Greening of income support to farmers: improving basic practice across the landscape
In order to truly make the CAP deliver for the environment, green conditions for direct income support to farmers should be put in place (‘greening’ of Pillar I of the CAP). This would ensure a minimum level of environmental delivery across the farmed landscape and provide a solid basis on which rural development measures can build (Pillar II of the CAP). Linking 30% of direct income support with environmentally meaningful farming practices is key to incentivising farmers to adopt best practices ( BirdLife position on CAP reform).
Such practices include the protection and/or set-up of Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) (a minimum percentage at farm level of natural areas and landscape elements), crop rotation, soil cover and grassland protection. These measures all need to be mandatory and need to be considered as a package of ‘greening measures’ as opposed to a pick and choose menu of measures.
Ecological Focus Areas provide habitat and ensure connectivity for a variety of farmland species, and provide basic services that benefit agricultural production (e.g. support pollinators, erosion control) and the environment.. The mandatory maintenance of EFA at farm level as a condition for direct income support for farmers has significant potential both to recognise and reward farmers who have kept these useful features on their farm and to drive others to incorporate them. All landscape elements that are part of the farm, including those currently not eligible for subsidies (because they are not considered as productive areas), should be eligible to count as Ecological Focus Areas. A minimum of 10% at farm level of EFA is necessary in order to achieve significant ecological effects throughout the landscape. Positive management of these landscape features must also be encouraged through agri-environment schemes.
Crop rotation and soil cover are fundamental agronomic practices in farming. They play important roles in the protection of soil; a major resource for our agricultural production system. However our soils are in a grim state. Long-term land use scenarios indicate that unless intensive agricultural production undertakes corrective action, soil biodiversity and soil functions may not be economically profitable after 2050 (Impacts of agriculture on water and soil). In order to maintain soil quality and preserve biodiversity, decision makers must support effective measures such as crop rotation and soil cover. The European Commission has proposed to use an obligation of ‘crop diversity’ to deal with the issue of increasing landscape homogeneity. Although this measure may provide some protection against the negative effects of large monocultures (i.e. maize), it cannot deliver the same benefits as a ‘crop rotation measure’. The latter provides positive benefits in terms of soil quality and productivity by conserving soil organic matter and soil biodiversity. Moreover, a ‘soil cover measure’ was also left out of the European Commission’s proposal for reform, whereas it should be a comprehensive part of the greening because of its benefits for soil protection, mainly against erosion.
Grassland protection is vital for the conservation of many species and for European biodiversity. Central European grasslands have even been found to be, with South America’s tropical rainforests, the richest in plant species in the world. Moreover, these meadows which are rich in biodiversity thanks to less intensive management (such as lower or no fertilizer input), play a more important role in carbon capture and storage than their more intensively managed counterparts. Yet grasslands are threatened by a variety of changes in land use including conversion to arable farming (e.g. for energy crops), intensification of management, overgrazing, land abandonment, urban development and afforestation (Grassland destruction across the EU; Scottish Machair project ). One of the largest contributing factors to the loss of grasslands is that farmers are not incentivised to preserve them. Land managers should be rewarded through the CAP for continuing the extensive management of semi-natural grasslands and decision makers should ensure that our most high biodiverse grasslands are not destroyed.