Austria to use space tech for farming subsidies allocation
Austria has decided to mobilise satellite technology to check in detail whether farms are meeting the conditions for receiving billions in EU agriculture subsidies, a task which is often very complex and costly for national authorities.
Farms and space may have little in common at first sight. But in reality, satellite technologies can be applied in a variety of ways, including in agriculture, Gregor Schusterschitz, the Austrian Ambassador to the EU, said during a recent conference in Brussels.
Speaking to representatives of other EU countries, Schusterschitz presented his country’s plans to implement such a project in the recently launched funding period of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
By using image data collected by satellites, the project would make monitoring the many area-based support measures within the CAP easier, explained Bernhard Eder of AgrarMarkt Austria, a corporation that partly handles the administration of funding programmes on behalf of the ministry.
A total of €1.5 billion is “allocated to area-based measures in Austria in this funding period – a bulk of the money”, he said.
For example, direct payments, which make up a large part of CAP funds, are allocated per hectare of cultivated land. This means that if a piece of land is used for storage space for machinery, it cannot be claimed, but it can if, for example, cereals are grown on it.
Many environmental measures within the CAP are also linked to specific areas, for example, the planting of flowering strips or the preservation of permanent grassland.
Reducing on-site controls
To check whether a farm actually meets the conditions for receiving subsidies, the responsible authorities must therefore know exactly how each individual farm uses its land, down to the individual parcel of land.
As this is very time-consuming for the authorities, using a new, more automated system should help.
“The application has the potential to reduce on-site inspections,” explained Eder, adding that the programme automatically decides whether the criteria for receiving the funds are met.
This is possible using satellite data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel missions, a group of satellites that provide various image data of the Earth’s surface.
Based on the satellite images, the programme automatically recognises – at least in most cases – how farm plots are used and whether this matches the information in the funding application.
“The application can recognise different crops with a high degree of accuracy,” explained David Kolitzus from GeoVille, the company that provides the programme.
The programme can detect mown grassland or buildings on arable land, even if this is not allowed, he added.
Simplifying the process
Still, the programme does not always work in the most optimal way as it still marks some areas as “not clearly identifiable”, Kolitzus admitted. Work on minimising this is currently underway.
If the programme detects a discrepancy between the satellite images and the information provided by a farm, a manual check is needed to actually ascertain how the parcel in question is actually used.
Plans to simplify this step are now also underway in order to make on-site inspections by the authorities largely superfluous. For this purpose, ArgarMarkt Austria has developed a special app, Eder explained.
With this app, farmers will be able to send a georeferenced picture of the field in question to the relevant authority within a certain time frame – sufficient proof it was actually taken exactly where the field is located.
Inspectors can then check whether the piece of land is actually being used in a different way than stated on the funding application.
“This is a good way to leave paper, pre-prints and the like behind and improve communication with farmers,” Eder emphasised.
A model for other countries?
Eder is convinced Austria’s use of satellite technologies can also interest other EU countries facing the same challenges in implementing the CAP.
However, some hurdles remain.
During the event, representatives of farmers’ organisations were sceptical about the acceptance of such automated monitoring among farmers. Farmers with less digital skills could easily be left behind, they warned.
Eder remained optimistic, however.
Legally speaking, farmers without smartphones would have to be offered an alternative communication channel with the authorities, for example via e-mail, he stressed. In terms of data protection, he added, the programmes are safe, as the system only processes the image data in anonymised form.