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Europe must put environmental concerns at the heart of Common Agricultural Policy reform, scientists say

November 8, 2019
Arable fields in Southern England. Intensive farming supported by the Common Agricultural Policy is a key driver of biodiversity loss, according to recent statements by scientists. Image: Richard H Williams | Flickr Creative Commons

Environmental scientists across Europe are campaigning for the European Parliament to take action in response to ‘catastrophic declines’ of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects as a result of intensive agricultural practices across the continent.

Earlier this week a letter signed by 2,500 scientists was sent to the European Parliament arguing that the intensive agricultural practices encouraged by EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) significantly threaten the continent’s biodiversity. There is now “unequivocal scientific consensus” that intensive farming is a key cause of the decline of bird and insect populations documented across the continent in recent decades, the authors state.

The future of the post-2020 CAP – what space for the environment?

Their letter is timed to coincide with ongoing EU debates over the updates made to the next iteration of the CAP, post-2020. The CAP was designed to encourage maximum food production across the EU, which despite attempts to promote agri-environment schemes, has led to “green deserts of uninhabitable maximum-yield monocultures” across the continent, the authors state.

The letter is authored by members of six European biodiversity organisations: European Ornithologists Union; European Mammal Foundation; Societas Europaea Herpetologica; Societas Europaea Lepidopterologica; Butterfly Conservation Europe; and the European Bird Census Council.

They argue for significant policy change, stating that: “A reform of the CAP must deliver sustainable and diversified agriculture through spatially-targeted measures supporting smaller farms which carry out sustainable farming and maintain high nature value farmland.” The post-2020 CAP reform should include significant policy measures which promote biodiversity conservation and restoration in agricultural practices, such as extensive grazing of livestock, they argue.

Such CAP reforms could align the policy with global agreements such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, the authors suggest. They state that: “The EU must be a pioneer in responding to these challenges and the CAP must be part of that response rather than continuing being the cause of greater environmental degradation.”

Agriculture as a driver of freshwater ecosystem pressures

Intensive agriculture is a significant driver of freshwater biodiversity loss and habitat degradation in Europe. It causes a wide range of pressures on freshwater environments, including water abstraction, pollution, water course fragmentation and alteration and soil erosion.

The European Environmental Agency’s 2018 state of European waters report states that agricultural production is the major source of diffuse pollution (of fertilisers and pesticides), which affects around 38% of EU surface waters. As a result, freshwater conservation is a key consideration of any ‘environmental’ CAP reform, particularly in better aligning its implementation with the Water Framework Directive.

Honney bee (Apis mellifera) on oilseed rape flowers. Image: Gilles San Martin | Flickr Creative Commons

European scientists call for support for statement on environmental failings of CAP

Meanwhile, a group of environmental scientists based at European universities have released a statement outlining that CAP “continues to fail biodiversity, climate, soil, land degradation as well as socio-economic challenges especially in rural areas.” The statement, led by Dr. Guy Pe’er from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig, Germany, frames agriculture as a key driver of environmental degradation across Europe. Submitted for publication in the British Ecological Society’s People and Nature journal, the statement builds on a series of research projects, reports and workshops on the environmental impact of CAP.

The authors call for more scientists to become signatories to their statement, which offers ten action points to move CAP towards delivering sustainable food production, biodiversity conservation, and climate mitigation. A key action point is to use ecosystem services – such as climate change mitigation, and water conservation – as guiding principles for reformed CAP design. In so doing, harmful subsidies (such as Coupled Double Payments for intensive agricultural systems) should be phased out in favour of those which promote environmental health, such as High Nature Value farming systems.

Other action points outline the need for Member States set clear, adequate, measurable and time-bound targets in their strategic plans when fulfilling CAP objectives, and to support innovative methods of agri-environmental support. The authors suggest that a landscape-scale perspective should be adopted in CAP reform, to coordinate agri-environmental schemes between farming practices across larger areas and longer timescales than is currently common. The need for better indicators of success, alongside stronger and more regular environmental monitoring and enforcement is outlined.

Overall, the statement emphasises that there is a wealth of scientific knowledge, best-practice case studies and management decision support tools to guide an effective ‘environmental’ reform of the post-2020 CAP. However, it is important that the CAP update doesn’t allow Member States to choose ‘low-ambition’ implementation which marginalises environmental concerns. Like the letter from the six European biodiversity organisations, the scientists’ statement is clear that the present CAP is failing in its environmental obligations, and that significant reform is necessary to promote more sustainable futures.

You can add your signature to the statement here.

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