Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
8 min read
Photo: © Virgolici Raluca/EEA

European agriculture — 40% of the land — serves societal demands for food production, pollination and energy. Long-observed environmental impacts are mixed: decreasing GHG emissions, less pesticide use but exceedance of nutrients, diffuse pollution to water and dramatic loss of grassland biodiversity.

There are fewer farmers and less arable land but demand for food is growing. Europe faces a continuous challenge to reconcile low environmental impact, food security and the viability of rural societies. 


Agriculture has shaped Europe's landscapes for thousands of years and it still is one of the principle sectors impacting on Europe's environment. Since the 1950s, traditional farm management, which favoured a range of landscapes, habitats and plant and animal species, was replaced by a rapid industrialisation of agriculture characterised by a wide-spread intensification of farming methods. These were often subsidized. This has resulted in farm specialisation, increased use of chemical inputs and machinery as well as open and homogeneous landscapes. Concurrently, remaining agricultural land with natural constraints has been subjected to marginalisation and abandonment. This is also as a result of wider socio-economic changes in the rural communities.

These parallel phenomena have caused a significant decline in biodiversity across European farmland, including the genetic diversity of crops and livestock, and exerted various other pressures on Europe's environment. Nutrient emissions to air and water have caused eutrophication of habitats and ecosystems. Intensification has often had undesirable impacts on soils, often leading to reductions in organic soil matter and biodiversity, contamination of groundwaters and less productive land. Europe's agriculture has received sustained support under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) over the last 50 years. This support has evolved over time, spurred by the growing recognition of agriculture's impacts on the environment. Unfortunately, the CAP had not changed sufficiently to reduce overall biodiversity loss.[1]

Today European farming systems serve different societal demands. The provision of food, however, remains their primary function. Food security, i.e. stable access to affordable food supply of sufficient quality, continues to receive renewed attention on the European Union's (EU) policy agenda. Farming and rural land management also provide other crucial and often under-appreciated ecosystem services (such as pollination, pest control or nutrient recycling) and functions such as flood prevention and cultural benefits.

The recent CAP reform for the period 2014 to 2020 aims to respond to the three main challenges facing the sector: economic, environmental and territorial. The reform may be broadly summarised as guaranteeing food security and improving environmental performance in rural areas which are faced with large-scale competition for land, reflecting rapid changes in the socio-economic situation. An important feature of the new CAP is the recognition that farmers should be rewarded for the services they provide to the public even though they might not have a market value.

Key trends

The long-term sustainability of agriculture and the ability of agro-ecosystems to provide services beyond food production is being undermined by environmentally-harmful farming practices. These cause soil degradation and water contamination, as well as declines in pollinators, the loss of natural biological control of pests and diseases, and of plant and animal genetic diversity.[2][3]

Currently agriculture covers roughly 40% of land in the EU. Land cover changes between 2000 and 2006 show that farmland gave way to built-up areas and forest, either through afforestation or spontaneous growth on abandoned land. Most of the agricultural land in Europe converted to artificial surfaces is taken up by the housing sector (38%).[4] Despite the decrease in the total area of farmland, productivity of European agriculture increased significantly, particularly in the second half of the 20th century as a result of intensification and specialisation.

The total number of farmers in Europe was halved between 1990 and 2010. For several decades, the number of farms in the EU has been on a downward trend. Average farm size is now bigger in terms of agricultural area as well as in economic terms. However, farming in Europe is still carried out primarily on small or very small holdings.[5]

Agricultural production contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, via methane produced by livestock and emissions from agricultural soils. However, emissions from the agricultural sector have declined by 22% since 1990.

Although there are strong national differences, overall pesticide use across Europe declined in the period 2000–2009. New pesticides in use, whose active ingredients are more concentrated, lead to a decline in volume of pesticide use without a subsequent decline in environmental impact.[6]

The implementation of the Nitrates Directive and the introduction of set-aside measures have stabilised pollution from nutrients and pesticides. This has reduced the environmental pressures on soil, water and air.[7] Despite an overall decrease in nitrogen emissions from agriculture, nutrient levels still exceed nutrient critical loads in most of the EU.[8] However, set-aside measures have now been abandoned as an EU policy instrument.

Agricultural nitrogen balances are declining but they are still high in some countries, particularly in lowland western Europe. Many water bodies, particularly in regions with intensive agriculture and high population density, suffer from 'diffuse pollution' (i.e. pollution caused by variety of activities which have no specific point of discharge). The resulting eutrophication can manifest in biodiversity loss, increase in algae and reduced oxygen levels.[6]

Figure 1: Common birds in Europe  population index

Despite progress in enacting and implementing European policies (such the Birds and Habitats Directives and the Water Framework Directive) as well as the environmental measures within the framework of CAP, Europe has experienced a major decline in biodiversity associated with agro-ecosystems and grasslands.[1] A recent reporting process on the conservation status of species and habitats under the Habitats Directive, showed that 63% of the assessments of habitats linked to grasslands are unfavourable. Only 11% of the conservation status assessments of species linked to grasslands is favourable.

