Indicator Assessment

Agriculture: area under management practices potentially supporting biodiversity

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-158-en
  Also known as: SEBI 020
Created 08 Aug 2014 Published 17 Feb 2015 Last modified 25 Oct 2017
13 min read

Europe has considerable areas of High Nature Value (HNV) farmland, which provide habitats for a wide range of species. Such areas are under threat, however, from both the intensification of farming and land abandonment. The mere presence of HNV farmland is not proof of sustainable management but promoting conservation and sustainable farming practices in these areas is crucial for biodiversity.

Organic farming has developed rapidly since the beginning of the 1990s and continues to do so. Between 2002 and 2011, the total area under organic agriculture in the EU-27 increased by 6% per year and in 2011 amounted to an estimated 5.4% of the utilised agricultural area (UAA) (EC, 2013).

Share of total organic crop area out of total Utilised Agricultural Area

Country comparison
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Percentage change in organic agriculture

Country comparison
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Estimated High Nature (HNV) presence in Europe

Note: How to read the map: Green areas show likelihood to contain primarily HNV land, on the basis of a stratified selection of CORINE land cover clases per country and environmental zone, and national biodiversity data when available. The values in the map are a proxy for the proportion of HNV in each 1 km2 cell, 2012 update.

Data source:

Organic farming aims to be a more environmentally sustainable form of agricultural production, combining best environmental practices and emphasising biodiversity protection and the preservation of natural resources. It also emphasises high animal welfare standards and the avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While there has been rapid development of the organic sector in Europe in recent years, with an increase of around 500 000 hectares per year during the last decade, in 2012 the total area under organic agriculture in the EU-28 was only 5.7% of the total utilised agricultural area in Europe. Most organic farmland is in countries that joined the EU before 2004, in which national and EU legislation have contributed to the development of the sector.

In absolute terms, the countries with the largest areas under organic production are Spain, Italy and France. However, the organic sector is quickly expanding in those countries that joined the EU in or after 2004. These countries registered a 13% annual growth rate in their organically farmed area from 2002 to 2011 and saw their number of holdings increase almost tenfold between 2003 and 2010.

The relative share of organic farming within the total utilised agricultural area gives an indication of the relative importance of the sector at national level. In 2012, the countries with the highest share of organic agriculture were Austria (18.6%), Sweden (15.8%) and Estonia (14.9%), and those with the lowest share were Malta (0.3%), Bulgaria (0.8%) and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (0.9%) (Figure 1).

There is more than a 60-fold difference in the share of organic agriculture amongst countries, arising from a range of natural as well as historical, political, social, economic and environmental factors. Environmental factors include climate, which influences the incidence of pests and therefore the need for pesticides, along with the annual growing conditions and type of crops cultivated and livestock reared.

Historical developments explain part of the variation. For example, in Austria, the country with the highest share of organic agriculture, organic farming has a long history, with the first farms being established in the 1920s. Austria was one of the first countries worldwide to set official guidelines and it has a national policy framework and action plan for organic food and farming. In Bulgaria, a country with one of the lowest shares of organic agriculture, the first intensive activities to develop organic farming began in the 1990s with development of the local market for organic produce and adoption of a national action plan in the mid-2000s.

There is a large variation between countries in the growth of organic production. It has grown in the majority of countries, with Sweden, Czech Republic and Estonia showing the largest growth between 2006 and 2012. Only Portugal and Greece showed a reduction in share in the same period, with the United Kingdom showing no change (Figure 2).

Europe has considerable areas of HNV farmland, which provide habitats for a wide range of species. Such areas are under threat, however, both from intensification of farming and from land abandonment. The mere presence of HNV farmland is not proof of sustainable management but promoting conservation and sustainable farming practices in these areas is crucial for biodiversity.

At European level, distribution patterns of High Nature Value farmland are based on the land cover and biodiversity data approach.

Of Europe's farmland area, an estimated 41.2% share is HNV farmland.

The highest estimated share of HNV farmland in the agricultural area (more than 60%) is observed in Austria, Croatia, Norway and Slovenia as well as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. In Cyprus, Spain, Finland and Poland, HNV farming systems represent between 41 and 60%.

On the other hand, the lowest share of HNV areas is estimated to be in Germany, Denmark, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and Slovakia, where it is between 0 and 20%.




EC, 2013. Facts and figures on organic agriculture in the European Union. Available at: [Accessed 8 April 2014]

EU, 2007. Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 of 28 June 2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products and repealing Regulation (EEC) No 2092/91. Available at: [Accessed 8 April 2014]

Paracchini, M. L.; Petersen, J.-E.; Hoogeveen, Y.; Bamps, C.; Burfield, I. and van Swaay, C., 2008. High Nature Value Farmland in Europe - An estimate of the distribution patterns on the basis of land cover and biodiversity data. JRC Scientific and Technical Reports. Available at: [Accessed 8 April 2014]

Supporting information

Indicator definition

This indicator is based on two sub-indicators and shows trends in area (as proportion of the total utilised area) of two categories of agricultural land that are not mutually exclusive:

 a. High nature value farmland area.
 b. Area under organic farming.

a.'High nature value farmland area' (ha) indicates the area where farming systems are sustaining a high level of biodiversity. They are often characterised by extensive farming practices, associated with a high species and habitat diversity or the presence of species of European conservation concern.

b.'Area under organic farming' (ha) indicates trends in the organic farming area and the share of the organic farming area in the total utilised agricultural area. Farming is only considered to be organic at the European Union (EU) level if it complies with Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007, which provides a comprehensive framework for production of crops and livestock; labelling, processing and marketing of organic products; and the import of organic products into the EU.


