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G-tech supports a common agriculture policy in Europe

Europe’s Common Agriculture Policy has moved towards accomodating geo-referenced, online information supported by up-to-date nation-wide image datasets. This has largely been facilitated by technical innovations within the geospatial domain

Since its creation in the late 1950s, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has shaped European agriculture. The CAP is defined at EU level by the governments of member states and implemented through regulations issued by the European Commission, rather than through the implementation of directives by member states. The CAP has evolved through a series of reforms in order to adapt to the changing needs of both agriculture and society as a whole. Today, rural areas constitute 90% of the EU territory, of which more than half is farmed. Also, the CAP is one of the most significant policy instruments in financial terms. In order to ensure that these funds are spent appropriately, Member State Authorities and the Commission services have to establish and apply appropriate management and control mechanisms. During the past decade, CAP legislative requirements have evolved towards geo-referenced, online information that is supported by up-to-date nation-wide image datasets, and consolidated in the Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS). This evolution has been facilitated and pushed by technical innovations within the geospatial domain.

Major developments
Since the late 90s, the Monitoring Agriculture Resources (MARS Unit) of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has addressed new information needs for European policies related to agriculture and regional development, such as Cross Compliance, farm advisory system, food quality and product origin traceability. It has developed standardised and sustainable control methods in a variety of agriculture-related areas. It has also supported the development of multipurpose large scale mapping approaches, common specifications, standardised measurements and validated methods to reinforce the consistency of land parcel identification and measurement across the Union and in candidate countries.

To date, the control with remote sensing (CwRS), Digital Land Parcel Identification System (LPIS) and parcel area measurement using GNSS devices have become the keystones of the efficient administration and control of CAP subsidies.

»The Control with Remote Sensing (CwRS): Initiated with some pilot studies in the 90s, the CwRS have now become an official method (equivalent to a physical farm visit) for member states administrations or their CwRS contractors to carry out part or all of their on-the-spot checks (OTS) of EU farms. In most of the cases, very high resolution (VHR) satellite images (<1 m pixel resolution) are used to perform parcel measurements and provide elements of identification of land cover type and/or checks of Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAECs) aspects.

High resolution satellite imagery is used to provide further elements for the diagnosis of land cover type and/or checks of the GAECs. To date, the CwRS methods are used to control more than 400,000 farmers for their area-aid applications in EU27. This represents approximately 70% of the total EU 27 OTS checks. To do so, some 700 HR images (e.g. SPOT, IRS, Rapid Eye, Landsat, etc.) and more than 230,000 sq km of VHR resolution data (e.g. Worldview, GeoEye, Ikonos, Quickbird, etc) are financed annually by the European Commission and made available to member states.

»Digital Land Parcel Identification System: In 1992, as a result of the evolution of CAP legislative requirements, the EU Commission asked the member states to establish an Integrated Administration and Control System in order to administer and control farmers’ declarations. In the subsequent years, it was found that a high percentage of declared areas were incorrect. Therefore, the process of declaration had to be improved by the establishment of a Land Parcel Identification System (LPIS) to identify and quantify the land eligible for payments.

These identification systems have been mainly established on the basis of aerial or satellite orthoimages. These orthoimages, together with attribute information concerning land use, form the basic set of components of LPIS. Different approaches have been used by the member states to develop their LPIS. Today, 45 different land parcel information systems exist across the EU, which sees more than 135 million detailed land parcels declared annually by its 8 million farmers.

»Parcel area measurement: In the frame of CAP direct payments and associated on-the-spot checks, agricultural parcel areas are determined with measurement tools that are “proven to assure measurements of quality”. The uncertainty specific to any measurement tool is characterised by a number of parameters such as its bias, precision and accuracy or technical tolerance. As of January 1, 2008, only the perimeter buffer tolerance is applied to agricultural parcels. This buffer tolerance, which cannot exceed 1.0 ha, is calculated by multiplying the parcel perimeter by a (buffer) width of maximum 1.5 metre. In the context of on-the-spot checks, tolerances are applied to the assessment of the difference between the declared and measured areas of the claimed agricultural parcel in order to come with a decision on the accepted area for payment.

With the development of technologies, GNSS devices and VHR orthoimages have become the tools that are used to perform almost 100% of parcel area measurements for the CAP management. In order to determine the measurement accuracy of these tools, member states are requested to systematically perform an area measurement validation test that has been set up by the MARS Unit. Today some 80 different combinations of GNSS receivers and measurements methods are used in EU, representing a total of around 6,400 GNSS receivers.

Future directions
Towards 2020, CAP foresees the continuation of the IACS, LPIS maintenance and CwRS (as part of the OTS checks). Furthermore, the new CAP reinforces the efforts on sustainable rural development (the second pillar), on environmental, sanitarian and societal requirements (cross-compliance) and on environment as a whole (the greening). This will require the detailed characterisation of rural landscape (landscape features such as location, type, area length; land cover; land use) based on the development of technical solutions which will be more than ever based on geomatics and geospatial data.

These new requirements will force agricultural GIS systems to store additional data and to interoperate with environmental and other databases. It becomes evident that the LPIS data, rather than being solely dedicated to support the aid declaration and subsequent controls, could also be broadly used by other ‘external’ users to evolve toward the establishment of Land Management Information Systems for rural areas.

The author would like to acknowledge all those who, in the history of MARS Unit, have contributed in some manner or another to works quoted in this article