- Introduction: biodiversity, agriculture and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)
Europe's agricultural sector has received sustained public support under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) over the last 50 years. This support has evolved alongside growing recognition and awareness of the strong links between agricultural
production and biological diversity conservation.
On one hand, it was recognised that changing agricultural land use is a major cause of the decline of biodiversity in Europe. Whereas on better land farming systems have generally intensified, poorer land has been subject to abandonment or
afforestation. Traditional, low-intensity farming systems with high nature value have gradually and steadily disappeared (EEA, 2009a).
On the other hand, maintaining biodiversity makes agricultural production and related practices both more sustainable and more cost-effectiveness. Biodiversity and agricultural production are inextricably interlinked and their capacity to be mutually supportive is increasingly recognised.
Consequently, CAP assistance has shifted from strict agricultural production support towards a broader focus including the inventory of public goods and ecosystems services provided by agriculture (as identified in a recent European Commission
report (EC, 2009a)).
Since the European Commission highlighted the importance of using the CAP to halt the decline of biodiversity, various efforts have been made to merge biodiversity conservation into agricultural policy. At present, the CAP is divided into two main 'pillars', which differ in terms of financing, functioning and structure. Pillar 1 (financed fully from the EU budget) consists of direct payments (income support) to farmers and market interventions such as subsidies. Pillar 2 — the rural development policy — is partially co-financed by Member States and regional administrations. This rural policy aims to improve agricultural and forestry sector competitiveness, protect the environment and the countryside, enhance quality
of life in rural areas and diversify the rural economy.
Both CAP pillars can contribute directly and indirectly to biodiversity conservation, in particular via 'decoupling' of Pillar 1 direct payments from quantities of agricultural production, and via 'cross-compliance' rules, which focus primarily on preventing environmental damage from farm operations. Under Pillar 2, biodiversity issues are addressed specifically via instruments such as the agri-environmental measures.
Unfortunately, despite recognition of agriculture's heavy impact on nature, the CAP is not changing sufficiently to reduce biodiversity loss (EEA, 2009a). In several EU countries, direct support is provided on a historic basis, which in practice favours more productive land, usually farmed intensively. Moreover, cross-compliance rules can only make a small contribution to biodiversity conservation because although they limit environmentally damaging practices, they cannot really ensure active management of ecosystems rich in biodiversity. The same can be said for some current support under Pillar 2. By contrast, agri-environmental measures may explicitly target management practices beneficial to biodiversity.
Last of all, it is worth stressing that the 2003 'Health Check' of CAP reform reduced direct payments ('modulation') to bigger farms in order to finance the new rural development policy (Pillar 2). The present message highlights key questions that emerge from the long history of interaction between biodiversity and agriculture. Specifically, can the CAP be reformed to serve biodiversity better after 2013? And how should that be done?