Intensive farming remains a main cause of biodiversity loss, according to a new report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA).
In Europe, the number and variety of species on farmland have declined.
Since 1990, farmland birds and grassland butterflies have decreased by more than 30%.
Intensive farming has reduced the abundance and diversity of natural vegetation and consequently of animals.
The report confirms that the EU Commission’s 2011 strategy to halt biodiversity loss by 2020 has failed.
It’s part of an unprecedented global biodiversity decline, with around one million animal and plant species worldwide threatened with extinction.
In January 2020, the World Economic Forum said loss of biodiversity and collapse of ecosystems is one of the top five threats facing the world.
The ECA report indicates that environmental damage may have began after the second world war.
That was when hedge destruction was encouraged by European governments in order to increase food self-sufficiency and allow the use of machinery unable to manoeuvre in small fields.
In France, nearly 70% of hedges were destroyed up to 1983.
In Belgium, up to 75% were destroyed in certain regions.
The figure in the Netherlands was 30 to 50% from 1960 to 1994.
In Italy, up to 90% of hedges have disappeared in the Po region.
Irish farmers in some regions have removed 15-30% of their hedges.
In many areas of Europe, diverse landscapes of many small fields and habitats were transformed to uniform, unbroken terrain, managed with large farm machines.
Inevitably, farmland biodiversity (wild animals such as small mammals, birds and insects, natural vegetation and underground life) suffered.
A 2017 study in Germany estimated seasonal insect decline of 76%, and mid-summer insect decline of 82%, over 27 years.
The latest European Grassland Butterfly Index shows that numbers of 17 typical butterflies have declined by 39% since 1990, although the situation has stabilised since 2013.
The European Environment Agency says that agricultural intensification remains one of the main causes of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation in Europe.
The ECA said some parts of the Common Agricultural Policy have greater potential to improve biodiversity, but the Commission and Member States favoured low-impact options.
Scientists recognise that intensification of arable systems has led to a decline in biodiversity, and species decline on grasslands is particularly associated with neighbouring arable farming practices.
Agricultural policy hasn’t been a complete failure; there has been very good progress to help combat invasive alien species.
But “no significant progress” is the EU Commission’s own rating of the contribution of agriculture and forestry to maintaining and enhancing biodiversity.
Greening has been one of the failures.
Since 2014, “greening” of direct payments to farmers directed 30% of these payments to strengthen the environmental sustainability of agriculture.
However, research indicates it has led to changes in farming practices on only around 5% of all EU farmland.
Introduced in the 2013 CAP reform, greening is dropped in the 2020 reform proposals.
It includes crop diversification, estimated by the EU Commission to be the greening measure with the fewest environmental benefits.
The previous crop rotation policy had more value for biodiversity.
Greening includes ecological focus areas (EFAs) to deliver biodiversity benefits.
In Ireland, over 95% of farmers are exempted from greening due to the natural abundance of grassland.
However, Ireland scored well for landscape feature and buffer strip EFAs making up about 4% of arable land in 2017, rather than the nitrogen-fixing crops, catch crops, or green cover, favoured in other member states, low-impact options which are the least beneficial for farmland biodiversity.
Permanent grassland is important for farmland biodiversity, and even more so for removal of carbon.
But the best plant diversity results come from non-intensive grassland, mown only once a year or grazed more sparingly.
In contrast to greening, the much maligned set-aside policy introduced in 1988 (to reduce surplus crop produced and deliver environmental benefits) may have been better for biodiversity.
Larger scale crop farmers were paid to set aside 1-15% of their land, meaning to leave it out of intensive production.
Some studies indicate that a steep decline in insect populations was most strongly connected with the withdrawal of obligatory set-aside in 2009.
Greening also allowed ploughing of permanent grassland, which is detrimental to biodiversity.
In Poland, farmers can, in principle, convert such grassland into arable land, as long as the country’s 5% overall ceiling is not breached,
In Germany and Ireland, farmers need administrative authorisation before they can plough, and must reseed an equivalent area with grass (although newly seeded grassland has lower environmental and biodiversity value).
Results-based rural schemes have been one of the few CAP positives for biodiversity.
But they are rare across Europe.
One such successful scheme in Ireland’s Burren programme, which focuses on conserving the unique limestone karst farming landscape in Co Clare.
The overall biodiversity performance of land in the programme has gradually improved every year since inception.