Experience and preferences of DSTs

Current uptake of DSTs

The degree of experience with and the frequency of uptake of DSTs vary by country as well as within actor groups. However, the uptake of DSTs among farmers and advisers appears to generally be dependent on four factors: (1) relative novelty of DSTs and their emergence only within the last 10-15 years; (2) production orientation and farm size; (3) financial constraints and level of computer literacy; and (4) the impractical, overly complex nature of available DSTs.

Formats, features and examples of available DSTs

Preferences regarding the DST format differ according to age, with older farmers generally preferring written formats and younger farmers feeling comfortable with newer technological formats. Printed materials and the use of maps are prioritized in all represented countries. Online or computer tools offer additional flexibility and allow the possibility to be regularly updated, but run the risk of excluding certain user groups. Additional formats evoke more divided opinions, e.g. recommendation tables, SMS services, smart phone use and one-to-one advice. A toolbox approach is therefore appropriate.

Effective DSTs require a user-friendly and concise interface, be easy-to-use, time efficient and accessible. Personalizing tools for different regions and farm systems is also important. A DST must ultimately balance simplicity for the user with accurate results (complexity) and ease of use.

Barriers and potential for future DST usage

Effective dissemination and implementation of DSTs are challenging. The issues of time and short versus long-term perspectives also threaten DST usage amongst targeted user groups. Scientific ambiguity and a perceived high degree of uncertainty about carbon dynamics, lack of knowledge about climate change and mitigation practices, as well as lacking skills and information at farm level to provide input in the DST are further barriers. Nonetheless, DSTs are seen as relevant tools for communicating issues and improving knowledge among stakeholders, and for addressing the barriers between research and day-to-day farming practices. The latter requires a reframing of the issues in terms which are more relevant and approachable for all target users. Creating venues for feedback and enhanced education/skills training were also prioritized by respondents in order to optimise potential use.

Integration of tools

The presence of integrated decision support tools varies greatly by case study countries, with the UK having the most examples of such tools. Several other countries cited the lack of integration to date as a result of limited interest, finances and incentives. Ideas for where integration should or could potentially take place included collaboration between national and European projects and harmonizing activities and tools between research and industry.

Expectations for a SmartSOIL tool

Respondents ranked possible content for the SmartSOIL tool, prioritizing the following issues: (1) a priority list of practices which are most cost effective for optimal carbon sequestration; (2) real life case studies of farmers using certain practices; and (3) best practice examples for how to promote a certain practice. Moreover, respondents emphasized the need to frame soil carbon management as an element of sustainable soil management and in terms of production efficiencies, rather than place too much emphasis on carbon management on its own. In particular, the need to integrate topics such as fertilizer, nutrient use, grazing intensity, soil compaction, soil and sward damage, and pesticide use was raised.

Similar to the views regarding DSTs in general, format preferences for a SmartSOIL tool are varied. The format should therefore be determined in relation to specific target groups and the issues at hand. DSTs aimed at farmers should focus on ease of use, while tools directed at advisors can incorporate more complex formats and outputs.  

The consultation shows that adopting a toolbox approach rather than developing a single overarching SmartSOIL tool is likely to be a more effective approach and that careful consideration must be given to how soil carbon management is framed as part of sustainable soil management. The potential for integration with other tools and the maintenance beyond the life-span of the project needs to be assessed. The possible role of SmartSOIL toolbox as an awareness-raising tool and a tool to facilitate societal debate and decision-making beyond farm level needs to be considered when developing both the toolbox and dissemination activities. SmartSOIL is seen to offer a unique opportunity to coordinate and combine a variety of current initiatives and provide a forum for debate on sustainable soil management.