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Biodiversity and CAP reform-the more things change, the more they remain the same

By Harriet Bradley and Ariel Brunner, BirdLife Europe and Central Asia

Climate change and biodiversity loss are twin crises. The need to address them together is confirmed by many scientific reports on the two issues. This is also reflected in the European Commission’s European Green Deal, with one of its core elements being its Biodiversity Strategy. In Europe, dramatic declines have occurred in insect and bird populations, especially for species traditionally associated with agricultural landscapes. Ariel Brunner is the Senior Head of Policy, and Harriet Bradley is a Senior Agriculture and Land Use Policy Officer at BirdLife Europe. Below they assess what the new Common Agricultural Policy actually offers — or fails to offer — in the way of reversing the downwards trend in biodiversity.

The ecological emergency

Nature is under significant stress in Europe. Once common farmland birds are not so common any more: they have declined by 57 % across Europe since 1980. This is not the case for other types of bird species, like those relying on forest habitats, whose populations are relatively stable. This is part of a global crisis, with a 68 % average loss of birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals since 1970. The UN’s scientific panel on biodiversity (IPBES) warns that a million species are at risk of extinction. Further, the most recent IPCC-IPBES assessment confirms that the biodiversity and climate crises are intertwined, and their causes and solutions must be understood, and addressed, together.

Figure 1 — Population decline of the Streptopelia turtur (European Turtle-dove)

The fact that the declines are concentrated in agriculture shows that it is changes to agricultural practices which are at the source. The European Environment Agency’s 2020 State of Nature report shows that the main pressure for most habitats and species in the EU is agriculture. This is happening due to a variety of changes in land use and methods of farming: through conversion of habitat (like grasslands to arable), or intensification of management: removal of habitat for nature like landscape features, heavy use of inputs and machinery, overgrazing (grasslands), drainage (peatlands), and high levels of nitrogen deposition. Indeed, there are various ongoing infringement cases against EU countries on agriculture due to violations of environmental laws.

There is therefore a need to act urgently on the biodiversity and climate crises, which in many cases can, and should, be pursued as joint goals, such as restoring landscape features, reducing fertilisers, reducing herd sizes, and restoring carbon sinks like peatlands. But there is also a need to act for agriculture’s own sake; we cannot keep destroying biodiversity, soils and climate and expect to be able to continue producing enough food. There is a rapidly emerging scientific consensus on the need to shift to agroecological practices. While on many issues there are lively debates, there is a very robust scientific case for some basic interventions, including maintaining at least 10 % of landscape features, practicing crop rotation and soil conservation, reducing nutrients loads and pesticides use.

We are in an emergency — are EU leaders fetching the fire engines?

The European Green Deal — through the Biodiversity and Farm to Fork strategies — calls for significant changes to bring agriculture back inside safe planetary boundaries and to address the current unsustainable agriculture model, aligning with the scientific evidence on the need to, inter alia, move away from pesticides and fertilisers and restore landscape features for biodiversity.1 It leaves however a very big gap on the consumption side, containing a food waste reduction target but no policies to encourage a shift to healthier and less destructive diets. This is despite the fact that all credible studies point to the need to significantly reduce animal farming if we are to be able to farm in a biodiversity friendly way, free up land for nature restoration and reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, whilst still producing sufficient and healthy (or healthier!) food. For example, the EAT-Lancet Report pointed to the need to shift to predominantly plant-based diets to bring food systems within planetary boundaries and deliver healthy diets.

On the other hand, in practice farmers’ behaviour is shaped to a large extent by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), one of the world’s largest subsidies system, accounting for 32 % of the EU budget until 2027. The current CAP has been repeatedly failed to deliver for biodiversity.

The Commission claims that 75 % of the EU’s spending on biodiversity is delivered through the CAP, but this claim is based on spurious accounting, see for example ECA special report 13/2020 on farmland biodiversity. Most of the money goes to income support payments, linked to no robust environmental conditions, and those few conditions that are imposed are poorly enforced (see for example ECA special report 26/2016 on cross compliance. There is also harmful spending on direct production support (coupled payments, mostly promoting livestock production) and investments that can further intensification, like irrigation expansion, drainage, or acquisition of new machinery — almost invariably bigger, more powerful and hence more conducive to intensification.

On the other hand, about 7 % of the CAP funding goes to agri-environment measures included in the so-called ‘Pillar II’ (rural development). Where these are well designed and implemented, they have been shown to boost biodiversity. The problem is that many agri-environmental measures are of poor quality and designed to maximise farmer coverage rather than deliver actual impact. Therefore, for the CAP as a whole, the few well designed and targeted biodiversity measures are overshadowed by the far greater amount going to either business as usual or harmful subsidies

Fuel to the fire

The recently agreed deal on the new CAP running to 2027 looks to be another broadly business as usual (non) reform. Instead of fetching the engines it will pour fuel on the fire. The Commission made very weak reform proposals in 2018, essentially centred around a massive transfer of discretional decision making to the Member States, justified as moving to a ‘performance based CAP.’ The performance framework seems to be rather an empty shell, and has been further weakened in the co-decision: Member States will not be held to account on real impacts on biodiversity, such as further declines in the farmland bird index. Rather, if they manage to roll out biodiversity schemes across enough area they will meet the requirements, even if these schemes are ineffective or even fake. For example, in Cyprus the CAP currently funds a ‘biodiversity’ scheme for banana plantations, which mainly requires leaving cut leaves post-harvest on the ground in banana plantations, and has no restrictions on chemical inputs, based on the unfounded claim that this helps a bird called the black francolin.

