The EU is to use new ultrasensitive spy satellites to ensure that farmers are complying with the new single area payments regime. Near earth satellites have been used for some time to detect false claims for arable aid payments or for olive grove subsidies in Italy. The new satellites will be used to ensure that farmers are keeping their land in good environmental and agricultural condition as required by the rules of the new support regime.
The new generation of satellites will provide 'very high resolution' observations that can distinguish features less than a metre across, ten times better than the previous generation of remote-sensing satellites. It will be possible to tell whether farmers are meeting environmental obligations such as maintaining hedges or leaving enough cultivated land to sustain biodiversity around field boundaries. The EC Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, carried out trials of very high resolution monitoring on 15,000 sq km of land last year and 50,000 sq km this year. Next year it expects to roll out an operational programme covering 150,000 sq km, about ten per cent of the EU's total agricultural area.
Although ways of analysing the images by computer are being worked on, the human eye will still be relied on to scrutinise the images for the foreseeable future. Traditional on-the-spot checks by inspectors visiting farms will continue to supplement the satellite monitoring.
For a polity that sometimes claims that it seeks to counter US hegemony, it is somewhat ironic that the project is particularly reliant on the US Quickbird and Ikonos satellites. The whole operation draws attention to the transaction costs of maintaining even a somewhat simplified support regime. The attractions of paying off farmers with a bond scheme remain strong, but such a scheme would be unlikely to attract political support.