Agricultural policy, smart salmon and sex-change chickens at the British Association's annual festival of science in Leeds
Advisers to the European Commission's Directorate on Environment have warned that Europe faces an ecological disaster unless fundamental changes are made in Europe's Common Agricultural Policy.
The warnings came at a conference on the hidden costs of modern land use presented as part of the British Association's festival.
David Walton of the British Ecological Society described the agricultural policy as "a mess".
He said: "It is driven by short-term economic considerations. It has focused on the subsidisation of intensive use and has got the long-term strategy wrong."
Mike Pienkowski of the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism said the cause of the problem was fairly simple.
"The second world war was a period of scarcity and absence of food, with rationing for several years after the war. Policy-makers saw production within national boundaries as a solution. Agricultural policies, until recently, have been fighting the second world war."
Subsidies focus solely on food production ignoring other aspects of land management, such as maintaining water quality and the scenic and cultural heritage, sustaining wildlife and providing recreation. Researchers are warning that conservation and agriculture are more closely linked than policies might suggest.
"Conservation management has focused attention on protecting habitat remnants. This approach is reinforced by legislation. Site protection is important, but alone it is not enough. High nature value farming areas do exist in Europe, but they are still being lost, " Dr Pienkowski said.
He and economist Steve Goss of the Centre for European Agriculture studies agreed that the problems arose as a consequence of false accounting, which focuses on the profits gained from intensive farming but ignores many of its costs.
"Current agricultural support disturbs production, generally encouraging intensification," said Dr Goss. "Farming is about balancing options - livestock versus arable, cattle versus sheep. The CAP has seriously disrupted those balances."
According to Dr Goss, big subsidies for some uses of land, such as cattle farming, have brought about these imbalances. The use of quotas has since acted to limit some overproduction, but Dr Goss maintained that the agricultural system remained a disaster.
"The system is practically immovable - dictated by agricultural policy, with very little room to respond to what would be good for the environment. To reduce stocking rates, or do anything that would be good for the environment, needs the ability to pull against the weight of agricultural policy. That's about $30 billion per annum. Environmental issues do not have the financial muscle to have much impact."
Dr Goss has recommended a new approach to agricultural subsidies that should see little or no loss to individual farmers throughout the European Union but would move away from the per-capita basis of much of the current CAP.
Based on agricultural zones, yet allowing for inherent differences in potential productivity in lowland versus upland areas, he suggested a tiered system that offers a range of agricultural and environmental payments, provided farmers adhere to certain environmentally appropriate conditions.
But recommendations must become policy if they are to have any effect. This means getting Government support in persuading Brussels of the profound implications of the policy alternatives.