Everyone knows farming can be a difficult and complex job. Farmers have to juggle so many factors in their decision making: fluctuations in the price of inputs, in crop prices and in the weather conditions all have to be taken into account. Decision support systems (DSS) are designed to alleviate some of the stress, making it easier to judge when and with what to treat crops to achieve a profitable harvest, and hold out the prospect of significantly reducing pesticide use.
One ENDURE research team has just completed a mammoth survey of the DSS available in Europe, with the longer term aim of constructing new DSS for use across the continent. We caught up with the team leader, Per Rydahl, of Aarhus University, Denmark, to find out more.
QUESTION: How do DSS help farmers?
PER RYDAHL: A common idea behind many DSS is to exploit the facts that different weeds, pests and diseases are not homogeneously distributed in time and space, need to be controlled on different levels in different cropping systems and have different susceptibilities to different control measures under different conditions.
From a farmer’s standpoint, these aspects are rather complex when trying to rationally manage control measures on a field level. Consequently, farmers need support to make decisions, and this is where DSS may supplement or compete with alternative sources of ‘decision support’. DSS are mainly constructed to help farmers in their work of identifying, monitoring and controlling weeds, pests and diseases.
DSS can support various decisions on a farm level, for example strategic decisions before a growing season or tactical decisions during a growing season. Furthermore, DSS can function as learning tools by disseminating knowledge on the interactions I mentioned above.
QUESTION: Do they vary in how useful they may be?
PER RYDAHL (pictured left): In our survey, which included 70 European DSS for crop protection, the usefulness of DSS for crop protection was examined in terms of identified potentials for reducing the dependency and/or use of pesticides, as compared to relevant alternatives.
For some DSS, robustness and potentials have been thoroughly tested, but most DSS need additional testing to demonstrate their possible potentials and suitable robustness for varying conditions at the field level.
Some of the tested DSS have not demonstrated potential, others have demonstrated more robust ways of managing specific crop x pest systems. In specific crop x pest systems, DSS have demonstrated potentials of reducing pesticide inputs by up to 40-50% when compared to existing ‘best practices’, without jeopardising the requirements for robustness in production lines.
The uptake of DSSs is generally relatively weak, varying from a few enthusiasts up to just 3% of the number of professional farmers in a single country. A general obstacle for a more efficient implementation of DSS in many cropping systems is that regional advisors often recommend ‘best practice’ solutions, which are considered to be robust and relatively cheap. Another obstacle is that DSS often require the implementation of new work procedures at the farm level, for example routine field inspections and the consultation of IT tools.
QUESTION: It is clear this is a very extensive survey. What general conclusions can we draw?
PER RYDAHL: The survey discovered a rich variety of driving forces, crops, pests and conceptual ideas behind DSS. In the perspective of reducing dependency and/or use of pesticides, ‘best parts’ of DSS were identified within four crop/pest groups:
These ‘best parts’ constitute a possible starting point for building new DSS concepts which efficiently utilise previous experiences and which have been unified on a European level.
QUESTION: How can we now use this knowledge?
PER RYDAHL: Isolated, the results from the survey may be used as an inspiration for new strategies for pest management on regional levels and for initiating new collaborations on selected DSS concepts at the cross-border and regional levels.
Probably more important, however, the survey was jointly planned and conducted by a group of 10 researchers and two advisers representing eight European countries. Therefore the survey constitutes a scientifically and, to some extent also politically, negotiated reference on the ‘best parts’ with the perspective of building new DSS concepts, to be unified on a European level, and which focus on reducing the dependency and/or use of pesticides in existing cropping systems.
QUESTION: What are the next steps for the team?
PER RYDAHL: After the survey, work has been initiated to construct new DSS concepts, which are unified on a European level and which integrate selected ‘best parts’ in the following selected crop x pest systems:
Over the coming 18 months, efforts will be made to construct relatively simple but operational DSS within each of these three crop x pest systems. Validation will be made on various levels.
Of course, much additional work is required to make these DSS operational for more crop x pest systems and for various geographical conditions. Consequently, an important result of the activities in ENDURE regarding DSS will be a prioritised list of future activities needed to construct, validate and implement DSS for crop protection on a wider scale in Europe.
To read or download the survey, click below: