Tuesday, 17 November 2020

SmartAgriHubs: pilot incorporation of farmland habitats in Teagasc National Farm Survey

Teagasc is investigating how to incorporate biodiversity into ~300 participant farms in the Teagasc National Farm Survey. This is being piloted as part of the EU SmartAgriHubs project, which focuses on digital innovation in the agrifood sector. Here, I briefly describe why biodiversity should be included in sustainability assessment, the aims of the pilot project and our methodology, and its potential contribution to improving biodiversity monitoring in farmland.

Why include biodiversity in assessment of agricultural sustainability?

Despite a large increase in the number of assurance and accreditation schemes for sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and farmland wildlife are often omitted, or included in only a trivial manner. (There are some notable exceptions, of course.) If we truly want to represent sustainability, however, biodiversity needs to be incorporated into assessments of farm-scale sustainability.

Some reasons to include biodiversity in sustainability assessments include:

  • Biodiversity is an important component of environmental sustainability that supplies a range of positive ecosystem goods and services that can underpin stable and resilient agricultural production.
  • Many farms already support considerable areas of farmland habitat and associated biodiversity, but receive no recognition or credit for this in sustainability assessments.
  • Natural ecosystems are negatively impacted by agricultural management, resulting in biodiversity loss. Many natural ecosystems are highly threatened.
  • Higher performance in one environmental dimension can be at the expense of reduced biodiversity, and this will not be known unless biodiversity is measured and included in formal analyses.
  • Most agri-food companies now include biodiversity as one of their stated environmental objectives for sustainable practice.
  • Destruction of wildlife habitats by agriculture can generate very negative publicity and erode public trust in responsible governance of agri-food systems.

How to incorporate biodiversity into the Teagasc National Farm Survey?

Teagasc is investigating how to incorporate a critical measure of biodiversity into ~300 participant farms in the Teagasc National Farm Survey. This is being piloted as part of the EU SmartAgriHubs project, which focuses on digital innovation in the agrifood sector. The project is about halfway through its duration, and we expect to report the outcomes in early 2022.

There are several alternative approaches to measure biodiversity and how to incorporate it into sustainability assessments. Any specific approach taken will depend on the objectives of the assessment.

We are building on a previous approach that was summarised in another post ‘Methodology to include farmland habitats in sustainability assessments’, and is described in detail in Finn and Moran (in press). This methodology focuses on the inclusion of farmland habitats in sustainability assessments. As such, it is a surrogate for direct quantification of biodiversity that would require detailed measurement of individual species (plants, spiders, beetles, birds etc.). 

The innovation in this new pilot project is delivered through:

  •       reliance on satellite imagery to identify broad classes of farmland habitats e.g. ploughed fields, intensively managed grasslands, arable crops, heathlands, peatlands, lakes, ponds, woodlands and so on. (There is also ground-truthing on 10% of the farms.)
  •       incorporation of farm-specific photos via a web-based application for uploading and transferring farm photos
  •       collation and combination of these data through an automated reporting process that can create customisable farm-specific habitat maps and reports. An example is provided below (Fig 1 and Fig 2), and see a previous post for more.
  •       provision of the farm habitat report and information to the participant farmers. This can help to better guide and inform their management of farm biodiversity.
  •       inclusion of a biodiversity assessment in the Teagasc National Farm Survey (NFS). The great benefit of conducting the biodiversity assessment on NFS farms is the ability to link with the time series of the suite of other agronomic, economic, environmental and social data collected by the Teagasc NFS.


Fig. 1. Example of a farm habitat map and table with habitat types and sizes, and an estimate of the relative wildlife value of the different habitats. 

Fig. 2. Example of a farm habitat map and table with habitat types and sizes, and an estimate of the relative wildlife value of the different habitats. 

The Teagasc National Farm Survey includes several sustainability indicators (economic, environmental, social, and innovation), and is exploring how to expand its environmental indicators, including biodiversity. The following text is from the 2019 Sustainability Report from the Teagasc NFS:

“Indicators that are currently under development include, metrics relating to biodiversity and these will be included in future Teagasc sustainability reports once the relevant scientific work needed to establish indicators and consistently collect the related data has concluded. (p.5)

...However, one of the global concerns associated with the intensification of agricultural production is that wildlife and native flora may be negatively impacted, resulting in irrevocable or difficult to reverse biodiversity loss. Biodiversity is therefore an important component of farm performance, but can usually only reliably be assessed by detailed on-farm surveys. Typically, such measurement is resource intensive and represents a long term commitment, which would ordinarily be beyond the current scope and resources of the Teagasc NFS.

However, competitive research funding has now allowed ecologists to use remote mapping to identify farmland habitat biodiversity on close to 300 NFS farms. If further funding for this initiative could be secured this would allow the habitat biodiversity assessment to be undertaken on all NFS farms. It could also allow this assessment to be repeated on a periodic basis to track changes in habitat biodiversity over time. In turn this would allow the inclusion of habitat biodiversity [in] the indicator set of the Teagasc Sustainability Report (p.65, 2019 Sustainability Report).” 

