Environmental conditions and farming systems vary within and across OECD countries and, consequently, best farm management practices vary from one region to another. Farm management decisions are influenced by environmental regulations, agricultural support measures, investments in research, education and extension services and site-specific environmental conditions. Information on farm management practices, and how these practices affect the environment and meet compulsory, regulatory or voluntary standards, is an important tool for policy makers.
There can be trade-offs in implementing environmentally sound management practices. Reducing soil erosion, for example, whereby farmers move from conventional to reduced or no-tillage in crop production, can be achieved if weeds are controlled with herbicides. An environmental side-effect of these practices is a likely change in water movement in the soil, with no-tillage leading to increasing infiltration and percolation of nutrients such as nitrate to the water table compared with conventional tillage. In addition, the increase in herbicide use may cause pesticide leaching. Thus, the objective of lowering soil erosion through no-tillage may lead to some negative environmental effects.
Indicators and recent trends
Farm management indicators have the potential to help policy makers take into account the linkages and trade-offs between different management practices and their impact on the environment, including: whole farm management involving the overall farming system; and farm management aimed at specific practices related to nutrients, pests, soils, and irrigation.
Concerning whole farm management indicators, the share of farms with environmental whole farm plans is increasing, but cross-country data are limited. Also the share of agricultural area under organic farming has increased significantly over the past ten years, but from a very low base and with wide variations among OECD countries. Many countries now encourage conversion to and maintenance of organic farming by providing financial compensation to farmers for any losses incurred during conversion.
Nutrient management indicators include the share of farms with nutrient management plans and the frequency of soil nutrient tests. Although many countries have developed nutrient management plans, there is little quantitative information available, however, and soil tests are conducted in most OECD countries at regular intervals.
Pest management indicators measure the share of cultivated agricultural area that is not treated with pesticides and the share of cultivated agricultural area under integrated pest management. Based on limited information, for a few countries it appears both practices have been used more widely during the 1990s.
Soil and land management indicators measure the number of days in a year that the soil is covered with vegetation. The greater the cumulative soil cover, the greater the protection from soil erosion, compaction and run-off and the contribution, in general, to biodiversity. Many OECD countries have policy initiatives to increase soil cover and promote environmental land management practices. In a number of countries, soil cover days have increased since the mid-1980s and now exceed 250 days per year, but in a few countries the number of days of soil cover has decreased.
Irrigation and water management indicators measure the share of irrigation water applied by different irrigation technologies, from the least efficient methods (e.g. flooding) to technologies (e.g. drip-emitters) that use water more efficiently. For the few countries where information on changes in irrigation technologies exist, this suggests a shift toward technologies that use water more efficiently. Moreover, water is not considered a scarce resource in many OECD countries and consequently issues related to irrigation efficiency are of less importance in those countries.