European Commission, Environment DG

Impact of Agri-environment measures


Courtesy of European Commission, Environment DG

The application of agri-environment contracts concerning 1 farmer in every 7 and delivering environmental services over 20% of European farmland, marks a very significant step towards sustainability. The target set in the 5th Environmental Action Programme of 15% coverage by 2000 has thus already been exceeded. The requirement on Member States to apply the regulation throughout their territories according to their needs has stimulated a very rapid expansion of initiatives and measures, which otherwise may have taken many years to be launched and developed. The evidence presented from programmes is on the whole positive and shows that substantial environmental benefits accrue from agri-environment programmes: reductions in the use of N-fertiliser; better application techniques; positive activities for nature protection; and conservation of landscape features. An increase in employment is recorded in some cases, for example where labour intensive environmental management replaces a low-labour intensive activity. Evaluation reports show that programmes provide value in terms of environmental benefits for a relatively modest cost to the Community budget: 4% of EAGGF guarantee section. 
One hectare in every five covered by agri-environment programmes

The agri-environment regulation, Council Regulation No (EEC) 2078/92, provides for programmes to encourage farmers to carry out environmentally beneficial activities on their land. Farmers are paid the costs and income losses for providing the environmental service. 

Box 1: Objectives and key elements of agri-environment programmes
Member States are required to apply agri-environment measures throughout their territories, according to the environmental needs and potential. Two broad types of environmental objective are evident:

To reduce the negative pressures of farming on the environment, in particular on water quality, soil and biodiversity;
To promote farm practices necessary for the maintenance of biodiversity and landscape, including to avoid degradation and fire risk from under-use.
The main elements which characterise agri-environment agreements are the following:

Farmers deliver an environmental service;
Agreements are voluntary for the farmers;
Measures apply only on farmland;
Payments cover the income foregone, costs incurred and necessary incentive;
Undertakings go beyond the application of good agricultural practice.

The regulation accompanied the reforms of the common agricultural policy, which were begun in May 1992 with the changes agreed to several of the most significant market regimes. In addition to the land management measures, the regulation provides for training and demonstration projects to promote the use of environmentally beneficial techniques and good farming practice.

Regional or national authorities manage the programmes under a decentralised system of management, subject to approval by the Commission for each programme. Administration is normally undertaken by the agriculture authorities, with the environmental authorities associated for programme development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. In a few cases the environmental authorities manage the programmes. A flexible administrative framework, encouraged under the Council legislation has led to a variety of programme structures in the Member States.

Box 2: types of programme
The favoured approach of Member States has been zonal programmes. These are established at different administrative levels (national, sub-national, and regional) and normally include general measures which concern all qualifying farmers in the administrative territory and more specific schemes for designated zones. In addition, most measures are only applicable to certain types of crop or land use and thus are further targeted by themes. Most Member States have adopted horizontal measures through all the national territory, particularly regarding organic farming and training programmes. A wide range of criteria has been used to target programmes and measures. A classification is given in the table. (Table: Criteria for targeting programmes)

Regulation 2078/92 makes no requirement that the environmental obligations on farmers should be of a certain intensity. Article 2 makes clear that there must be a positive environmental impact, but not that it should be of any particular nature. In the various programmes two contrasting types of measures can be identified: ‘wide, but limited’ measures containing basic obligations which often apply throughout a territory; and ‘targeted and deep’ measures comprising far-reaching undertakings normally applicable only in a designated zone. The environmental benefits resulting from these type of measures will evidently be different – however it is not as clear as first appears that measures requiring a high level of obligation produce the optimum results. Analysis should also examine the coverage (i.e. take up by farmers) and cost efficiency.  
The costs are part-financed from the EU budget — 75% in objective 1 areas and 50% elsewhere. Expenditure from the EAGGF guarantee fund in 1997 amounted to €1.5 billion, in 1998 €1.3 billion, and in 1999 €1.9 billion is estimated. This is about 4% of EAGGF guarantee expenditure.

