Will Europe’s soil carbon stores be better protected by the revised GAEC framework?

Not everyone thinks of soil as a key factor in meeting greenhouse gas targets. However, agricultural and forest soils with high levels of organic matter are some of Europe’s most valuable carbon reservoirs. Such soils are characteristic of wetlands, fens, peatlands and moorlands. An estimated 75 billion tonnes of carbon stored is stored in EU-27 soils, especially in peatlands and forest soils. When undisturbed, these soils can provide other environmental benefits too, including carbon sequestration, biodiversity within and outside Natura 2000 sites, water storage, adaptation to climate change and improved water quality.

From an agricultural point of view some fertile, carbon-rich soils have long been agriculturally improved and used for arable and horticultural cropping and also grazing. Other, previously modified, carbon-rich soils are already in a degraded state and of low agricultural and environmental productive capacity. On the other hand, on cultivated mineral soils, which have inherently lower levels of carbon, many farmers have already recognised the agronomic benefits of incorporating additional organic matter (crop residues, compost and animal manure) because this improves soil fertility, structure and moisture retention.

The current CAP reform proposals include a streamlined framework for Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition within which Member States will design simple, verifiable management standards suited to regional and local conditions. The proposed new framework has two standards addressing specifically the issue of soil carbon stocks on farmland. The first, which revises the current standard for arable stubble management, is targeted at soils already under cultivation and requires ‘maintenance of soil organic matter level including a ban on stubble burning’ (GAEC 6). The second is targeted at the sensitive carbon rich soils and wetlands, particularly those that have not been ploughed in recent years (and are most likely to be under permanent grassland of some type). This new GAEC 7 requires ‘protection of wetland and carbon rich soils including a ban of first ploughing’ and is a significant step forward in using the CAP to protect key environmental resources from damaging agricultural activities. It can also be seen as the ‘carbon-rich’ refinement of existing CAP requirements to protect permanent grassland from conversion to arable land.

Logical as the introduction of new GAEC 7 may seem, especially with the renewed emphasis on climate policy in the CAP reform proposals, its importance does not seem to have been recognised in the present discussions in the European Parliament. More alarmingly, many parliamentarians apparently see a need to scrap GAEC 7 completely, but their justification for this is very unclear.

It is very difficult to see how removing this carbon-protection standard would be in either the farmers’ or the taxpayers’ long-term interests. Scrapping GAEC 7 would not affect the well-established principle of retaining permanent grassland as a condition of receiving CAP support. So it is unclear what leads elected parliamentarians to object. On the contrary, farmers could benefit from the improved baseline management, if Member States use more advanced agri-environment-climate measures in Pillar 2 to pay farmers for restoring the carbon sequestration properties of these soils. In future there may be other opportunities, possibly from payments for environmental services (especially for water management).

From the European taxpayers’ point of view, the opportunity should not be squandered to prevent damage to key carbon resources through GAEC 7, and to improve the level of public goods delivered through CAP expenditure. Failing to understand this would imply that parliamentarians are also failing to respond to European citizens’ concern about the impacts of agriculture on soils, climate, water and biodiversity.

GAEC 7 can help to prevent further degradation of carbon-rich soils and wetlands, and ensure that agricultural sector will be able to play the role it has been assigned in EU climate policies and in the Commission’s recently published Blueprint for Safeguarding European Waters. It deserves more support.


17 Dec 2012