The CAP and biodiversity

Two weeks ago I gave a talk at a biodiversity conference organised by Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority. The proceedings of this conference can be downloaded here. The title for my talk was ‘Could European agricultural policy do more to promote biodiversity?‘ In today’s edition of the Irish Farming Independent I have a short article which summarizes the talk. I reproduce the article below and also the presentation accompanying the talk.


The 2013 CAP reform had three overall objectives: viable food production; sustainable management of natural resources and climate action; and balanced territorial development. The emphasis on sustainable management in the second objective was a response to the growing awareness that the twin issues of land abandonment and agricultural intensification lead to severe environmental problems which required an EU policy response.

Among these environmental problems is the growing loss of farmland biodiversity. The recent mid-term review of the EU’s 2020 Biodiversity Strategy concluded that the EU was making no progress towards its target to bring about a measurable improvement in the conservation status of species and habitats that depend on or are affected by agriculture.

Farming has a dual relationship with biodiversity. On the one hand, much of the biodiversity across Europe has been created by farming and its survival is dependent on continued active management of farmland with traditional low-intensity systems. The unique flora of the Burren is a good example.

On the other hand, agricultural intensification often leads to a loss of biodiversity, as wetlands are drained, hedges are removed, fertiliser use is increased and monocultures replace diversified crop rotations.

To address this latter problem, the 2013 CAP reform introduced the greening payment for three practices beneficial for the environment and climate action. These are the requirement to maintain permanent grassland areas, and to have crop diversification and to establish ecological focus areas, or EFAs, on larger arable farms. The EFA measure, in particular, was focused on promoting biodiversity by leaving space for nature and habitats also in more intensively-farmed regions.

Even though 30 per cent of each member state’s direct payments is now allocated to the greening payment, very little additional benefit for the environment will be obtained. In the case of EFAs, for example, a large number of farms are exempt, including all grassland farms as well as smaller arable farms.

More important is that the elements permitted to count towards an arable farm’s EFA have been expanded to include not just fallow land, buffer strips and landscape elements such as trees, hedges, ponds and ditches but also areas sown to legume crops or catch crops. As many farms across Europe already meet these requirements as part of their normal farming practice, the changes are likely to affect less than 1 per cent of the arable area.

However, the biggest problem with EFAs is that farmers, rightly, see the obligation as just another set of bureaucratic hoops to jump through in order to receive the direct payment. There is no link made to encourage active management of the land to maximise the potential for biodiversity, nor to make use of farmers’ knowledge and experience as to what might be the most appropriate measures to take.

By trying to encourage more sustainable land management through the greening payment in Pillar 1, the CAP reform missed the opportunity to put more money into more flexible agri-environment schemes which can be spatially targeted to take account of different needs in different areas and in which farmers can see clearly that they are being paid to supply a valuable public good.

This post was written by Alan Matthews.

Photo credit: Davy Landman via_flickr_cc_by-sa_2.0

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2 Responses to “The CAP and biodiversity”

  1. Richard Auler
    November 4, 2015 at 10:34 #

    Biodiversity is very close to my heart, as an active environmentalist and organic farmer .Yesterday I was standing on top of a 730feet high hill in North Tipperary, with an amazing 360degrees view over many farms and farmland. One thing stud out: a few places where there were no hedges cut. The rest was meticulously manicured, with a spirit level like precision. Most of those “hedges” had no function as fences. So why cant those hedges not be left alone? I have in 32 years on my farm here never cut a hedge, there never was a need, only single branches had been taken out. When REPS 1 one insisted on cutting I re-named my hedges “habitats” and nobody was allowed to touch them. Sorry for the lengthy introduction, but looking at our hedges with different eyes / attitude could do a lot for biodiversity.

  2. Simon Ward
    November 18, 2015 at 17:40 #

    I see the 30% EFA payment as being a step towards diversion of the funds to pillar 2 in the next reform. In Pillar 2 much more intelligent use of the money can be made for enhancing biodiversity and climate change mitigation. However, I suspect industry lobbying is to remove the constraints rather than better use of the cash.

    I believe Pillar 2 should be the more important pedestal. For example, I would argue that we should actively be helping unviable farmers to retrain using pillar 2 money. I see too many tragedies where farmers learn too late that they cannot survive and often have to move into unfamiliar surroundings. Fifty is not often a good time to retrain. We might yet move to a Japanese system where historical ties to the land mean not only penury but a lack of marriage prospects.

    Current EFA measures are hopeless being in many cases both expensive to implement and poor in delivery. Many small arable farms of say 30 ha have always had a rotation but they would be mad to have three crops in any year since none would fill a lorry increasing cost, separate storage would be a nightmare never mind contamination in the field. In any case a reasonable sized arable farmer of say 500ha may well have 30ha blocks with a single crop. The system really needs a shake up and real understanding of farming and biodiversity.

    Incidentally, the hedge cutting argument (above) does not really work. It is a simple matter to look at yield maps on a north side of an east west hedge. The yield loss is often penal. An equally valued argument would be to remove the hedgerow altogether if not needed for the purpose it was created for – although I am sure this would not be politically acceptable.

    It is tragic but I am not convinced policy makers have clear objectives let alone understanding.

    It is not the EU that starves…