The competitive funding mentioned in the report refers to the EU SmartAgriHubs project that is funding the current research project. The inclusion of farmland habitats (and other environmental indicators) in the NFS would be possible if funding was available to do so; however, the inclusion of environmental indicators may not be as expensive as is often thought. For example, the inclusion of a remote-assessment methodology for habitat estimation in the NFS would be considerably less expensive that an approach involving individual visits to each of the NFS farms to conduct detailed wildlife surveys. (Note that such an approach is not mutually exclusive and can provide more detail for validation of the remote, habitat-scale approach; see Sheridan et al., (2011) for a detailed farm-scale habitat survey of 50 farms in the NFS.) Given the relatively slow pace of change of land use at the landscape scale, an assessment of farmland habitats on NFS farms might only need to be conducted every four or five years to get an adequate temporal representation, rather than on an annual basis (as for other NFS data). This less frequent sampling would also be more cost-effective. 

To what extent could the inclusion of biodiversity in the Teagasc NFS comprise a national indicator of biodiversity trends?

One would need to be cautious about correctly interpreting the results from a farmland habitat assessment based on the NFS alone (and assuming an approach similar to that above was applied across all the participant farms). It would be a very good approach to compare the ‘space for nature’ across the farming systems that are well represented by the NFS, and would be very well able to discriminate quite broad differences in farm habitat types and areas e.g. as in Figures 1 & 2.

The time series associated with the NFS is one of its strengths, facilitating tracking of change over time. Given the stated aim to support biodiversity of the CAP and the EU Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies, our proposed assessment should be able to detect the relative impact on biodiversity of land use change over time, especially for habitats that are associated with farmland biodiversity.

The Teagasc NFS captures close to 100% representation of the types of Irish grassland and cropland agriculture operating at an intensity most likely to have highest pressures on and/or lower levels of biodiversity. In terms of careful interpretation, the results of a biodiversity assessment from the NFS would not be nationally representative of habitats on farmland; it would be restricted to being representative of the farming systems represented by NFS. The NFS comprises a random, nationally representative sample of between 1,000 and 1,200 farms per year. The survey is operated as part of the Farm Accountancy Data Network of the EU and fulfils Ireland’s statutory obligation to provide data on farm output, costs and income to the European Commission. Only farms with greater than €8,000 of Standard Output (SO) are included. Excluded farms represent about ~15% of the total farm population. The excluded farms; however, are most likely to be those with a higher likelihood of being High Nature Value, and with a greater provision of the environmental public goods that are being increasingly targeted and supported by EU policies. This is further discussed in Kelly et al. (2018). Teagasc has conducted and continues to conduct dedicated supplementary surveys that are intended to improve the representation of farmland types that are not well represented by the sampling design of the FADN.

Our assessment method measures the type of farmland habitat, which can be broadly associated with low, medium and high levels of biodiversity (see the comments in the final column in the tables within Figs 1 & 2). For example, we know that there are large differences in biodiversity and relative conservation value between an arable field, and a species-rich grassland or heathland. However, an approach based on habitat type only would not be able to measure habitat quality, which would need some more detailed form of assessment. The use of improved technological solutions might be able to improve the ease with which one could either include existing data on habitat quality or collect new data on habitat quality. Note that a combination of the logistically less demanding approach based on categorisation of habitats in the Teagasc NFS (described above) coupled with a subsampling of NFS farms for more detailed and logistically demanding biodiversity assessments could be a powerful combination to infer the trajectory of both habitat quantity and quality across the NFS farming systems. This would offer improved potential to track patterns of change in biodiversity in the wider countryside, which has been a blind spot to date for farmland outside of Natura 2000 and selected priority habitats. 

As part of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy, there is a proposal for the FADN to be transformed into a Farm Sustainability Data Network (FSDN) that would have an enhanced focus on sustainable farming practices and their environmental impact. The current pilot project on incorporation of farmland habitats into the Teagasc NFS has strong potential application in future, and may also help inform methodological approaches for FADN/FSDN in other EU Member States. 


J.A. Finn and P. Moran. A pilot study of methodology for the development of farmland habitat reports for sustainability assessments. Irish Journal of Agricultural and Food Research. DOI: 10.15212/ijafr-2020-0103 (in press).

Kelly, E., Latruffe, L., Desjeux, Y., Ryan, M., Uthes, S., Diazabakana, A., Dillon, E. and Finn, J.A., 2018. Sustainability indicators for improved assessment of the effects of agricultural policy across the EU: Is FADN the answer? Ecological Indicators. 89: 903-911.      https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1470160X17308439

Sheridan, H., McMahon, B.J., Carnus, T., Finn, J.A., Kinsella, A., Purvis, G. (2011) Pastoral farmland habitat diversity in south-east Ireland. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 144: 130-135.  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167880911002507

Finn, J.A. 2020. Methodology to include farmland habitats in sustainability assessments. Blog post.

Teagasc. 2019. Sustainability Report https://www.teagasc.ie/rural-economy/rural-economy/national-farm-survey/sustainability-reports/

1 comment:

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