Guidance and tool to support farmers in taking aware decisions on Ecological Focus Areas : Final report for Project JRC/IPR/2014/H.4/0022/NC
Farming has a significant role to play in the delivery of a number of desirable outcomes, including ecosystem services and biodiversity. Regardless of past agri-environmental policy and its intentions, there are still ongoing ecological problems that need attention, as demonstrated by the decline in populations of birds and mammals across the EU. The introduction of Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) on the farm has potential to deliver tangible environmental improvements. However, it is also recognised that the extent of such improvements, and so the success of the policy, will ultimately depend on the specific EFA elements a farmer selects as well as the particular characteristics of the holding. To address this issue the JRC commissioned a project to develop a software tool to help farmers select EFA elements that can deliver the optimal environmental benefits considering the farms site specific characteristics and the pragmatic requirements of ensuring that the EFA solution overall are realistic in terms of farm management. There were four main tasks to the project: an extensive literature review; impact assessment; software development; and testing of the software application. This document constitutes the final report for this project (Ref. JRC/IPR/2014/H.4/0022/NC). It provides a description of the approach taken, a synthesis of the knowledge collated and a description of the outputs that have emerged, including the prototype software that has been developed. The literature review involved collating the scientific evidence that forms the foundation for the software tool. Over 350 papers, reports and guides which were collated and reviewed, resulting in synthesis provided herein, which is structured using the 19 individual EFA elements specified in the legislation. Although the synthesis itself was a valuable output from the project, it was not in a form that could be used to support the software tool. Thus the objective of the second task was to convert this knowledge into a form that could be utilised within the software. The impact assessment task analysed the knowledge synthesised in the first stage and converted it into a set of guidelines, criteria and rules that could be embedded in the core database that underpins the software. There were no established techniques available that could be used to undertake this task, so a bespoke approach had to be developed, albeit utilising established frameworks where possible. For example, the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES) was used as the basis for the ecosystem service impact categories. A bespoke scoring system was developed, which although was relatively simple, distilled a lot of complex, and data intensive, parameters. The potential impact of each EFA feature on ecosystem services, biodiversity and management was determined. Then for each feature-impact, a set of parameters (and classes within those parameters) were determined, which affect the relative significance of the impact of that feature on the specified impact. For example, the parameter 'soil texture' with classes of: coarse, medium, medium-fine, fine, and very fine, will affect the impact on soil erosion, thus these classes were used to derive different impact scores (in combination with other parameters). In so doing, when the user of the EFA software describes their farm and features using such parameters, it is then possible to derive a potential impact score that is relevant for that farm. There were two approaches to the scoring of impacts: quantitative (using meta-modelling) and qualitative (using a risk factor approach). The quantitative approach was a more objective means to determine the scores, but it could only be undertaken for a few ecosystem service impacts (due to modelling limitations). Consequently, the majority of the scoring was done using the qualitative approach. Currently there are a total of 230 feature-impact combinations that have been created in the core the database. These are characterised using 138 different parameters containing 708 parameter classes. The software developed is known as the EFA calculator. It is a standalone Windows application that has been created using MS Visual Studio 2010 with the core database developed using MS Access. The software is freely available to download from the web (https://sitem.herts.ac.uk/aeru/efa/). The user downloads a setup file which then installs the application locally on the PC. The software has three key functions: to calculate the contribution of different farm features to meeting the 5% EFA target (including checking implementation rules); to calculate the potential impact of different features on ecosystem services, biodiversity and management; and to steer farmers towards features which offer the greatest potential benefits (with respect to minimising burdens and maximising benefits). As with any tool that attempts to make an assessment of potential environmental impacts the knowledge it is attempting to capture and communicate is inherently complex, which works against the criterion of designing a 'simple to use' to tool. To overcome this issue, the design philosophy from the outset was to provide the user with options to customise the tool to the level of detail they require. Therefore the user can decide to have 'basic' settings, or activate more advanced options to increase the level of detail to a level they desire. Using the basic settings the software only displays the necessary detail to undertake the core function of calculating the 5% EFA target. The impact assessment is still undertaken in the background, but the user is not presented with the detailed data input that is used to increase the accuracy of the impact assessment. In the advanced mode the user can obtain more accurate assessment of impacts, but this requires more data to be entered. The software has undergone two phases of testing: functionality testing and testing with hypothetical farm data. The first phase has been an ongoing task and involves checking for faults, errors and bugs; validity testing; usability (ease of use, support and help, interpretation and readability); testing of the installation routine; and performance and stability tests. The second phase was split into two parts and involved setting up hypothetical farm data to run through the software. The first part used simple case study farms to test all EFA elements activated in each Member State (32 in total including regions) to ensure all combinations functioned correctly. The second part involved creating 25 detailed scenarios, based on real locations, in 16 Member States. As well as providing a test of the software, the detailed scenarios also generated some interesting findings, in particular that for the majority of the 25 farms, their existing features would not be enough to reach the 5% EFA target, and thus they would need to create new features on the farm. There is little doubt that this was an ambitious project to undertake in a relatively short period of time. A substantial amount of work has been undertaken and some practical outputs developed. However, it is important to acknowledge that the tool is a prototype, has strengths and weaknesses, and scope for development in the future. Firstly, there is scope to improve the knowledge base. Scientific understanding is continually growing and evolving and thus we need to acknowledge this evolution and ensure that it is reflected in the tools and information that are made available to farmers across the EU. In terms of ecosystem service impacts, there scope to make improvements with respect to understanding impacts on provision of water, biomass and energy; global climate regulation by reduction of greenhouse gas concentrations; flood protection and other cultural services. For biodiversity, this project has reinforced the need to find a common and/or established framework for assessing impacts on biodiversity, and within this project there scope for greater harmonisation across the different features with regard to impact categories used, albeit this is partly reflection of the inconsistencies in the scientific evidence. For management, difficulties were experienced in gaining evidence specifically on the management implications of EFA features. Assessments were largely confined to crude evaluations of the potential impact on labour. Consequently there is considerable scope for improvement for this impact category. The prototype EFA calculator software that has emerged from this project has scope to be developed in the future. Feedback from users will be important to steer any future developments and it would also be valuable to ground truth the tool, i.e. to see how well the outputs from the tool match up to what is observed on the ground. The tool has been designed for farmers and farm advisors to use, although the latter that are more likely to be the main users. It should also be acknowledged that in the long term, widespread adoption of this tool (and others of a similar nature) ideally needs to be achieved in cooperation with commercial software companies. Seamless integration with existing management activities and software applications will aid the process of integrating environmental issues into the decision making processes of agricultural businesses, thus increasing the scope for widespread improvements in environmental performance.