Policy ForumAgriculture Policy

EU agricultural reform fails on biodiversity

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Science  06 Jun 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6188, pp. 1090-1092
DOI: 10.1126/science.1253425

In December 2013, the European Union (EU) enacted the reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for 2014–2020, allocating almost 40% of the EU's budget and influencing management of half of its terrestrial area. Many EU politicians are announcing the new CAP as “greener,” but the new environmental prescriptions are so diluted that they are unlikely to benefit biodiversity. Individual Member States (MSs), however, can still use flexibility granted by the new CAP to design national plans to protect farmland habitats and species and to ensure long-term provision of ecosystem services.

EU agriculture.

(Left) Farm sizes are particularly large in Western and Northern Europe and have increased in Western Europe (+27%) and the new MSs (+30%) since 2005. (Left middle) Fertilizer use in new MSs has been increasing in the past decade (other types of agrichemical inputs show similar trends). (Right middle) The Farmland Bird Index (normalized to 1990 levels) declines throughout the EU. (Right) Average crop diversity in different MSs (symbols) compared with the minimum requirements set by the new CAP (horizontal lines). See SM for data sources and details.

Agricultural expansion and intensification are important global drivers of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation (1). In Europe, habitats associated with agriculture, such as grasslands, heathlands, and peatlands, support threatened and declining species and provide important ecosystem services, yet have the worst conservation status among all ecosystems (2). Declines in species richness seem to have slowed for a few taxa in parts of northwestern Europe (3), albeit at a biodiversityimpoverished status quo.

Expansion of the EU and its common market continue driving agricultural intensification in Europe (1, 3). Aided by CAP subsidies, the scale of agricultural operations is increasing throughout the EU [e.g., increasing holding size (see the chart)], with new MSs showing an increase in agrochemical inputs [e.g., fertilizers (see the chart)]. These processes, alongside peatland drainage and abandonment of seminatural grassland in less productive or accessible regions, lead to continuing decline of farmland biodiversity (46) (see the chart).

Certain problems relating to biodiversity decline are addressed through existing EU legislation and policies to protect the environment (e.g., directives on habitats, birds, water, nitrates, and sustainable use of pesticides), but the CAP has a much broader influence on ecosystems in the EU. With a total budget of €362.8 billion (U.S. $495.4 billion) for 2014–2020 (7), it provides finances, policy mechanisms, and control systems with higher environmental impact than all other policies and directives [supplementary materials (SM) part A]. Recognizing the role of the CAP for biodiversity, the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2020 sets Target 3A to “maximise areas […] covered by biodiversity-related measures under the CAP” (8). The CAP reform does not fulfill this target.

THE DILUTION OF AMBITION. When the European Commission launched the latest CAP reform in 2010, it outlined three main challenges: food security, environment and climate change, and maintaining the territorial balance and diversity of rural areas (9). To help address the second challenge, 30% of direct payments to farmers (“Pillar 1”) were to become conditional on compliance with three “greening measures”: establishing Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) on 7% of farmed area, maintaining existing permanent grassland, and growing a minimum of three different crops on any farm with >3 ha of arable land. Yet after 3 years of negotiation (10), these measures now apply to roughly 50% of EU farmland, and most farmers are exempt from deploying them.

EFAs are now set at 5%, instead of 7%, and only on farms with >15 ha of arable land. Countries can reduce the requirement to 2.5% or lower in some regions (SM B). The area threshold exempts at least 88% of EU farms and over 48% of farmed area (table S1). Farms with permanent crops, grasslands, or pastures do not need EFAs. On the other hand, various land uses may qualify as EFAs, including nitrogen-fixing crops, catch crops, short-rotation coppice, and green cover. These land uses could help maintain soil and water quality but are not known to deliver benefits for biodiversity (11). In such a diluted form, and without specific management guidelines, EFAs will likely contribute little to biodiversity.

Permanent grasslands have decreased in cover by 6.4% between 1993 and 2011 in the EU and by 11.8% in new MSs (SM C). The new CAP aims to halt this decline, thereby reducing biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions. But rather than maintaining all permanent grasslands, the reformed CAP allows a reduction of up to 5% in the net area of permanent grasslands at national or regional scales. Further degradation is permitted by the lack of habitat quality and management criteria. MSs are required to identify and protect ecologically valuable grassland within protected sites (“Natura 2000”), but outside these sites, farmers will continue receiving subsidies while converting low-input, extensively managed, species-rich grassland (3) to highly intensified, uniform, species-poor swards (6). The potential to maintain grassland biodiversity is further undermined by incomplete mapping, lack of differentiation among regions and grassland types, and a focus on net area without consideration of continuity and connectivity of existing seminatural grassland parcels.

The crop diversification measure obliges medium (10 to 30 ha) to large (>30 ha) farms to cultivate at least two or three crops, respectively (SM D). Farms with <10 ha of arable area (instead of 3 ha as originally proposed) are exempt, accounting for 92% of arable holdings in new MSs and 13% of arable area across the EU (table S4). Cultivating three crops on large, intensively managed farms is unlikely to enhance biodiversity (11). Moreover, in many MSs these targets are lower than current average crop diversity at the farm scale (see the chart). Combined with the absence of requirements regarding eligible crop types or rotation, this measure is unlikely to deliver benefits to biodiversity or soil quality, or to prevent further landscape homogenization.

