Farming has a key role to play in the delivery of a number of vital ecosystem services; however, despite the fact that that there has been considerable emphasis placed on environmental issues in European agricultural policy over the years, it is generally accepted that we still have some way to go if the industry is to deliver what is expected of it in this regard. For example, it is now widely accepted that the intensification of agricultural production has had negative consequences for farmland biodiversity. It is hoped that the introduction of Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs – introduced as part of the ‘greening’ of the Common Agricultural Policy) on farms will help redress the balance, but whether it works or not will be dependent on the specific EFA elements a farmer choses to implement, and their appropriateness to the local environment.
Consequently, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) engaged AERU to develop a software system to help farmers select EFA elements that can deliver optimal environmental benefits. To do this, AERU reviewed the published literature covering the environmental impacts of a wide range of EFA elements, including leaving land fallow; the management of hedges, ponds and woodlands; and many others, in order to develop a unique system for assessing their joint and separate impacts on the environment. This in turn was built into a prototype software tool, the EFA Calculator, to help farmers and farm advisers in the selection of suitable EFA elements, which is now freely available to stakeholders across the continent, from the project website. The aim is to strike a balance between delivering significant environmental benefits whilst at the same time being realistic in terms of practical farm management requirements, by allowing farmers across the EU to maximise the environmental benefits on their farm and in so doing produce the large scale improvements we wish to see.
On the 26th of May Dr John Tzilivakis was invited to present AERU’s work to a meeting of European Commission departments in Brussels. Since their introduction in 2015, the uptake of EFAs by farmers across the EU has largely been confined to options that are easy to implement on farms, such as catch crops, fallow land and nitrogen fixing crops, rather than more costly and management intensive options, such as new hedgerows, woodland, ponds and ditches. However, it is recognised that if the greening measures are to deliver demonstrable benefits, it will be essential to be able to assess and understand the relative impact of different EFA options on biodiversity and other ecosystem services, and focus on those capable of delivering the most. Consequently, this is a hot topic at the moment, so the seminar was very well attended by staff from the Directorates-General for Agriculture, the Environment and Climate Action, with the presentation on the EFA Calculator generating a great deal of interest. The Commission is now exploring how it could be used to steer both farmers and future policy, towards EFAs that enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services.
For further information on the project, please visit the project website.