Brussels, 06 Feb 2006
New research funded by the European Union has questioned the effectiveness of providing financial incentives to farmers to adopt more environmentally-friendly cultivation methods as a means of protecting biodiversity.
In 2003 the EU spent an estimated 3.7 billion euro on so-called agri-environment schemes (AES), and in 2005, approximately 25 per cent of the total agricultural area in the EU15 countries was covered by an agri-environment scheme. However, following three years of research in the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, Switzerland and Spain, scientists have concluded that AES in Europe 'appear to be largely ineffective as policy instruments'.
According to a statement by Wageningen University, which led the study: 'Research in five European countries has shown that common species of birds, insects and plants do not benefit very much from this kind of nature management and rare species benefit much less. There are virtually no benefits for threatened species (listed in the Red Data Books).'
For the study, researchers analysed the numbers of specific plants, birds, bees, grasshoppers, crickets and spiders on 202 farmland plots covered by AES, and compared them with the findings from the same number of non-AES plots.
While the researchers did acknowledge that AES have 'a small positive effect on the maintenance of biodiversity and the protection of threatened species', they conclude that the policy instrument in its current form is not sufficient to halt the downward trend in biodiversity.
However, the study uncovered enough examples of individual AES that did work for scientists to suggest that, with the right evidence base, design, targeting and funding, the policy could provide adequate protection for biodiversity.
'In order for them to work and to demonstrate that they have worked (or not), AES need clear objectives and targets,' the researchers concluded. Region-specific training and advice for farmers is also a crucial factor in the success of such schemes, they add.
Furthermore, wide-scale ecological evaluations are also vital for the successful design of AES, and these evaluations must be transparent, inclusive and carried out by skilled ecologists. Finally, the scientists stress that 'Agri-environment schemes should be regarded as working hypotheses that need constant adjustment.'
According to the website of the Commission's Agriculture DG, AES were introduced in the late 1980s 'as an instrument to support specific farming practices that help to protect the environment and maintain the countryside'. Farmers who, for a minimum of five years, adopt environmentally-friendly farming techniques that go beyond usual good farming practice receive payments in return that compensate for the additional costs and loss of income that arise as a result.
When presented with the findings of the study, a spokesperson for Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel told CORDIS News: 'AES are designed to cover more than just biodiversity - soil protection, for example. They are not supposed to do the job of environmental policy on their own. Secondly, there is a timescale question here. The benefits do take a long time to emerge and you can't expect miracles overnight.'
The Commission believes that the programmes are useful and have done a lot of good, the spokesperson concluded, but it will be taking a more strategic approach to agri-environment programmes under the next financial period (2007 to 2013), with much clearer targets.
The research was funded under the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), and was published in the scientific journal Ecology Letters.