The farmland area covered by agri-environment programmes shows that in the 3 new Member States coverage is over 50% and well above the average for EU-15 of 20%. (EU-12: 16%) in 1998. Four other Member States are also above the average: Luxembourg (76%), Germany (39%), Ireland (24%) and France (23%). 3 Member States are clearly below the EU average, with less than 2% of UAA under agreements (Belgium, Greece and Netherlands)(map 1). The target in the 5th Environmental Action Programme (EAP) of at least 15% of EU farmland under agri-environmental agreement by the year 2000 is thus already exceeded on the EU level, although in 6 Member States implementation remains below 15%. The agri-environment regulation requires Member States to apply measures throughout their territories according to their needs.

The pattern of implementation, in terms of the rate of application of the programmes, also differs between the Member States. In Germany and France, the pattern was above the Community average from 1994, in the new Member States a substantial increase was recorded from 1996, and for Luxembourg full application only occurred from 1997. Other Member States show the same degree of increase as for EU-15 but below that level, except Ireland. In terms of proportion of UAA, higher coverage is evident in non-objective 1 zones than in objective 1 areas; at the level of EU-15 the rates are 28% and 10% respectively. In Spain the inverse is the case: 3.7% in objective 1 and 0.1% in non-objective 1. Similarly for Austria, implementation in 1998 reached 85% in objective 1 zones, but only 67% in non-objective 1 zones (Table 1)  (Graph 1)  (Map1 [150 Kb])

While coverage of a Member State is not an indicator of the quality of application of agri-environment programmes, in Member States where application has been particularly low it is unlikely that the farming sector in general has been affected by the agri-environment policy. This may lead to a less effective integration of environmental concerns into the CAP.

1 farm in every 7 as participant

Comparison between the number of participating farms at 15.04.1998 with the number of holdings (1995 data) shows a highly contrasting picture between Member States. On average in EU-15 (excluding data from Germany), the number of farms included within programmes is 1 in every 7. This figure is influenced by high proportions in the new Member States — 78% in Austria, 77% in Finland, and 64% in Sweden. These figures are very substantially greater than the average in EU-12 (excluding Germany) (9%).
(Table 2) (Map2 [150Kb])

Two other Member States have a proportion higher than the EU average. These are Luxembourg 60% and Portugal 30%. Of the other Member States, Belgium, Greece, Spain, Italy and Netherlands, with rates of around or less than 7% are significantly below the EU average. 

In terms of the proportion of farms subject to agreements, more farms are found in non-objective 1 zones than within objective 1. For EU-14, 20% of farms participate in non-objective 1 zones, while only 7% participate in objective 1 areas. In EU-11 the figures are 10.5% and 7% respectively. This is in part due to relatively low implementation in Member States with significant areas covered by objective 1 and relatively high implementation in Member States without widespread objective 1 zones. This may be due to differing policy and budgetary priorities. 

Diversity of measures

Agri-environment programmes are intended to cover all aspects of agriculture-environment interactions. The environmental elements addressed are normally classified according to impacts on air, biodiversity, landscape, soil and land, and water. The measures and undertakings on farmers concern every aspect of agricultural activity, including management of non-farmed zones such as field margins. The site-specificity of agri-environment measures needs to be underlined: there are few activities that always have beneficial effects on all types of land. More commonly measures need to be tailored to specific agriculture–evironment situations. Drawing on programmes implemented so far, a classification of undertakings is given in Table 3. The main categories are: input use; use of grassland; cultivation of arable and permanent crops; and landscape conservation measures. The Table also illustrates the range of potential environmental impacts flowing from a single undertaking. Only a minority of undertakings have effects on one or two of the environmental elements.(Table 3)

Use of inputs

Concerning reductions in use of fertiliser and pesticides, benefits in terms of reduced leaching only accrue provided the balance between input of product and take up by plant (and some other minor absorption effects) is reduced. Subject to this, reductions in input use have contributed to reductions of phosphorus levels in surface water and reduction of nitrate levels in surface and ground water. In addition, reductions or cessation in use of fertiliser have resulted in increased biodiversity, allowing less-competitive species to become established. This effect is more noticeable when the measure is combined with other management measures targeted on biodiversity. Concerning the reductions in use of pesticides, reductions in contamination of water supplies and increases in biodiversity are recorded.

