UNDER-USED DESPITE their undoubted potential was the view of decision support systems from speakers at the Association of Applied Biologists conference in Oxford.
Without legislation compelling growers to adopt them for environmental reasons the picture seems set to stay the same for some while.
“Very few people in the industry are making practical use of them,” said Caroline Parker of Glasgow Caledonian University.
The picture has changed little in five years, with a whole range of hurdles (see panel) preventing progress, not least persuading growers of their value, she said.
“They are still valuable knowledge transfer tools and we have only just scratched the surface. But they were a bit over-hyped in the past so they have had very poor uptake.
They were aimed at farmers but ended up directed at scientists.”
Dr Parker suggested potential users are put off by the absence of clear savings and the perceived time and hassle involved.
Crop Protection Online, Denmark”s 75% subsidised DSS, which has helped growers cut herbicide use and make useful savings for more than 10 years, is largely driven by the government”s Treatment Frequency Index action plans, admitted Per Rydhal of the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences.
Under the TFI, overall herbicide use has been almost halved since the mid-1980s, but further reductions are required. “Farmers in Denmark have had their arms twisted.”
DSSs in other EU countries, notably France and Germany, are heavily subsided, said David Martin of Cambs-based Plantsystems.
Low profitability, even in the fresh sector where his consulting business is most active, is a big barrier to wider uptake here, he believes. “In the absence of legislation, the success of any DSS rests in its intrinsic value.”
There can be surprising knock-on effects, he added. “Some of our customers have had to double their spraying capacity to be able to respond quickly enough.”
The challenge for developers of tools like DESSAC offspring Arable DS and its Wheat Disease Manager module are that they effectively create new markets, said Silsoe Research Institute”s David Parsons.
“You are not selling into an existing market. The time and effort [involved in using them] must be outweighed by the benefits.”
Bringing together a community of enthusiastic early users to promote the overall DS concept could be the best way ahead, he suggested.
Many DSSs rely on computers and modern electronic communications, an area where only farming”s “geek clique” gets deeply involved, said Tom Allen-Stevens of PR consultancy Mistral LPM.
The record of new tools involving computers and/or the internet, especially those attracting considerable research and funding, is not encouraging, he admitted.
“But I still think there is room for plenty more of these cool tools and on-line innovations.”
BARRIERS TO DSS UPTAKE AND USE
* Computer use & specification
* Data requirements, particularly weather
* Threat to agronomist/consultant
* Inappropriate models
* Integration between systems
* Trust & understanding
* Support & training
* Tailoring of systems
* User interface design
* Time commitment
* User focus [points box]
* Still poor uptake
* Must be cost-effective
* Needs to be trusted
* More environmental drive?