure user-friendly simple access.”
Barrier: DSS are insufficient ly risk averse Action: “DSS on the platform will be transparent in how the models work, what assumptions have been made and where they were developed and validated.”
Barrier: The benefits of DSSs are unclear Action: “We are developing methods for quantifying the economic and environmental benefits of DSS use.”
Barrier: Individual DSS presented in isolation do not reflect the multi-pest pressure farmers experience Action: “The platform allows multiple pest risks to be presented together.”
Barrier: Farmers and advisers do not trust DSS outputs Action: “Working with user groups we’re improving our understanding of what improves trust in systems by developing demonstration trials across Europe through a complementary EU project ‘IPM Works’.”
Barrier: Lack of ongoing support for DSS Action: “Once developed, DSS often get released and then the researchers move on.
The platform is designed to facilitate a wider network of users and developers, growing over time to ensure ongoing support.”
The overall aim is to give farmers, advisers and researchers a free ‘one-stop shop’ to assess the reliability and suitability of various DSS so they can choose those most suited to their needs.
“The project is using insights from the interactions with stakeholders to guide platform design so as to encourage the behavioural changes needed for IPM to be implemented more fully,” adds Dr Ramsden.
The priorities for integrating current DSS into the platform have focused on the most urgent cases of pest/crop combinations based on:
Intensity of pesticide use and treated crop area
Environmental and human health concerns
Degree of threat to production
Risk of loss of control by pesticide withdrawal and resistance in target organisms
Demand from farmers, advisers, and other potential users “The DSS addressing these urgent cases are technically diverse,” says Dr Ramsden.
A catalogue of DSS from across Europe has already been created.
To ensure the platform delivers what users, be they farmers, advisers, or researchers need, specific ‘dashboards’ have been designed.
The ‘Use’ dashboard enables farmers and advisers to find and run IPM DSS relevant to their crops and pest pressures.
Risk outputs from two or more DSS can be compared using the ‘Comparison’ dashboard, while the ‘Adaptation’ dashboard enables researchers and DSS providers to adapt systems to their local circumstances.
Testing DSS usually involves comparing predictions of pest risk against observed data of pest prevalence, says Dr Ramsden.
“However, predictive value doesn’t necessarily translate into economic return and farmers are more likely to use a DSS if there is evidence for improved economics.
“Large losses for a low frequency of false negative predictions can outweigh many small gains from true predictions.”
Methods have been developed for the economic analyses of DSS and are being applied to a set of contrasting pest/crop systems, he adds.
“To enable this, data sets of pest observations and weather across many sites and seasons have been obtained.
Papers have been published from early stages of the work and observational data has been made open access.”