CAP Greening | EFAs in Focus

Using a recent document by the European Commission on Ecological Focus Areas – EFAs – this long read traces the story of The Common Agriculture Policy’s EFAs. EFAs are up for discussion and consideration once again, thanks to a Delegated Act in process, which may ban pesticides from these areas. EFAs may, after all, emerge as a way to protect biodiversity and the ecosystem and agri services nature provides. In four parts below.

“The principle of a ban on pesticides in ecological focus areas remains and will continue to remain”. So said EU Agri Commissioner Phil Hogan, regarding this and other CAP simplifications the Commission has put forward, for Parliament and Council consideration this year via Delegated Act (downloads .PDF). This article gives the background context for such a potential change in this one aspect of CAP, one of the direct payment greening  practices, known as EFAs, or ecological focus areas.

On March 29th, a Commission report  – “on the implementation of the ecological focus area obligation under the green direct payment scheme” – concluded: “On the basis of the above considerations, the Commission does not propose to amend Regulation (EU) No 1307/2013 by increasing the percentage of EFA.”

On the face of it, this last line to an April EU Commission report on EFAs and Greening is a disappointment. EFAs – Ecological Focus Areas – are already probably too small to function to the optimal level well, when most EFA categories are taken into account: this is because some large areas declared as EFAs distort the overall picture. There is a preponderance of crops (nitrogen fixing and catch) and too few of the other options – hedgerows, trees, buffer strips, afforested, agroforestry areas and more. These crops were never initially part of EFAs, and were only introduced late in the previous CAP reform process after much intense lobbying pressure to weaken EFAs.  Moreover there are too  exemptions and the weighting employed encourages the least environmental, most ‘productive’ practices. Finally, Member States have themselves taken the path of least resistance, choosing EFAs that involve little if any change, when given the opportunity, time and time again. EFAs then, are nothing like as environmentally supportive as they should be, though that ostensibly is their purpose.

Nevertheless, this report from  the Commission to the Council and Parliament  makes for interesting reading. This is especially the case because EU Commissioner Phil Hogan seems intent on restricting pesticides from EFAs.

The Commission report is intended to “contribute to the wider evaluation of greening, including the environmental benefits of EFAs, due for completion by the end of 2017 or early 2018. It will also feed into the report on the CAP monitoring and evaluation due in 2018. The observations in Chapter 3 of this report do not prejudge the evaluation of greening, which will be comprehensive on all its aspects, including EFAs”

Below we outline the key elements to the report, while highlighting (in bold) parts we will return to in analysis.

Part 1 Commission April Report on EFAs and Greening

The report opens by noting that biodiversity is not recognised by markets or prices farmers receive. Biodiversity  is both dependent on certain habitats and practices, while also under pressure from both intensification and land abandonment.

EFAs objective is “in particular…to safeguard and improve biodiversity on farms…In terms of potential impacts, the focus is on biodiversity, which is the primary environmental EFA objective.”The EFA calculator considers EFAs’ potential environmental impacts through a scoring system which reflects EFA types’ characteristics and their agronomic context but does not quantify real impacts.

In addition, potential impacts on ecosystem services (benefits that people obtain from ecosystems) and climate are also considered in order to identify potential co-benefits and trade-offs.

Based on Member States’ decisions for 2015, the following clusters of Member States emerge:

14 Member States offered an extensive list of EFA types (10 to 19)

Nine Member States opted for an intermediate list.

Five Member States offered a limited selection of EFA types (maximum of four)

The data shows that Member States preferred areas with nitrogen-fixing crops, land lying fallow and landscape features over other options such as hectares of agroforestry, strips of eligible hectares along forest edges and terraces.

Part 2 Commission EFA Analysis

The Commission’s own analysis suggests that:

“most Member States use options aimed at acknowledging other CAP mechanisms’ contribution to biodiversity”; Options aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of EFA types are rarely chosen: “Although Member States have several ways to enhance the effectiveness of EFAs, these have rarely been used. For example, none of the 13 Member States/regions that selected ponds as an EFA type set criteria for ensuring their natural value.”

