12.01.2017 |

EU greening rules need to improve to benefit biodiversity and farmers

Hedges as EFA: A biotope network for fauna and flora (Photo: Thomas Hesse)

Ecological Focus Areas, a greening measure of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), are currently implemented in a way that provides little benefit for biodiversity and farmers, new research shows. However, there are many possibilities to improve their effectiveness for biodiversity while overcoming implementation barriers for farmers. These are the findings of a group of scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, the University of Göttingen and other German, Austrian and French institutions, whose study was published in the journal Conservation Letters. Ecological Focus Areas (EFA) were introduced in 2015 as one of CAP’s greening measures: Farms with more than 15 hectares of arable land are required to dedicate at least 5% of this land to EFAs in order to receive payments. On these areas, they can implement measures such as creating buffer strips, maintaining hedges, leaving land lying fallow or planting nitrogen-fixing crops. The researchers looked at the ecological effectiveness and farmers’ perception of these EFA, collecting responses from 88 experts in agricultural ecology from 17 European countries. They also analysed data on EFA uptake at EU level and in eight Member States and reviewed factors influencing farmers’ decisions. They found that the measures implemented by farmers were not those with the most positive impact on nature. “The experts gave highest scores for buffer strip and for leaving the land fallow, indicating that these options are highly profitable for biodiversity,” explained Guy Pe’er, the lead author of the paper. “Landscape elements like hedges or traditional stone walls were also considered by the experts to have positive effects for many species.” However, very few farmers chose buffer strips or landscape elements. Other options were judged as quite ineffective by the experts: “Catch crops or nitrogen-fixing crops like legumes don’t benefit biodiversity much, especially if farmers use pesticides on these areas,” said Pe’er. But these are the two options most popular among farmers, the results showed. Around 45% of the EFA in the EU is used for growing nitrogen-fixing plants while a further 27% is used for catch crops. In Germany, this option even makes up 68% of EFA. “In other words, there was a poor matching between what ecologists recommend and what farmers implement,” said Guy Pe’er. But the authors also stress that they don’t blame farmers for this. “They are simply making the most economically rational decision and trying to minimise the risks involved,” added the agricultural economist Sebastian Lakner of the University of Göttingen. Cultivating catch crops and nitrogen-fixing plants is very attractive because these crops are simple and cheap to manage, whereas buffer strips and certain landscape elements might be more expensive and time-consuming to maintain. According to the scientists, the effectiveness of greening could be improved by prioritizing those EFA options that promote biodiversity such as buffer strips and landscape elements, and remove, or at least limit the attractiveness of less beneficial options like catch crops. In addition, stricter management requirements, such as limiting the use of pesticides on EFA, are needed. “It is of course essential to forbid the use of pesticides on EFA,” said Guy Pe’er. “It makes no sense to harm biodiversity in areas that are explicitly designated to protect it.” Other options include reducing administrative constraints and offering further incentives for expanding options like landscape features and buffer strips. The researchers hope that these recommendations will be considered in preparations for the EU mid-term review of greening, which will take place in March 2017. (ab)

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