In publica commoda

Press release: Can the greening be greener?

Nr. 3/2017 - 11.01.2017

EU greening rules can provide a lot more for nature and farmers

(pug) In 2015, the European Union (EU) introduced a new greening instrument into the Common Agricultural Policy, with the intention of slowing down the rapid loss of biodiversity in agricultural areas. The idea is quite simple: in return to the subsidies they receive, farmers must implement measures to protect wild animals and plants on their land. A group of scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), the University of Göttingen and other research institutions has examined how effective the flagship greening measure – called Ecological Focus Areas – really is. Their conclusions, now published in the scientific journal Conservation Letters, are sobering: Ecological Focus Areas are implemented in a way that provides little benefit for biodiversity or farmers, and yet come at a high price for tax payers. However, there are many possibilities to improve the measure for the benefit of all sides.

The biodiversity of European farmland has declined markedly in recent decades. In an attempt to stop this decline, the EU introduced a new instrument in its most recent reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. With new “greening” requirements, farmers since 2015 have had to implement certain environmental protection measures in return for the payment they receive (which in Germany is around 86 euros per hectare). There are three main areas of greening: maintaining permanent grassland, increasing the diversity of crops planted and dedicating a certain percentage of land as Ecological Focus Areas (EFA). Quite a few farmers have rejected the new instruments as being too complicated to implement, while many ecologists in turn don’t consider the EFA ambitious enough.

In preparation for the mid-term review of greening in March 2017, these discussions are beginning to heat up again. Therefore, the researchers scrutinized the performance of EFA by collecting responses from 88 experts in agricultural ecology from 17 European countries. “We wanted to know, first of all, what experts think of EFA in terms of biodiversity,” says leading author Dr. Guy Pe’er from the UFZ. “The experts gave highest scores for buffer strip and for leaving the land fallow, indicating that these options are highly profitable for biodiversity.” Landscape elements like hedges or stone walls were also considered to have positive effects for many species. On the other hand, catch crops or nitrogen-fixing crops don’t benefit biodiversity much, especially if farmers use pesticides in these areas.

“However, these two options proved to be highly popular among farmers,” adds agricultural economist Dr. Sebastian Lakner from the University of Göttingen. This was the finding of the second part of the study, in which the researchers analysed data from agricultural ministries in eight EU member states as well as from each of the German federal states. Their results showed that around 45 percent of the EFA in the EU is used for growing nitrogen-fixing plants. A further 27 percent is used for catch crops; in Germany, this option makes up as much as 68 percent of all EFA. Fallow land, covering around 21 percent of EFA, was the only option considered worthwhile implementing by both ecologists and farmers.

In contrast, very few farmers chose buffer strips or landscape elements, which can be highly beneficial for biodiversity. “In other words, there was a poor matching between what ecologists recommend and what farmers implement,” says Dr. Pe’er. This means that overall, currently around three quarters of all EFA in the EU are managed in a way that brings little or no benefit for biodiversity.

“We don’t lay any blame on the farmers for this,” emphasizes Dr. Lakner. “They are simply making the most economically rational decision and trying to minimize the risks involved.” Cultivating catch crops and nitrogen-fixing plants is very attractive because they are simple and cheap to manage, while buffer strips and certain landscape elements are more expensive and time-consuming to maintain. In addition to administrative barriers, several EFA options are made unattractive by the complexity of EU regulations attached to them.

Therefore, the researchers provide several mid- to long-term recommendations, suggesting certain options should be promoted, while others should be removed or at least limited. They also question if greening is in fact the right approach to stop biodiversity loss in our countryside. They propose expanding the budgets for targeted agri-environment programmes in order to make them agreeable and practical for farmers to implement.

Original publication: Guy Pe’er et al. Adding Some Green to the Greening: Improving the EU’s Ecological Focus Areas for Biodiversity and Farmers. Conservation Letters 2016.

Dr. Sebastian Lakner
University of Göttingen
Department for Agricultural Economics and Rural Development

Dr. Yves Zinngrebe
University of Göttingen
Department for Agricultural Economics and Rural Development

Dr. Guy Pe‘er
Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)
Department of Conservation Biology