Member State choices appear driven by the need to find a balance between maximising flexibility for farmers and minimising administrative complexity.

At EU level, the percentage of EFA areas declared by farmers is almost twice as much as the required 5 % at farm level. The three main EFAs are linked to productive or potentially productive areas.

The analysis notes that, after weighting, “nitrogen-fixing crops and catch crops reached 54% of the total weighted EFAs (39% and 15% respectively).”

EFAs display regional characteristics too:

  • A substantial share of landscape features and buffer strips is found only in Ireland, the United Kingdom and Malta.
  • Land lying fallow is more present in Mediterranean countries like Spain, Portugal and Cyprus and in Member States located in the boreal biogeographical region, like Finland and Latvia.
  • Nitrogen-fixing crops are prevalent in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland and Romania.
  • Catch crops are more widespread in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

EFA chosen by Member State

 Why do farmers choose the EFAs they choose ?

  • Economic determinants prompting them to choose the least costly and most productive EFA type;
  • Policy and administrative factors such as: a restricted list of EFA types made available by the national authorities (e.g. countries having selected only three or four EFA types); the level of risk that they will be checked and found to be non-compliant (e.g. if a field margin exceeds the maximum width);  the level of administrative burden (e.g. this may be reduced by use of a prefilled single application form with all landscape features qualifying as EFAs);
  • Farmers’ perceptions and knowledge of the EFA obligation.

The report then goes onto outline the potential impacts on biodiversity, on ecosystem services and on climate.

Potential Impacts

Main Impact – Biodiversity

Landscape features and land lying fallow appear the most beneficial EFA types for biodiversity… EFAs could be more beneficial for biodiversity provided appropriate management practices are in place: The EFA calculator’s results suggest that the positive impact on biodiversity is likely to vary depending on different management requirements for each type of EFA. For example, for land lying fallow it depends on coverage and species sown. For biodiversity and in particular pollinators, sowing wildflowers has the highest impact while leaving the soil bare the lowest. Natural regeneration is also a good way to foster biodiversity and pollination.”

Non-intensive ways of managing non-productive EFAs are also cited as potentially beneficial  – e.g. keeping land fallow for a long period or not using pesticides because they reduce disturbance of the relevant habitats, in particular over the bird breeding period. Sowing mixtures of species under catch crops/green cover appears to have a positive impact on biodiversity.

Other Potential  Impact  – Ecosystem Services

Landscape features provide best results in terms of their potential positive impact on ecosystem services.”

Other EFA types may have some positive impact with specific management – the emphasis in particular, which emerges again and again, is the range of  species sown. A number of examples are cited:

“Catch crops fare well in terms of their impact on the chemical condition of freshwater.. their impact can be enhanced by using mixtures of different species…species with different nutrient requirements…”. Land lying fallow is positive depending on “choice of species sown“; and similarly, “wild seed mixes and bare fallow with winter stubbles and naturally regenerated vegetation” perform “better than grass”.  That said, the report points out that “any coverage on fallow land is welcome, as bare soil scores the lowest on ecosystem services and may have negative impacts due to the higher risk of soil erosion.” Interestingly, “land lying fallow also gives better results if left unmanaged for a long period.”

Indeed event “the impact of nitrogen-fixing crops may also depend on the choice of species and management: decreasing cultivation frequency reduces nitrogen leaching, phosphate run-off and the risk of soil erosion.”

Other Potential Impact – Climate

Regarding other impacts, climate is referred to in terms of adaptation, via landscape features. For mitigation, leguminous crops and the resulting displacement of nitrogen fertiliser with nitrogen fixation.

“Potential  carbon storage via agroforestry and afforestation when implemented, could improve the carbon sequestration of EU land use. Soil carbon sequestration is directly dependent on soil biodiversity. This highlights the links and possible synergies between improving biodiversity on farms and climate mitigation.”

Commission Conclusions

A conundrum is that there is more EFA than required – i.e. more than 5% – but much of this is basically productive land.

