The Role of Agriculture in the 2011 EU Biodiversity Strategy

On 4 May, the European Commission published its proposals for a new Biodiversity Strategy for 2011. It outlines six priority targets, needed if the EU is to meet its Biodiversity targets for 2020, and stresses the need for action to be taken in all economic sectors and areas of policy. The six priority targets are:

  1. To halt the deterioration and ensure more quantifiable control on the status of habitats and species in the EU, and increase the number of assessments under the Birds and Habitats Directives;
  2. To establish a green infrastructure to maintain and enhance ecosystems;
  3. To maximise the potential of the CAP for delivering biodiversity objectives and introduce Forest Management Plans to ensure the conservation of biodiversity is provided;
  4. To achieve Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) in fisheries;
  5. To combat invasive alien species;
  6. To increase EU contribution to global efforts to avoid biodiversity loss.

The strategy places particular emphasis on the important role of the agricultural sector in ‘helping halt the loss of biodiversity in the EU by 2020, and protecting, valuing and restoring EU biodiversity and ecosystem services by 2050’. The accompanying impact assessment suggests that approximately 60 per cent of agricultural land would need to be managed in a way that supports biodiversity to meet this target (including both extensively and intensively managed areas under grass, arable and permanent crops), although this figure was dropped from the final text of the strategy itself and instead has been translated into the following target:

‘Maximising areas under agriculture across grasslands, arable land and permanent crops that are covered by biodiversity-related measures under the CAP so as to ensure the conservation of biodiversity and to bring about a measurable improvement in the conservation status of species and habitats that depend on or are affected by agriculture and in the provision of ecosystem services as compared to the EU 2010 Baseline, thus contributing to enhance sustainable management’

The strategy emphasises the mutually supporting relationship between agriculture and biodiversity; using insect pollination as an example of how biodiversity is vital for the long-term sustainability of the agri-business sector. It also suggests the development of a platform to improve the sharing of experiences and best practices among sectors (agriculture, extractive industries, finance, food supply, forestry and tourism are those business sectors listed).

The critical role played by the CAP as a means of incentivising farmers to engage in conservation efforts is highlighted. Currently, EU budget under LIFE+ for biodiversity is approximately 286 million euros per year. Although difficult to estimate with any degree of precision, the amount of the CAP budget (EU funds only) used to support the environment (including biodiversity) is in the region of €8 billion/year, although this is dwarfed in size by the total CAP budget (53.5 billion euros per year).

Environmental stakeholders have expressed concern that the strategy fails to commit to anything binding. BirdLife Europe recognises the potential of the strategy but notes that it is ‘somewhat un-ambitious’. This view that the strategy lacks ambition is supported by other environmental organisations, such as WWF, European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Also, the lack of concrete, measurable targets has been mentioned as one of the Strategy’s draw backs. Friends of the Earth Europe have requested that the Environment Council considers adopting specific targets for both agriculture and forestry at their next meeting in Luxembourg, 21 June, maintaining that the effectiveness of the strategy depends on it.

Some farming organisations have not responded positively to the strategy. COPA-COGECA argues that the focus on the agricultural sector could make farmers uncompetitive. In a press release, the Secretary-General is quoted saying that ‘farmers are fully aware of their responsibility to preserve the genetic diversity of animals and plants used for production…[and] valuable habitats’, nonetheless a balance must be struck between conserving biodiversity and maintaining their ‘viability, profitability and competitiveness’. He advocates that farmers must be allowed to respond to increasing demands for food and bioenergy resulting from climate change and food security.

The Strategy will now go to the European Parliament and the European Council for discussion and subsequent endorsement.

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11 May 2011