Socioeconomic value of EO agriculture | Part II
Taking all data points from relevant SeBS cases and extrapolation parameters into account, the e-shape report found that EO could add between €53 million per year to €210 million per year to the EU’s agricultural sector. It must be noted that due to the generalisations and assumptions made in the report, the range of value is relatively large. However, due to the fact that all estimates of potential value are regarded as conservative, the values in the following table help to convey (by orders of magnitude) just how impactful EO could be for Europe’s agricultural sector. Even the extremely conservative lower estimate of almost €53 million per year is a significant benefit to the EU’s agricultural sector. Within the context of this study, the €53 million per year added value is considered an absolute minimum, with real added value certainly higher in practice. Again, for the full context including data points, extrapolation parameters and calculations of economic benefits, please consult the full report.
The main challenge for the agriculture sector is to feed an increasing global population whilst at the same time minimising its considerable environmental footprint. Against this backdrop, it becomes apparent that sustainable food production lies at the heart of any effort to tackle climate change, reduce water stress, diminish pollution and protect biodiversity. Agriculture is not only responsible for the majority of water abstractions worldwide (44% in Europe and up to 70% globally), but also plays a major role in the pollution of water. This is associated with the vast quantities of agrochemicals, drug residues, sediments and saline drainage discharged by farms into water bodies.
In one of these recent amendments the utilisation of Earth Observation data, and in particular Copernicus, was put forward. By providing accurate and frequently updated knowledge that empowers efficient crop monitoring, EO data are a key enabler for variable rate application of fertilisers and pesticides. As a result, EO-based solutions can play a significant role in reducing water pollution, eutrophication and biodiversity loss.
The role EO can play in monitoring and maintaining biodiversity is huge. Through remote sensing, crop classification can be mapped over vast areas, meaning crop diversification can be monitored easily. Grasslands and even grassland maintenance activities can all be monitored, helping to ensure permanent grasslands are maintained where needed. In fact, the land cover and health status of many types of natural ecosystems such as arable land, forests, wetlands and shrublands can all be better understood thanks to EO-based technologies. Additional benefits for the protection of biodiversity arise from the reduced use of pesticides and fertilisers which, as described previously, is greatly aided by EO-based services.
Through the use of EO we can both monitor and encourage the sequestration of CO2 in land to counteract some of agriculture’s negative effects. “Carbon Farming” involves implementing practices that are known to improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material and/or soil organic matter. Similar to the aforementioned biodiversity practices, some carbon farming practices include permanent grassland maintenance, reduction of soil tillage, mulching/compost application, biomass planting, tree/shrub establishment, hedgerow planting.
Within the context of regulatory related benefits of EO in agriculture, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is by far the most relevant and wide-reaching policy which can benefit from the utilisation and increased adoption of EO. In 2018, new rules from the European Commission came into force, which allow EO data to be used as evidence when checking farmers’ fulfilment of requirements under the CAP for area-based payments. As a result, multiple initiatives are currently driving the use of EO in CAP monitoring and enforcement. National paying agencies, with the help of EO companies, all over Europe are adopting the use of EO in monitoring and verifying CAP compliance, reducing the need for in-person field inspections and saving both time and money.
EO-based services and data can help to stimulate the creation of new businesses. As agriculture is often considered an economic sector that is not at the forefront of innovation, there is still a lot of potential and room for innovative services based on EO data to make processes for farmers more efficient and effective.
EO data are also helping to create wholly new types of businesses. It is especially the free and open data such as Copernicus Sentinel data that are making this development possible. While remote sensing companies and value-added services have existed before this “revolution” of the last decade, with more and more EO companies entering the market of digital agriculture, these overtook other types of remote sensing data (e.g. airborne) or commercial data that were relatively expensive.
EO can provide new and unique sources of data to provide invaluable insights which can contribute to furthering scientific understanding. In the context of agricultural science, one application in which EO is uniquely positioned to provide extremely rich data is in understanding the “Fraction of Absorbed Photosynthetically Active Radiation” (FAPAR) over the canopy of a given region. The FAPAR technique quantifies the fraction of the solar radiation absorbed by live leaves during photosynthesis. As a result, it helps scientists in understanding where the green and alive elements of a given canopy are. FAPAR is one of the 50 Essential Climate Variables recognised by the UN Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) as necessary to characterise the climate of the Earth.
Agriculture is so closely linked to the fabric of society that the impacts of changing agriculture practices on society are many and varied and vice versa. Farming is almost by definition a rural activity and is often associated with communities which have lower population densities compared to urban areas. Work can be limited in these areas and consequently, measures which can increase the revenues of farmers are positive and feed more money into local businesses and the community.
As well as helping the farmer make better use of the chemicals, EO adds a societal benefit in reducing the potential run-off of excess chemicals into water catchment zones and hence has an impact on public health.
It is clear that the impact EO is having in agriculture is massive and will only continue to grow. We are witnessing the rapid emergence of widespread and innovative EO applications in the agricultural sector which are revolutionising the way farming is being practiced. Moreover, the positive economic, environmental and societal impacts that these changes are having in the agricultural sector and beyond serve as both a testament to the excitement surrounding the technology and a justification of the continued funding into its research and development.