How Europe's agriculture can boost biodiversity
Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) plays a key role in halting biodiversity loss by preventing land abandonment and intensification, while accommodating the wider socio-economic and climatic trends that affect Europe's rural areas. Seventh in the series of '10 messages for 2010', the EEA's new assessment on agricultural ecosystems recommends that policy promote creating and maintaining more diverse agricultural landscapes. After all, healthy agro-ecosystems are a necessity for high and sustained productivity.
Until the latest reforms, the CAP's primary focus was on the quantity of food produced. This accelerated the spread of intensive farming practices in more productive land and the abandonment of the less productive areas. Both of these trends have adversely affected biodiversity and have not yet been reversed despite the introduction of agri-environment measures.
Although intensively farmed land supports a certain level of biodiversity, it generally lacks significant areas of 'High Nature Value', which are essential for preserving biodiversity. Europe's more traditional, low-intensity farming systems with high nature value are gradually disappearing. Even when abandoned, agricultural land is often replaced by less diverse vegetation or forest.
Key trends and policy suggestions
- Biodiversity underpins processes and ecosystem services essential for agriculture, such as soil formation, pest control, maintaining soil fertility and regulating the water cycle.
- Pressures on soil biodiversity are increasing. Soil erosion is exacerbated by human activities such as overexploitation of agricultural land.
- From 1980 to the mid-1990s, common farmland bird populations fell by almost 50 %. Since then their populations seem to have levelled off. Grassland butterfly populations have decreased by 60 % since 1990 and the decline is continuing.
- Mechanisation, drainage and introduction of irrigation crops have simplified the agricultural landscape and cleared small woodlands, ponds and hedges to allow heavy machinery to move. Re-introducing such buffering elements into intensely farmed systems would create a more diverse landscape, providing a mosaic of habitats and thereby boosting biodiversity.
- Intensive farming has also favoured genetically uniform crops and livestock breeds vulnerable to pests and diseases. Long and diverse crop rotations, diverse regional distribution of crops and selecting crops better matched to the natural fertility of the soil could all contribute to fostering biodiversity, while maintaining a high level of productivity.
- The upcoming CAP reform offers a good opportunity to address existing shortcomings and integrate biodiversity issues more effectively.