A tool for modernising European agricultural policy


Commissioned by the European Commission (EC) and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA), the Sen4CAP research project, led by Sophie Bontemps and Nicolas Bellemans and supervised by Pierre Defourny in the Environmetrics and Geomatics Laboratory of UCL’s Earth and Life Institute, is generating concrete results, demonstrating through a series of cartographic products that the ‘Sentinel’ satellites of the Copernicus programme of the European Union can play a key role in modernising and simplifying European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In the longer term, these products could also become genuine tools for helping farmers optimise their practices.

CAP is the oldest EU-wide policy. It’s based especially on the principle of subsidising farmers. Each year, they must file a statement regarding their farming practices. Informing the EU about the surface area of their crops or their beneficial environmental practices is necessary to qualify for subsidies.

‘To date, annual inspections target the statements of 5% of farms’, Dr Bontemps says. ‘This is a sample, based on very precise and very expensive satellite images, and with a significant administrative burden.’

But with CAP’s extensive reform, which will go into effect in 2020, and a key law passed on 22 May, the modus operandi will evolve. ‘The EC has changed its mind: rather than inspecting only a few farms with extreme precision on specific dates, it will now observe all farms at the national level and throughout the year. It’s a new approach based on using images acquired for Sentinel satellites.’

Sacrificing precision for efficiency

Although this new approach leads to a loss of spatial precision, since most of the monitoring work will be done with images at 10-20 meters and no longer at 5 meters, it can cover all of a country’s farms and provide information on the entire agricultural season, from planting to harvesting of successive crops.

‘This complete change in how CAP works requires a lot of rethinking’, Dr Bontemps says. ‘Implementing new legislation, developing new methods of remote sensing to extract the right information from the flow of satellite images, but also creating new ways to manage the amount of data to be processed.’

It’s in this second component that the research of Prof. Defourny's team, to which Dr Bontemps belongs, makes perfect sense. With the reform to take effect in 2020, the EC has commissioned a series of pilot studies to prepare for this paradigm shift, including the Sen4CAP (Sentinels for Common Agriculture Policy) project funded by ESA. The project, implemented by a consortium of five European partners with UCLouvain at its head, aims to develop new methods and tools for monitoring agriculture relevant to CAP.

Dr Bontemps says, ‘We’re working hand in hand with the payment agencies of the six pilot countries: Italy, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Romania, Spain and Belgium. All these countries were chosen by the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, the European body responsible for CAP’s implementation, because they represent, at their own level, European agricultural diversity.’

A longer-term objective

In March 2018, a first set of prototype products was presented to the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development and to all member states, successfully demonstrating the role Sentinel satellite images could play in the new approach to CAP.

Among these prototypes is a map that shows farmland at national scale by analysing satellite images. ‘It can be generated throughout the season, almost in real time,’ Dr Bontemps says. ‘The map allows payment agencies to quickly obtain the necessary information on agricultural practices to inspect.’

The results presented to the collaborating countries were well received. ‘We’re not at the end of the project, but we have already been able to demonstrate that the reform could be implemented in practice and that satellite information helps ensure the compliance of statements.’

While the main objectives of CAP reform remain simplification and cost reduction, they’re not the only ones. ‘CAP reform is also intended to change the relationship between farmers and Europe’, Dr Bontemps says. ‘For the moment, it’s essentially a relationship based on an inspection carried out in the middle or even at the end of the agricultural season. With this new data available everywhere and throughout the year, inspection as such on the part of the EU becomes a “follow-up”. Information obtained earlier in the season can be shared with farmers, creating more dialogue. If this idea of ​​information-sharing would be limited initially to sending warnings to help the farmer comply with CAP obligations, it’s not inconceivable that in the longer term it can also allow him to have an overview of his production, the different crops in his region, what fertilizer to use, water management…And to be able to adapt most effectively from an economic and ecological point of view.’


How did you end up specialising in this type of research?

J’ai fait des études de bio-ingénierie et d’agronomie un peu comme on choisit sa voie à dix-huit ans : j’étais intéressée par les problématiques environnementales et je me suis retrouvée dans ce cursus-là un peu par hasard… mais sans aucun regret a posteriori ! J’ai surtout eu la chance d’avoir réalisé un travail de fin d’études que j’ai beaucoup aimé, me plongeant déjà dans l’univers de la télédétection, dans lequel je devais utiliser des données satellitaires pour étudier l’influence des centres urbains sur l’évolution de l’occupation du sol au Cambodge. Cela condense toute ma passion : l’environnement et les cartes ! Pas seulement, d’ailleurs car dans le cadre de ce travail j’ai pu me rendre moi-même au Cambodge. J’y ai rencontré de nombreuses personnes passionnantes.
Ces recherches se déroulaient déjà sous la houlette de Pierre Defourny, dont le laboratoire extrêmement dynamique m’a beaucoup plu. C’est une des multiples raisons pour lesquelles j’y ai poursuivi mes recherches.

You’re indeed passionate about this research. Why?

In addition to being related to what I studied and what has attracted me for a long time – environmental issues and maps – working on extremely concrete projects and in direct contact with users of the products we develop is extremely stimulating.

I have always had the chance to work on European Space Agency projects. The organisation attaches particular importance to ensuring their projects meet clearly identified needs, and puts us in touch with users as soon as work begins. They stay with us and are regularly reminded to discuss developments. And while I personally like this very concrete aspect of the research enormously, I’m also convinced that it’s one of the key elements of the long-term success of projects.


A glance at Sophie Bontemps's bio

2004: Master’s Degree in Bioengineering, Land Use Planning, UCLouvain
2010: PhD, Agricultural Sciences and Bioengineering, UCLouvain
2007-present: Remote Sensing Research Assistant (land surface mapping, agricultural monitoring), UCLouvain
2013-present: Research and Development Project Leader, UCLouvain/ELI-Geomatics


A glance at Nicolas Bellemans' bio

2012: Bachelor’s Degree in Bioengineering, UCLouvain
2014: Master’s Degree in Bioengineering, Land Use Planning, UCLouvain
2015-18: Research Assistant, Environmetrics and Geomatics Laboratory, UCLouvain/ELI-Geomatics


A glance at Pierre Defourny's bio

1991-93: Researcher, Asian Institute of Technology (UNEP-GRID), Thailand
2004-05: Visiting Scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, USA
2010-15: Founding President, Earth and Life Institute, UCLouvain
2016: Visiting Scientist, CGIAR-CIMMYT, Mexico
1993-present: Professor, UCLouvain, Supervisor of the Environmetrics and Geomatics Laboratory, UCLouvain/ELI-Geomatics

Published on August 20, 2018