The European Union (EU) introduced new “greening” instruments into the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2015, with the intention to slow the rapid loss of farmland biodiversity. The idea is quite simple: in return to the subsidies they receive, farmers must now implement at least one of three “greening measures”: protect permanent pastures, maintain crop diversity, or set aside Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs). The EFA measure, which was declared as the flagship measure among the three, requires farms with > 15 hectares of arable land to dedicate at least 5% of it to biodiversity-friendly options. Practically, the EU registered 19 different EFA options including setting the land fallow, maintaining buffer strips without agricultural production, or maintaining landscape elements like hedges, traditional stone walls or ponds. Yet production options were listed as well, such as ‘nitrogen-fixing’ crops (e.g. peas, beans or lupine) or ‘catch crops’ like mustard or rape-seed that cover the soil surface over the autumn and winter to prevent soil erosion.
Groups of Trees between fields can serve as important refugia for many animals. Photo by: Sebastian Lakner.
In a paper recently accepted in the journal Conservation Letters, Pe’er et al. evaluated the performance of EFAs in the EU. To inspect the impacts on biodiversity, they collected responses from 88 ecological experts in 17 European countries – who scored the potential effects of the different EFA options from plus 5 (very positive) to minus 5 (very negative). Results from the surveys of experts indicated highest scores for buffer strip, fallow land, and landscape elements. Other EFA options listed in the survey were judged by experts to be rather ineffective, and that benefits to biodiversity are marginal if pesticides are allowed to be used.
Pe’er et al. also assessed the implementation of EFAs by farmers by inspecting uptake in eight EU member states and at the entire EU level, and found that nitrogen-fixing crops, catch crops and fallow land were the most popular – roughly 45%, 27% and 21% of farmers adopted these projects, respectively. On the contrary, Pe’er et al. determined that few farmers had chosen buffer strips or landscape elements for their farms, meaning that around three quarters of all EFA in the EU are managed in a way that brings little or no benefit for biodiversity.
Fallow land and buffer strips, planted with flowering seed mixtures, can be highly beneficial for biodiversity
Photo by: Rainer Oppermann
Pe’er et al. further evaluated why farmers made the decisions about EFAs that they did. They found that farmers are making the most economically rational decision and trying to minimise the risks to them or their land. For example, cultivating catch crops and nitrogen-fixing plants is very attractive because they are simple and cheap to manage. In contract, buffer strips and certain landscape elements are more expensive and even time-consuming to maintain. In some cases, Pe’er et al. found that there are also administrative barriers that farmers face (e.g., if a hedge row belongs to two different farmers). Perhaps most importantly, Pe’er et al. found that EFA options are made unattractive by the complexity of EU regulations attached to them. For example, farmers must register the exact width of a flowering strip, and mis-measurements could cause sanctions on famers who make an error when calculating the width of a strip.
How could “greening” be improved?
Pe’er et al. found that EU farmers already set aside more than 5% of their land to EFAs. Therefore, Pe’er et al. argue that extending the area of EFA from five to seven percent of arable land, as currently being discussed by the EU Commission, will not be enough to significantly improve the situation. Instead they offer 10 recommendations, 5 for the mid-term review (which is to be completed in 2017) and 5 for the CAP beyond 2020. Pe’er et al.‘s key recommendations include: 1) promoting EFA options that bring the greatest benefit for biodiversity, such as buffer strips and landscape elements, while removing or at least limiting the extent of less beneficial options like catch crops; 2) ensuring that buffer strips are included in the list of eligible options in all member states, which is not the case at the moment; and 3) defining clear management criteria, including a ban on pesticides to ensure that EFAs fulfil their official role.
In the longer term, the researchers also question if “greening” is, in fact, the best approach to stop farmland biodiversity loss. Despite long-term debate on the effectiveness of agri-environment measures (AEMs), evidence does show that they have a high potential to support biodiversity if they are well-designed and implemented. Furthermore, since AEMs are based on positive incentives rather than on limitations and regulations, these measures could offer a much better instrument for establishing cooperation and acceptance by farmers. In the long run, the Pe’er et al. recommend either to improve the greening measures using the knowledge acquired through AEM, or preferably, expand the budgets for targeted agri-environment programmes.
Given the heated debate over the mid-term review of the CAP, Pe’er et al. hope that their recommendations will be noted in Brussels, and by the Members States.
Post written by Guy Pe’er, Department of Conservation Biology, UFZ – Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Permoserstr. 15 04318 Leipzig, Germany. Member of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig. You can contact Guy by e-mail: Guy (dot) peer (at) ufz (dot) de.