There is very little to compensate for the lack of a true performance framework — the minimum requirements for getting subsidies are very low, there is no increased spending for effective environmental schemes, and there is still ample room for perverse spending. These are a few key developments:

the basic conditionality attached to income support has been baptised ‘enhanced conditionality,’ but it remains extremely weak. Arable farms over 10 hectares will need to have at least 3 % of non-productive area. Whilst in some very intensive arable areas this could make a marginal improvement, the scientific evidence shows that a minimum of 10 % of on-farm space for nature is needed for populations of wildlife to start recovering. Other conditionality standards remain weak, not requiring crop rotation, lacking protection of peatlands and species-rich grasslands, and no quantified requirements to cut pesticide use; (2)

  • the so-called ‘greening’ which was supposed to deliver significant impact but failed to do so (see for example ECA special report 21/2017 on greening in agriculture) has been moved into conditionality but with similar exemptions and fake options, like the ability to grow catch crops in areas for biodiversity, or crop diversification instead of crop rotation;
  • Pillar I (direct payments) environmental spending is rebranded as ‘ecoschemes.’ Its share in the Pillar I budget is reduced from 30 to 25 % but its quality is in no way improved. Requirements are very vague, allowing Member States to propose weak schemes that change little on the ground. In fact, some ecoschemes are likely to end up actually doing harm to biodiversity as support to livestock production can be paid per animal, thus incentivising the intensive livestock operations that are by far the most harmful to both biodiversity and the climate;
  • in Pillar 2, no substantial changes have been brought in to weed out fake or ineffective schemes. Minimum spending on the environment has nominally increased to 35 % but is extended to animal welfare, and there is no guaranteed spending on biodiversity nor any strict and enforceable link to EU environmental legislation or tools implementing it, such as the Natura2000 Priority Action Frameworks. As with the ecoschemes, ‘environmental’ schemes can make payments per animal; and
  • harmful subsidies continue: support tied to production (coupled support) is increased from 10 % in the current CAP, to 13 % (plus 2 % for protein crops). Safeguards voted by the European Parliament to make this a production-limiting scheme were dropped in the final deal. It will, however, have to be checked against the Water Framework Directive. Similarly, there are few safeguards on investments, which will not have to undergo an environmental impact assessment, as the European Parliament dropped their amendment requiring this.

Déjà vu — leave it to the Member States

Of course, increased ‘flexibility’ could be used by Member states to improve performance, target funding to conservation measures and support an agroecological transition. It is however highly unlikely that they will do this out of choice. Agriculture Ministers have fought very hard to remove any possibility for the European Commission to contest their choices or hold them accountable for poor real-world environmental outcomes. It is hard to imagine that they will not use the loopholes they have argued so hard for.

This is confirmed by our preliminary analysis of national CAP Strategic Plans. Those that have been made available to the public are overwhelmingly aiming at maintaining business as usual with high levels of perverse subsidies and minimalistic investment in conservation schemes (see Box 1). Public opinion pressure for change is mounting across Europe, but agriculture ministries are typically reacting by stonewalling public participation and reinforcing the structural power capture by powerful farm interests. In many European countries corruption, cronyism and conflict of interest further compounds the problem. On the other hand, national environmental authorities must be ‘effectively’ involved in the design of CAP plans, which if properly implemented could help to improve them .

On the other hand, a vital opportunity is still available in the CAP Strategic Plan approval process. The new CAP gives the Commission hardly any legal tool for refusing plans and top DG AGRI officials have already gone on record saying that plans approval will be little more than a formality. But nothing would prevent the Commission from seriously scrutinising the plans against the objectives or the EU Green Deal and publicly exposing Member States’ choices, opening the possibility for domestic public opinion to weigh in. As to spending that clearly contradicts EU law, the Commission should have full powers to block it, something that DG AGRI has virtually never done on biodiversity, or indeed on wider environmental grounds. Finally, a very simple immediate transparency measure the Commission should take is to publish the draft plans submitted by the Member States, in order to allow public debate before Commission approval.

A lost opportunity… but other avenues for change exist

As things stand, this CAP reform looks like another huge missed opportunity. One that will lead to wastage of billions of euros and take us further down the road toward ecological collapse. There will still be however other opportunities to implement the European Green Deal targets outside the CAP, and these must be pursued already. Top priorities should be enforcement of environmental legislation in agriculture, new and/or revised legislation on pesticides, upcoming legislation on sustainable food systems and on avoided deforestation, proper treatment of agriculture emissions in the follow up to the Climate Law and a science-based approach to the EU financial taxonomy.

(1) For the Biodiversity Strategy see: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1590574123338&uri=CELEX:52020DC0380

(2) See the analysis by BirdLife and other NGOs at https://www.birdlife.org/europe-and-central-asia/10-tests-green-deal-compatible-farming-policy

This article was first published on the 2/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.



The ECA Journal features articles on a variety of current audit topics, the ECA’s role and work. It is available in electronic form below, and paper copies can be ordered online at the EU Bookshop.

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