Friday, September 28, 2012

Switzerland : agricultural policy reform passed

Last week I commented the up-coming agricultural reform in Switzerland, see On Wednesday, the reform was accepted by the parliament. There will not be any subsidy per animal anymore, but the subsidy will be area based. Expected impact of this policy change is to reduce the over production of milk and meat.

 Tagesschau  vom 26.09.2012

Clearly the farmers who have invested in modern livestock farm and who need to pay back their credit will be the looser, the low-input farmers the winners.
As a compromise, the parliament increase money that is made available to the agricultural sector. The amount of subsidy stays the same. The additional money should be made available in form of credits to allow farmers to transit in the new system. I wonder if this will really help the farmer who already has taken up a lot of credit and who is stuck in an industrialized agriculture...
Switzerland now has definitely a more sustainability oriented agricultural policy, that still provides the highest support to farmers in Europe. I am curious to see how the Swiss agricultural sector will adjust!
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Sunday, September 23, 2012

What went wrong with the Swiss agricultural policy?

Last week has been a hot week in the Swiss parliament. The agricultural policy revision was on the agenda.
There is no doubt, the agricultural sector Europe wide has been liberalized despite of the still very high level of subsidies (in Switzerland more then 60% of the farmer's income comes through subsidies) Milk quotas have been abolished, barriers to trade are continuously decreased. What is the effect of this market liberalization? Farmers faced low prices and therefore started to produce more pushing prices even lower. Today Switzerland produces more milk and sugar beets then ever.
On the top of this, Swiss agricultural policies are still based the idea of industrialization of agriculture (a policy that emerged after World War II to insure food security) and gives incentives to farmers to produce even more.
Today's debate is about making agricultural policies that do not support industrialization anymore and that focus on much more sustainable production. The total amount paid to the agricultural sector should remain at the same level, but the distribution of the money will become different. The subsidy per animal for example should be abolished.

In principle a low input agriculture would allow to produce high quality food for the Swiss and European market. This type of agriculture would be much more sustainable. 

ECO vom 17.09.2012
The farmer in this movie explains how he organized his low input system. He makes use of nature and his animals to reduce mechanization. His cows are grazing on the meadow. Compared to an intensive system, he does not need to carry the grass to the farm nor to bring the manure back saving on fuel for the tractor and reducing the CO2 emission. Thanks to grazing land management, he has the right amount and quality of grass when needed, and his cows produce about 30 liters of milk per day which within the average without using soya (that is one of the major reason for deforestation) or other fodder than produced on his farm.
He also has a small amount of pigs he feeds with input produced on his farm at zero cost. The stable is organized in such a way that animal warmth stays within and no electricity for heating is possible. Again saving money and improve sustainability.
When the new policy comes, he will be a winner, with his low input system, he will get more subsidies for his environmentally friendly production.

All in whole, the new policy setting incentives for more a more sustainable agriculture. It sets the incentive for a more traditional (opposed to industrialized production) which corresponds to what society wants. Less production will also restore normal prices allowing all farmers to benefit.

So why all these discussions for something that looks so optimal and urgent? Many "model farmers" who were praised years ago as innovative because they invested into a modern and industrialized agriculture are going to loose. They have invested in more machine, bigger stables and are today trapped. They need to pay back the credits that enabled them to mechanize and industrialize their production. It is understandable that those farmers that have followed the policies and strategy of the government now stand up and refuse to loose. Therefore, the change towards low input agriculture should be slow, allowing to farmers to adjust.

This movie is an interesting interview with the the president of the Swiss farmer organization, debating if the new policy will increase or decrease the farmers' income. For sure is only that the new subsidy scheme will change the distribution, and there will be losers and winners. 

Next week the debate will continue in the parliament. It's going to be a hot week in Bern !

Monday, September 17, 2012

Human made nature? The story of Rieselfelder nature conservation area

During the Geostat meeting (, an excursion to the Rieselfelder area a meadow bird conservation area near Muenster was organized. It is one of these areas where human have accidentally shaped a landscape that turned out to conserve nature. A nice example of how unexpected rural areas developments shape the current European rural landscape. 
The major and regulation pond
Rieselfelder used to be shaped by sewage farming. Beginning of the century, the waste water of Muenster were directed to Rieselfelder, where the waste water was used to fertilize the land. As the city of Muenster grew, more and more waste water was directed to the area and farming became impossible in the middle of the century. Only in the late seventies the city of Muenster put an waste water plant into operation. In the meantime, waste water continued flowing into the abandoned Rieselfelder area. The waste water laid there and create small ponds full of mud and prevented tree and shrubs to grow. The openness of the landscape and also the nutritious mud attracted many meadow birds who found there the peace for breeding and abundant food, in a time where these types of landscape disappeared from the European map. 
A smaller pond
Today, after several attempt to transform the Rieselfelder area into an industrial zone, it finally became a nature conservation area under the European bird directive. It is formed of several ponds with rids where meadow bird find the safety and silence to breed. The recycled water from the waste water plant flows into the biggest pond, that also serves as a reservoir. During the summer, the water from the reservoir is used to fill the other small ponds making sure that the area stays wet enough. The decreasing level of water in the reservoir during this period results in a bigger muddy zones, which insures that the meadow bird find sufficient food during the breeding time. 
The regulation point of the major pond/reservoir
The whole area has also been well planned for recreation and attracts the city dwellers who less than 10 km from the town center find a place to relax, without disturbing the breeding meadow birds. Also the biological field station offers children program so that every child regardless of her/his background can discover nature. The biological field station also maintains the area with some employees and many volunteers and collect data about meadow birds. 