Note: This indicator comprises two elements: a quality parameter (distribution of high nature value farmland) and a response parameter (area under agri-environment and organic farming). Both are relevant for an assessment of environmental sustainability although they are not necessarily linked.


hectares (ha)


Policy context and targets

Context description

a. High nature value farmland area

High nature value farmland areas mostly coincide with traditional or extensive agricultural systems. They have one or more of following characteristics:

  • dominated by semi-natural vegetation;
  • dominated by a mosaic of different low intensity agricultural land uses, and natural and structural elements,
  • hosting rare species or supporting a high proportion of their European or global populations.

Loss of high nature value farmland is a result of intensification, abandonment and urbanisation.

b. Area under organic farming

By caring for the whole system, organic farming generally favours biodiversity (Hole et al. 2005), though more productive farming systems may also support opportunities for biodiversity.

Recent literature reviews provide more information on the environmental impacts of organic agriculture compared with conventional management systems. The results are not always unambiguous: the environmental benefits of organic farming are most clearly documented for biodiversity and for water and soil conservation, but there is no clear evidence of reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Organic agriculture is likely to have a more positive environmental impact in areas with highly intensive agriculture than in areas with low input farming systems. The regional uptake of organic farming has so far been concentrated in extensive grassland regions where fewer changes are needed to convert to organic farming than in regions dominated by intensive, arable farming, where the benefits would be greater (EEA 2005).


Relation of the indicator to the focal area

The area of High Nature Value farmland indicates an area that, historically, has been managed at low intensity and not been converted to intensive farming. This area represents important biodiversity in agricultural systems.

Organic farming, which may be low or high intensity, is contributing to sustainable management in that it does not negatively impact on systems outside the area under organic farming, and although it does not necessarily benefit above ground biodiversity, it does benefit soil biodiversity in comparison with intensive agriculture.


EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy - target 3

Related policy documents

  • EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy
    in the Communication: Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 (COM(2011) 244) the European Commission has adopted a new strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. There are six main targets, and 20 actions to help Europe reach its goal. The six targets cover: - Full implementation of EU nature legislation to protect biodiversity - Better protection for ecosystems, and more use of green infrastructure - More sustainable agriculture and forestry - Better management of fish stocks - Tighter controls on invasive alien species - A bigger EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss


Methodology for indicator calculation

a. High nature value farmland area

1) selection of land cover classes made up primarily of HNV land in the different environmental zones in Europe;

2) refinement of the map obtained in point 1) on the basis of additional expert rules (e.g. relating to altitude, soil quality) and country specific information;

3) addition of the biodiversity data layers (NATURA 2000, IBA - on the basis of indicator species and selected habitats only);

4) testing/adding national biodiversity data sets.

b. Area under organic farming

Calculation of the indicator per country/per region: Eurostat holds the statistical data of the organic farming questionnaire.

Methodology for gap filling

No methodology for gap filling has been specified. Probably this info has been added together with indicator calculation.

Methodology references



Methodology uncertainty

• The data on HNV farmland presented here aim to show the distribution of HNV farmland areas in Europe, based on a consistent methodology for all countries. To compare data with the same characteristics, the estimated share of HNV farmland is calculated on the basis of total agricultural area as derived from Corine Land Cover (CLC) 2006 agricultural classes, plus identified HNV areas outside these classes. However, the use of CLC data leads to certain data artefacts in some countries or regions, in spite of refined selection criteria and the inclusion of additional biodiversity data sets. Further refinements on the basis of national datasets would be advantageous in several regions.

Data sets uncertainty

In general, this approach faces two crucial constraints: i) uncertainty in the data on the distribution and extent of HNV farmland in different countries; and ii) ability to find comparable data for agricultural land. In the context of the monitoring and evaluation framework of the Rural Development 2007-2013 Programmes, DG AGRI has issued guidelines for reporting on HNV farmland and forestry indicators, to support Member States wishing to make use of a national definition for this indicator, and to develop the indicator further to include aspects of the HNV concept not covered so far.

Rationale uncertainty


a. High nature value farmland area

  • Even if Corine Land Cover is updated every 5/6 years instead of the initial 10 year cycle, the regularity is not considered sufficient for monitoring area changes.
  • Current European level data sets only allow for the provision of area estimates at NUTS2 level.

b. Area under organic farming

Proxy-indicator: there is a reasonable correlation between organic farming and biodiversity, but there are exceptions as organic farms can also be intensively managed (even without chemical inputs). Therefore it may be necessary to consider selecting a sub-set of organic farms only, e.g. mixed farms.

The area under organic farming does not give the total area of agriculture managed with biodiversity in mind, as biodiversity concerns can also be integrated into non-organic farming.

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: State
Typology: Policy-effectiveness indicator (Type D)
Indicator codes
  • SEBI 020
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled once per year and every 6 years
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage