Greening the CAP: The European Commission aims at improving the quality of Ecological Focus Areas

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Ecological Focus Area (EFA) is one of the tools put in place by the European Commission to achieve a greener Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Farmers who have a holding of more than 15 hectares have to dedicate 5% of their arable lands to EFA. But has this measure yielded the desired outcomes? In a recent report evaluating EFAs, the Commission declares that there is much room for improvement, especially regarding the type of EFA that farmers choose.

It is the European Commission’s firm ambition to make the CAP more sustainable. For this greening to occur, a green direct payment system[1] was introduced, accounting for 30% of EU countries’ direct payment budgets. With this scheme, farmers receive payments for environmentally friendly practices.

EFA is one of the tools designed to safeguard and improve biodiversity on farms but it is up to farmers and national authorities to decide how they fulfill their EFA requirements.

Farmers can choose the type of EFA from a menu drawn up by their national authorities from a common EU list. This means that the EU defines a set of options but that Member States can further tailor these options according to their specific needs.

Some types affect biodiversity directly, such as: fallow land, field margins, hedges and trees or buffer strips. Other types affect biodiversity indirectly, such as: cutting use of inputs or better soil protection (for example in areas covered by catch crops or nitrogen-fixing crops).

EFA types: Beneficial for the environment?

In a report published on the 29th March 2017[2], the European Commission evaluated how farmers and Member States have implemented the EFA requirement so far. After two years since its adoption, it is clear that the overall percentage of declared EFAs on arable land easily exceeds the required 5%. But do farmers always opt for the most environmentally friendly way of using these dedicated areas?

More than 90% of EFAs chosen are productive and potentially productive, consisting in nitrogen-fixing crops, catch crops and land lying fallow. Nitrogen fixing crops are the most popular type of EFA (39% of the total percentage of declared EFAs).

On the contrary, EFAs which are seen as more beneficial to the environment, such as landscape features (field margins, trees or hedges), hectares of agroforestry and buffer strips are underrepresented. These types only count for about 7,5% of EFAs.

The report by the European Commission clearly acknowledges that landscape features and hectares of agroforestry are more beneficial to the environment than other kinds of EFAs. Therefore, farmers should be incentivised to prefer these types of EFAs.

Shifting farmers’ choices

The European Commission is currently reviewing the Greening requirements[3]. The review aims at providing a fine-tuning of current rules, especially for EFAs, and at improving the environmental performance of the policy.

Reaching the environmental objectives of EFAs is not a question of increasing their percentage, according to the European Commission report.

Greater environmental benefits would come from shifting the farmers’ choice of EFA type and also from improving their management practices. To improve the quality of EFAs, the European Commission proposes the following actions:

  • A ban on the use of plant protection products on (potentially) productive EFAs;
  • Clarifying and setting retention periods for some EFA types (to make sure the requirements are sustained sufficiently long); and
  • Streamlining the requirements that might have prevented farmers from using some of the most environmentally beneficial EFAs, namely, landscape features and buffer strips.

While there are variations between the different types of EFAs, they all show a significant potential for improving the sustainability of the CAP. With its EFA evaluation report, the European Commission reaffirms its ambition to enhance biodiversity on European farms. Providing incentives to farmers to choose different types of EFAs is seen as a key tool to reach this objective. More concrete solutions will probably be put forward in the “Communication on the future of the CAP” that the European Commission will present by the end of the year.

[1] REGULATION (EU) No 1307/2013 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 17 december 2013 establishing rules for direct payments to farmers under support schemes within the framework of the common agricultural policy and repealing Council Regulation (EC) No 637/2008 and Council Regulation (EC) No 73/2009

[2] REPORT FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL on the implementation of the ecological focus area obligation under the green direct payment scheme:

[3] Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) No 639/2014 of 11 March 2014 supplementing Regulation (EU) No 1307/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing rules for direct payments to farmers under support schemes within the framework of the common agricultural policy and amending Annex X to that Regulation

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