Since 1990, common farmland birds have declined by 30% in Europe (Figure 1). This has been linked to increased specialisation and intensification as well as habitat loss. Between 1990 and 2011, populations of grassland butterflies declined by almost 50%, indicating a dramatic loss of grassland biodiversity (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Grassland butterfly indicator for Europe


Sustainable farming, which reconciles low environmental impacts, food security, and the viability of rural societies, presents a significant challenge to Europe's agriculture. In the context of European policies, the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 includes a specific target that addresses the role of agriculture and forestry as regards biodiversity in Europe and links directly with the reformed CAP and its greening measures. These will reward farmers for respecting three obligatory greening measures: maintenance of permanent grassland, ecological focus areas and crop diversification.[9]

'Greening' the CAP is intended to slow down the decline in farmland biodiversity, most notably in intensive farming areas. These reform proposals can benefit the environment and biodiversity in particular. However, their positive effects will depend on the implementation of specific measures, not least because additional flexibility in implementation was granted to Member States and farmers in the final version of the legal texts.

Long-term food security can be supported by reducing agriculture's ecological impact. This implies a fundamental shift towards more ecological approaches and an increase in resource efficiency.[2][6] The strategy for selecting an optimal yield target rather than maximal may outweigh any short-term productivity loss. Plant and animal genetic resources for food and agriculture are also an essential part of the biological basis for world food security.[10] Preservation of plant varieties and rearing of endangered breeds is crucial for that purpose. Farms looking to diversify crop and livestock production can support such a process. A transition towards more sustainable agro-ecosystems and increasing the resource efficiency of agriculture normally requires more advanced agronomic skills.

Europe has significant areas of High Nature Value farmland (HNV) (Map 1), which is characterised by a high proportion of semi-natural vegetation and low intensity agriculture, which, inter alia, supports rare species of European wildlife. Protecting HNV farmland areas is particularly important in this context, given the ecosystem services and public goods generated by the farming systems that maintain this land and the socio-economic pressures they face to intensify or abandon production. Clearly, the increased competition for land is expected to influence European agriculture. For example, the production of renewable energy and biofuels raises particular concerns related to the conversion of natural or semi-natural ecosystems, either for the production of biofuel feedstock themselves or for production of other crops that have been displaced by biofuels. The natural shifts in agriculture ecosystems induced by climate change bring further complexity in the management of farmland.

Map 1: Estimated High Nature Value farmland presence in Europe

Data sources: Corine Land Cover 2006 seamless vector data provided by European Environment Agency (EEA); Natura 2000 sites provided by European Environment Agency (EEA).

High Nature Value farmland
The concept of HNV farmland expresses the dependence of certain types of biodiversity on farming practises on certain types of land and the maintenance of specific farming systems. Typical examples of these systems include semi-natural grassland, traditional olive, vine and fruit production, and woodland/pasture. Dehesa and Montado are two well-known examples of the latter on the Iberian Peninsula. Three definitions of HNV farmland have been proposed.[11][12]

  • Type 1 - Farmland with a high proportion of semi-natural vegetation.
  • Type 2 - Farmland with a mosaic of low intensity agriculture and natural and structural elements, such as field margins, hedgerows, stone walls, patches of woodland or scrub etc.
  • Type 3 - Farmland supporting rare species or a high proportion of European or world wildlife populations.


[1] EEA (2010a), EU 2010 Biodiversity Baseline, EEA Technical report No 12/2010, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[2] EEA (2010b), 10 messages for 2010 — Agricultural ecosystems, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.  

[3] Underwood, E., J. Poláková, S. Berman, E. Dooley, A. Frelih-Larsen, B. Kretschmer, N. Maxted, e.a. (2013), Technology options for feeding 10 billion people. Climate change and agriculture; biodiversity and agriculture, Brussels/London: Institute for European Environmental Policy, BIO Intelligence Service, Ecologic Institute, IVM.

[4] Eurostat (2012), Agri-environmental indicator — land use change — Statistics Explained, Agri-environmental indicator — land use change, November.

[5] Eurostat (2013), Agricultural census 2010 — main results — Statistics ExplainedAgricultural census 2010 — main results, September.

[6] EEA (2013), Environmental indicator report 2013 — Natural resources and human well-being in a green economy, EEA report, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[7] EEA (2012a), European waters — assessment of status and pressures, EEA Report No 8/2012, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[8] EEA (2012), Total emissions of acidifying substances (sulphur, nitrogen) and of nitrogen in the EEA-32 from 1990 to 2006, Figure, 29 November, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[9] EU (2013), Overview of CAP Reform 2014–2020, European Union, DG Agriculture and Rural Development.

[10] FAO, Food And Agriculture (2013), Fao Statistical Yearbook 2013, Rome: Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

[11] EEA (2004), High nature value farmland — Characteristics, trends and policy challenges, EEA Report No 1/2004, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen. 

[12] Paracchini, M.L., Petersen, J.-E., Hoogeveen, Y., Bamps, C., Burfield, I., 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, EUR 23480 EN, Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.


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