Greening the CAP: impacts on farmland biodiversity on an EU scale

PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, in collaboration with Wageningen University & Research centre, released a report which shows regional impacts of greening the CAP in line with ‘Option 2’ of the EC proposal of November 2011. A new tool for calculation of species richness in farming areas has been used, showing substantial biodiversity gains; however with large variations between regions. This suggests more regional differentiation is needed, also for greening of Pillar 1.

‘Greening’ the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), as proposed by the EC, will substantially slow down the decline in farmland biodiversity, most notably in intensive farming areas. Extensively farmed areas are better served by policies preserving their rich biodiversity. Regional variation in policies tailored to reflect local conditions could, therefore, result in a better outcome. These are the main conclusions drawn by PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, in collaboration with Wageningen University & Research centre, in their report Greening the Common Agricultural Policy: impacts on farmland biodiversity on an EU scale, as released today.

In ‘The CAP towards 2020’ (November, 2010) and the ‘EU biodiversity strategy to 2020’ (May, 2011) the European Commission has proposed a generic greening of the EU farm income support. To predict the impacts of these proposals, PBL researchers have used model calculations which assumed extra budget for agri-environmental measures and greening payments for permanent grassland and ecological set-aside of an assumed 5% of the arable land. The results show 3% more farmland species richness in 2020, compared with a baseline scenario. Impacts would be most pronounced in areas of intensive farming, which are presently poor in biodiversity. This 3% is substantial, compared with predicted decline of, for example, the farmland bird index over the 2014-2020 period. However, it will not fully halt the loss of farmland biodiversity.

As a trade-off, biodiversity gains would involve a loss in agricultural production, ranging from 2% for grass to 4% for cereal production. This can decrease EU self-sufficiency for food supply. Policy design could alleviate this trade-off by allowing farmers to use the least-producing fields and field edges for greening measures. Effectiveness for biodiversity could be improved by stimulating farmers to design ecological set-aside areas in such a way that a regional ‘green infrastructure’ would be created, facilitating the spread of source populations in farmed areas.

The average farm income for the EU as a whole would not suffer from yield losses, as these losses are more than counteracted by producer price increases. However, there are considerable income shifts from intensively to extensively farmed regions. In the current CAP, income support is linked to historical production, which favours intensively farmed regions, whereas greening the CAP will link payments more with extensive farming practices. The variety in farm structures, income, farming intensity and species richness, as well as the divergent impacts of policy changes between EU regions, suggest that regionally differentiated policies may be more efficient than a one-size-fits-all approach.

3 comments posted

  • Davy McCracken Scottish Agricultural College November 10th, 2011

    A projected increase by 3% in farmland species richness by 2020 is certainly a move in the right direction. However, my concern is that at no point in the report do the authors indicate what type of management conditions they assumed would be put on the permanent grassland condition or what type of habitats would be included in the (in their case) 5% ecological ‘set-aside’. In reality, whether real environmental benefits do arise from any greening of the CAP will depend on how these measures are implemented in practice. For example:

    • it is possible to ‘maintain’ permanent pasture without it necessarily having any biodiversity or climate change benefits – it is the way it is ‘maintained’ that counts;

    • increasing the diversity of crops grown at any one time has the potential to reduce landscape simplification (one of the major drivers of farmland biodiversity decline) but this depends on how ‘different crops’ are defined – wheat, barley and oats are all different crops, but growing these three would still result in a largely homogenous cereal landscape;

    • maintaining an ecological focus on 7% of each farm also has the potential to increase landscape heterogeneity, but currently the areas under consideration appear to be largely, if not exclusively, farmland edge habitats – including some elements that occur within fields would reduce landscape simplification even more, but until the ‘biotopes’ that are mentioned in the draft CAP reform text are defined in more detail then it is difficult to judge how useful this measure will be in practice;

    With regard to the latter bullet-point, it is also a sweeping assumption that creating ecological priority areas will always result in land being taken out of production – it doesn’t in Switzerland so why should it in the way the EU implements greening? In many situations, applying the ecological priority area approach would not necessarily have to involve removing land completely from production, but rather biodiversity benefits could be achieved by simply changing the intensity of management of those areas of the farm. For example, while it would not be feasible (or desirable) to plough or apply nutrients in the buffers established next to watercourses or hedgerows, such buffers would still be open and available for grazing by livestock.

    Hence there is no evidence that many of the assumptions that must have been made in the report will actually happen in practice – the devil will be in the detail. We have no information on the latter from the Commission as yet, and hence no way to form a judgement of how good, bad or indifferent the results will be for biodiversity. Indeed, if the current uproar over the greening proposals continues unabated, we may end up with greening that is so watered down as to be meaningless.

  • Henk van Zeijts PBL November 10th, 2011

    Dear Mr. McCracken, thank you for your comments. The modelling in our report does not provide the full picture of development of biodiversity under the influence of CAP. Our goal was to provide a spatially explicit overview of quantitative impacts on farmland biodiversity and economics for the EU as a whole. In fact, we have calculated the POTENTIAL impact on farmland biodiversity, with changes in grassland, arable and permantent crop areas and changes in nitrogen use intensity as proxys for suitability for a variety of species. I fully agree that it is the details that count for actual occurence of plant and animal species (see also Section 2.3 of our report), but these details only will become clear during negotiations in 2012. In order to know more about the impacts of details, empirical evidence from case studies is needed. In this respect, I find the evidence put forward in the Impact Assessment by the European Commission not very impressive yet.

  • Davy McCracken Scottish Agricultural College November 15th, 2011

    Hello Henk. Thank you for your response and clarifications. I completely agree that we need more detail of the measures and more evidence of whether in fact these will be likley to achieve the desired outcome. I also do agree with you that the greening proposals, if implemented appropriately, do have the potential to increase the general biodiversity value of the more intensified farmland and thereby increase the probability of more targeted agri-environment actions achieving their biodiversity goals. The latter point about targeting, however, is key and it is clear that we should not pin all our biodiversity wishes solely on greening Pillar 1.

    It is good that agri-environment schemes have been maintained in the draft CAP reform text and that preserving and enhancing ecosystems is one of the 6 proposed RDP priorities . But as a recent European Court of Auditors special report on agri-environment schemes has highlighted (, in many cases across Europe, agri-environment schemes are not designed and monitored so as to deliver tangible environmental benefits; many objectives are too vague to be useful for assessing the extent to which they have been achieved; in a number of cases, agri-environment payments were not clearly justified by the environmental pressures identified in the associated rural development payments.

    Hence the greening measures in Pillar 1 will only have a real benefit if they are accompanied by better designed, targeted, implemented and monitored agri-environment schemes in Pillar 2.

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19 Aug 2011


Henk van Zeijts


Graduated in 1990 as agronomist at the Wageningen University 1991: WU Department of agricultural economics 1991-2000: researcher and project leader at the Centre for Agriculture and Environment (CLM); 2000-current: Policy Researcher Agriculture and Rural