Specific systems for input reduction exist in many programmes to encourage up take of integrated production (IP) systems or organic farming. IP results in a reduction in the use of pesticides, although the degree of the reduction is highly variable between differing systems. There is no uniform EU or global standard for IP, although a few systems have wide acceptance. Reductions in the use of fertilisers, measured against the recommended levels for different crops, are also variable between programmes. Organic farming leads to the cessation in use of synthetic pesticides, through the use of natural pest control. The level of fertiliser used will, in practically all cases, also diminish.

Figures for Finland, where the GAEPS programme applies on over 80% of farmland, show reductions in fertiliser use by 10-30% and pesticide use by 34%. In Austria, where coverage of farmland is also very high, a 7% reduction in use of pesticides in arable crops and 30% reduction in permanent crops has been achieved. Yield decreases are also recorded resulting from these measures. In Sachsen (Germany) the general limitations on all farms in the programme led to a reduction in yield of 7% for arable crops, with lower yields for farms which adhered to more demanding measures. 

Organic production

The main environmental benefits of organic production are shown to accrue to biodiversity and soil structure. Also water quality is improved in cases where the sustainable organic fertiliser rules result in a significantly reduced N-balance. Analysis from Germany shows that organic farms have lower input and concentration of nutrients compared with usual practice, which leads to reduced leaching into water, and reduced emissions to the atmosphere. The non-use of pesticides, broad rotations, and increased input of organic matter inherent in organic farming contribute to the protection and preservation of species. There are, however, limits, because the complete protection of biodiversity alone through organic farming is not possible. Additional environmental measures like the establishment of biotope areas and structural features are also important for the protection of the diversity of fauna. Concerning socio-economic impacts, a substantial increase in hired labour is shown for organic farms in Denmark (between +16 and +38%). The chapter 'Organic farming' describes in some detail increases in Member States farmland area under organic production. The extent to which these increases have been due to, or coincided with, expansion of the agri-environment programmes varies between Member States. A very low correlation is shown in the Netherlands and to an extent in the UK, while high correlation is evident in Austria, Finland, and Italy.

Changes in land use

Several measures aim to improve environmental compatibility of agriculture through changes in land use. In particular, most Member States have implemented measures for the long term set aside of agricultural land to protect water supplies and create biotope reserves. This usually results in a cessation of use of inputs and generation of wild plants. Important changes to the landscape and improvements in habitats have been recorded for the biotope measures. In the Emilia Romagna (Italy) programme, between 7% and 100% of the region’s nesting sites for 12 selected species of rare wild bird are found on the wetlands created through agri-environment set aside. Other changes of land use employed in programmes include the reversion of arable land to extensive grassland and changes between crops and rotations. In a few cases measures exist to convert intensive grass to extensive arable land, normally for reasons connected with biodiversity. The reintroduction of environmentally beneficial arable rotations and use of perennial ley, where these have become uneconomic, is a feature of several programmes addressing intensive arable production. These types of changes are also an important beneficial part of organic farming conditions. Benefits accrue in particular to soil structure. On arable sites the use of winter cover crops, by undersowing, retention of stubbles after harvest, or by allowing weeds to grow, leads to substantial reductions in winter nitrate-leaching.

Rare breeds

13 Member States have promoted measures to retain husbandry of rare breeds which are threatened by extinction by reason of their relatively poor economic performance. Comparison with the FAO database of rare breeds of farm animal shows an average coincidence of between 35% and 45% for breeds on the FAO list and those covered by agri-environment programmes. Only cattle, sheep, equidae and goats were included initially. (Table 4)

The value of local breeds (whether endangered or not) in maintaining the landscape is receiving increasing attention. However, so far few programmes directly link the use of specified breeds to agri-environment grassland management measures.

Under-used and abandoned land

Land which is neglected or abandoned may lose environmental value. In particular a risk of fire or avalanche can arise if excess biomass is not subject to grazing pressure. More generally, the absence of traditional farm management of land leads to a loss of value in terms of biodiversity, for example when open low-intensity pasture succeeds to scrub and forest. A few programmes seek to address this problem in relevant areas. The chief mechanism is to prevent abandonment by persuading farmers to maintain uneconomic activities necessary to preserve environmental values. Where abandonment has occurred, programmes exist (especially in Italy) to maintain the land in a reasonable environmental condition. In France and Sweden a few measures exist to promote the restoration of environmental value through the reoccupation of former agricultural land which has become afforested or overgrown by scrub.