It is an interesting story showing that the lack of urban planning has created an environment that on other location has disappeared and has become today one of the crucial nodes in Europe for migrating birds : a multifunctional landscape worth a visit and some thoughts about the human nature interaction.
More info can be found under
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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Is there such a thing as a free lunch? a reflection on open source GIS

An ArcGIS software license cost about 1400$ per year per computer. Despite of its high cost, it is the most used software for mapping and geo-data analysis. In developing countries, this is an unbearable cost and most GIS specialists work with pirated software. It is a matter of time until ESRI (the company that distributes the ArcGIS software) will start suing organization lacking legal in licenses even in developing countries (something that already happens in the developed world).
Open source software offer a free alternative to the ESRI products ( Open source software is software which code is freely available and therefore any modification of the code has to be shared freely. User and developer communities work together in developing the software thanks to forums, wiki and meetings. In short, it is nonprofit software.
Last week I joint the Geostat 2012 in Muenster, Germany ( It is the European summer school (All classes have been recorded and can be streamed on the geostat website) followed by the meeting of the developers for open source GIS. It was for me the occasion to familiarize myself with the latest development in open source GIS (not yet released code), in spatial analysis, but also to familiarize myself with the existing open source GIS software (the stable version) and make up my mind about their usefulness in a developing world context, where users often have only very little GIS background. 

participants testing out some R code

During the week I discovered how to use R (the open source version of Matlab, a statistical program) as GIS, Grass and Saga (both open source GIS). R is a relatively low level programing language, which needs initial investment to learn the coding language. Its spatial base package (SP developed by trainers of the summer school) and a whole other range of spatial package offer an amazing range of option to analyses spatial data. Visualization of data is feasible but reminds far behind the easy and good looking options given by ESRI. Also after one afternoon of programing with some R freaks, we did not manage to read and overlay two of my own maps L (mainly because projections and extend have to match). The most recent code development allow to link R with google earth for visualization, including the spatio-temporal visualizations. Other code recently developed or in development allow for spatio-temporal data analysis and data dissagragation (downscaling).

Grass is an open source software that has been initially developed for linux, but it is made compatible to all other operating systems and even got a relatively nice graphical user interface (GUI). It stays that the most efficient way to work with this software is to use the command window like with R. Unfortunately the nice options, such as easy copy paste, the automatic protocoling of work done, and the function history which allows to recall all the commands ever applied on a dataset are features that only work in the linux version, leaving the Microsoft user in a much less efficient environment. Also the graphical representation of data, the ease to change legends, colors and titles is relatively clumsy. Nonetheless, Grass comes with a set of amazing feature that the ArcGIS software will only offers years from now and probably at high costs. Among others Grass includes a new algorithm to compute water flow and therefore delineate basin without using the tradition “fill sink” opens, amazing 3D visualizations (available on Arc for an additional 3800 $ license), an up-coming spatio-temporal analysis tool (I have never worked this this type of data, I don’t really know what Arc offers, but I guess the base license will never allow manage spatio-temporal data so efficiently), terrain analysis tool and for the upcoming Grass 7 (to be released probably in about a year) will come with a tool that allows to compare two maps by swiping over it (an amazing visualization tool that will allow to show stakeholders in an easy way different spatial alternatives.) 

Similarly SAGA GIS offers a whole range of tools, 3D visualizations and terrain(working with point clouds) that are incomparable to what Arc offers. Saga runs directly without installation from any external storage devise. The GUI is smartly organized and once the logics of it is well understood, allows to perform manipulations efficiently. But here again the layout options are very limited and it is difficult to come up with maps that looks as good as those easily produced in ArcGIS.
Both Grass and Saga can be linked to R, allowing to combine the statistical power of R with GIS tools and algorithm developed by the open source GIS software. 
A SAGA 3D visualization of Innsbruck

In the developing world, the first objective is to train people to make simple geo-data analysis, to represent graphically geodata without great theoretical background. The open source options I have discovered last week require users that understand geographical data very well (no projections on the fly like in Arc), the layout options for producing good looking maps are limited, and often the GUIs are not as user friendly that the one from ArcGIS. None of the program I have seen really convinced me as an alternative of Arc GIS for stakeholders in the developing world. Other open source software exist that might mimic the Arc GIS option in terms of visualization, such as MapWindow or Qgis. It might be worth to look into these options.
The open source options nonetheless have convinced me as a scientist. Today, I combine stata, excel and ArcGIS, copy manually values, run simulation almost manually. If I make a mistake somewhere, it takes days to rerun. In principle all could be programmed with one R code that calls for data and routines with it owns suite of packages but also those from the open source software. It would decrease source of errors and allow to rerun code quickly in case of mistake. Also open source comes with a community of developer that support user and love to take up the challenges brought up by users. Therefore, features and tools might be up-coming faster than with ESRI. 
Tom and Gerard, two lecturers (and organizers) from Wageningen University

Definitely, there is no such a thing as a free lunch. Open source GIS comes with amazing computational options and GIS analysis for free, with an amazing community of support full of very nice people. But it comes with relatively high cost. It is a relatively steep learning curve for reaching a decent level of programming language. It needs a lot of patience to adjust the settings of one’s computer to make the software run, especially for Microsoft users who need to learn how to trick their system, and accept that some fancy stuff is simply not possible, because one cannot change the Microsoft code. It is definitely not what a stakeholder who wants to produce some simple map in the developing world is looking for. I guess one needs to hide a little nerd in one’s heart to take up the open source challenge … 
one of the social evenings with beers and sausages
Finally, I had a very good week. Not only did I learn about recent developments in open source GIS, but also that computer programmer are not autistic nerds with no social life. On the contrary, I met amazingly interesting, sociable and funny people. I would like to thank the organizer for the very smooth organization, for the trainers for sharing their passion and all the participants for the support and patience when my R was again sending an error message and for all the nice social evenings…