Beyond those compulsory measures, the new CAP gives insufficient attention and financial support to sustainable farming in marginal, small-scale, and biodiversity-rich farms. Measures deployed within the framework of the Rural Development Regulation (Pillar 2), especially agri-environment-climate schemes (AESs) that farmers could take up voluntarily, can improve habitat quality and maintain biodiversity when they are well-designed, targeted, and financed (12). Yet funding for Pillar 2 will decrease in absolute terms by 18% from 2013 to 2020 [from €13.9 to 11.4 billion (~U.S. $19) annually, in 2011 prices] compared to a 13% reduction in Pillar 1 budget (7). Although the proportion of Pillar 2 funding earmarked for environmental measures has increased from 25% in the previous CAP period to 30% now, the budget needs to cover other activities, including climate change mitigation, organic farming, and so-called climate and environment investment measures—with potential for both positive and negative impacts on biodiversity (SM E).

MSs have the flexibility to move some budgets from Pillar 1 to 2 (“modulation”) but also vice versa (“reverse modulation”). The latter is already occurring in some MSs (SM E). Moreover, MSs still have to match Pillar 2 payments with national cofunding. Although the requirements for national cofunding were reduced in certain cases compared with the previous funding period, MSs may still lack the budgets required to unlock these resources or may prefer to allocate Pillar 2 funds to measures that are less beneficial for biodiversity. Too few developments in the new Pillar 2 regulations focus on improving cost-effectiveness in terms of uptake and biodiversity outcomes. One important advancement in some MSs, however, is encouraging farmers to act jointly toward achieving landscape-scale targets (see SM E).

Agricultural intensification clearly provides some short-term economic gains for farmers and the food industry. But these have to be weighed against the loss of public goods, such as climate stability (13), landscape quality, and biodiversity (13, 14) with associated environmental, health, and societal costs that are largely externalized from the farming economy. The EU acknowledges the importance of biodiversity through its 2020 biodiversity targets, as well as by endorsing the Aichi targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity, including strategic targets on sustainable agricultural production and consumption (goal 1, targets 4 and 7) and elimination of incentives harmful to biodiversity (target 3) (SM F). These strategic goals, developed from the evidence for the various costs of losing biodiversity and ecosystem services (15), would be undermined if MSs adopt the minimum requirements as set by the reformed CAP.

THE WAY FORWARD. The EU has lost an opportunity to design better guidelines to improve agricultural sustainability. Yet the increased devolution of responsibilities to individual MSs offers flexibility for promoting biodiversity and farmland ecosystems. We provide six recommendations for immediate action by MSs within the CAP implementation (see box) (SM G). In addition, we identify five actions for the EU to consider in its deliberations over the next CAP reform (details in SM H): (i) publish an evidence-based assessment of the CAP's impacts on farmland habitats, species, and ecosystem services, drawing on national-level monitoring as a base for improvements; (ii) increase the EU-wide AES budget, direct it to more effective incentives, and shift to outcome—rather than area-based targets; (iii) improve EFA effectiveness by reducing exemptions, refining management criteria for qualification, and expanding their total area, building on country-level evidence and experience (recommendations 3 and 6 to MSs); (iv) develop longer-term perspectives for more effective and comprehensive protection and restoration of grasslands and peatland; (v) reevaluate the usefulness of the crop diversity measure.

Our recommendations should encourage MSs and the EU to start moving toward more sustainable agriculture, securing food provision alongside biodiversity and ecosystem services for current and future generations.

  • * Author affiliations can be found in supplementary material (SM) on Science Online.

References and Notes

  1. European Environment Agency, EU 2010 Biodiversity Baseline (Tech. Rep. No. 12/2010, EEA, Copenhagen, 2010).
  2. European Environment Agency, The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator: 1990–2011 (Tech. Rep. No. 11/2013, EEA, Luxembourg, 2013).
  3. Directorate-General for Internal Policies, Policy Department B, Note: European Council Conclusions on the Multiannual Financial Framework 2014–2020 and the CAP (European Parliament, Brussels, 2013).
  4. European Commission, Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 (European Commission, Brussels, 2011).
  5. European Commission, The CAP towards 2020: Meeting the food, natural resources and territorial challenges of the future (European Commission, Brussels, 2010).
  6. Acknowledgments: We thank P. Ibisch, T. Vandermaesen, A. Barnett, E. Ellis, L. Podmaniczky, T. Hartel, J. Y. Humbert, M. Liebman, S. Becheva, G. Beaufoy, S. Boldogh, J. Tzanopoulos, J. Hegarty, T. Lancaster, and P. Vorisek for valuable inputs. G.P., K.H., and A.V.S. acknowledge EC FP7 projects SCALES (contract 226852), R.A. was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (31003A-120152) and the Swiss Government; A.A.B. and D.K. acknowledge EC FP7 project LIBERATION (311781); A.A.B. acknowledges MTA Lendület; W.J.S. acknowledges Arcadia; L.V.D. is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NE/K015419/1); The Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme is a joint initiative of the European Bird Census Council and the BirdLife International, funded by the EC and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

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