Biodiversity measures: the challenge to monitor change

Many programmes contain targeted measures designed to preserve grassland biodiversity. Undertakings include restrictions on stock levels, continuation of farming, reduction or non-use of inputs, raising water levels, and so on. Given the site-specificity of these measures impacts on the environment often depend on locational factors. This presents difficulties in selecting appropriate indicators for monitoring. An example of indicator selection is shown for a UK ‘ESA’ programme. The West Fermanagh and Erne Lakeland ESA (Northern Ireland) was monitored at its inception in 1993 and again in 1996. The programme aims to conserve and enhance the environmental condition of habitats, such as heather moorland, hay meadow, wet pasture, and limestone grassland. Scientists took samples of plants and invertebrates from the various habitats at the start of agreements to establish base-line data. Success of the programme, in terms of maintenance or enhancement of species diversity, was measured by comparing samples taken from participating and non-participating farms. Using detailed botanical monitoring on field sites, the investigators looked for the type and abundance of plants and in particular those which thrive in high value habitats but are vulnerable to intensive agricultural practices. Similarly for invertebrates, the presence of species of spider and beetle which are adapted to the target habitats provide the indicator. The results found a slight increase in diversity on the ESA farms for some habitats and an absence of a decline in species diversity in others. A small decline was recorded on control farms not participating in the ESA agreements. In particular plants classified as ‘stress-tolerators’, which indicate lower biodiversity, decreased on agreement farms. The monitoring report concludes that 3 years is too short a period to record biological change, but was nevertheless able to show for most habitats a probability of maintenance of species diversity against declines on non-participating farms. In the case of hay meadows a significant enhancement was recorded. 

Maintenance of landscape features

The diversity and regional specificity of the European landscape precludes the horizontal application of measures to enhance and preserve the landscape. In Member States where dry-stone walls are found, there are often different local styles of the maintenance of walls. Other features included in landscape feature management are terraces; hedgerows; farm woodlands; earth banks; ponds and single trees. In addition measures designed to retain small and irregular field sizes are found in several programmes. The most important impacts of these measures are in terms of maintenance and enhancement of landscape, development of biodiversity and small biotopes. In addition a significant employment effect is noted concerning the labour intensive activities. 

Evaluation and programme development

The Commission and Member States place considerable emphasis on programme evaluation and development. Over the 5 years of the programme, the Commission has approved far more amendments to programmes (218) than original programmes (133). This is believed to be due to the complexity of the agriculture–environment interactions which the programmes address, as well as the need to improve programme performance. The process of evaluation—review—amendment for selected elements of the main Swedish programme is illustrated in the Table 5. (Table 5) The constant evolution of programmes in nearly all Member States is evidence of the need for a flexible instrument which can be used to adapt programmes to diverse and changing agri-environment needs and potential in the EU.

Given the complexity of biological systems, and the variable quality of data describing them, classification and monitoring remain important challenges in most Member States. In addition, on account of the location specific nature of biodiversity and landscape values, direct comparisons between programmes may not yield meaningful evaluation data. Instead, a more promising approach would be to recognise the intrinsic value of biodiversity and landscape in each locality and to seek the most appropriate measures in each case. At the European level work should focus on advancing the spread of best practice and transfer of experience in programme development and evaluation methodology. In several Member States, impressive work in this area has been completed. For example in one research project, all the farmed and non-farmed habitats in the Netherlands have been identified. In total 316 distinct habitats are categorised and mapped. The descriptions are based on geomorphology, flora (varieties and concentrations), landscape elements, fauna and so on. While examples of many of these habitats may also be present outside the Netherlands in neighbouring countries, this one classification will not serve a useful purpose outside that broad zone. However, the methodology employed may be applicable throughout Europe and work to identify the agri-environment resource throughout the EU should be encouraged. The enormous effort of thus identifying habitats and collecting data could result in a more coherent and comprehensive approach to agri-environment programme development and evaluation. This in turn will lead to a more effective realisation of the goal of applying agri-environment programmes throughout the territory of the EU according to needs.

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