EFAs and environmental benefit are defined by not only their “quantity but also on their quality”, which also comes down to specifics, especially management.These include:

  • Type of soil cover for land lying fallow, different mixtures of crops for catch crops and of crop groups for nitrogen-fixing crops;
  • Cutting regimes, retention periods and the use of chemical inputs;
  • The diversity of vegetation structure for landscape features, the location and dimension for buffer strips.

The conclusion also emphasises that potential “changes to secondary greening legislation currently pursued by the Commission are an important step towards better management practices, along with:

“(i) a ban on the use of plant protection products (i.e.pesticides  -aka herbicides, insecticides, fungicides) on (potentially) productive EFAs;

(ii) clarifying and setting retention periods for some EFA types; and

(iii) streamlining the requirements that might have prevented farmers from using some of the most environmentally beneficial EFAs, namely landscape features and buffer strips.”

Part 3  – ARC2020 Analysis of the Commission EFA Report

There is much to commend in this report – the benefits of deeper, more interrelated ecosystem services emerges. That said, the priority of biodiversity specifically as the purpose of EFAs is clear. This is important in ongoing discussion on pesticides and their use or otherwise in EFAs: the conventional agri-food lobby is trying to use crop security to make the case for maintaining EFAs as they currently operate, with pesticides.

As the Commission’s summary document on the consultation points out:

The feedback focused on the ban on the use of plant protection products (PPPs) on several EFAs, in particular nitrogen-fixing crops (NFCs). There were several responses from farmers’ organisations and agricultural businesses questioning whether it would be technically feasible or economically viable to cultivate NFCs without PPPs. They suggested that this approach would in fact lead to a reduction in EU production of leguminous crops – undermining the goal of increasing production that they saw as a reasoning behind the EFA. The reduction in production could potentially threaten the EU’s independence in production of these crops, they warned. Other responses raised concerns over pest control on land lying fallow if a ban on PPPs were introduced, while others took issue with the wording of the draft regulations on the question of undersowing, noting it could inadvertently have the effect of prolonging the ban on PPPs into the next cropping year. This, they argued, would not only be inconsistent with usual farming practices but could also prolong and complicate the control procedures and thus potentially delay payments to farmers.

EFAs achieve, technically, a slightly larger % of land than officially required, and this is supposedly a reason for not increasing EFAs from 5% to for e.g. 7%. – as was originally envisioned. However, it is also the case that these directly productive uses of EFAs were controversial when introduced, and not part of how they were originally envisioned. Moreover, the change in weighting – one of the very last changes made in the extreme watering down of the CAP greening in the final months of the previous so called CAP reform  –  made these productive uses of EFAs  – Nitrogen fixing and catch crops – more attractive to farmers and Member States. While its a positive sign that the Commission is pointing to the limitations of this now, some years of biodiversity destruction have ensued needlessly. It is also the case that a significant number of Member States will, again, oppose changes that make EFAs more explicitly about biodiversity protection.

The report says: “After applying the weighting factors, nitrogen-fixing crops and catch crops reached 54% of the total weighted EFAs (39% and 15% respectively). This was 5.4 % of the arable land under the obligation and seems to have contributed to overshooting the required 5 % at farm level…Nitrogen-fixing crops declared as EFA, which were chosen by all Member States except Denmark, covered 49 % of such areas in 2015.”

However, as we reported in 2014, this weighting regime in itself was a “CAP-itulation“: “As far as the production of nitrogen-fixing crops on EFA is concerned, the Commission has decided to adjust the coefficient in the Annex (…) such that 1 hectare of a nitrogen-fixing crop such as alfalfa, clover or lupins  can be equivalent to 0.7 ha of EFA (rather than 0.3 ha in the original text(emphasis added),” without any binding restrictions on pesticides use on those crops.

This change radically reverses the purpose of EFAs by eliminating the disincentive of the former weighting factor. Previously, if the objective was to find land to fulfill the 5% greening requirement and farmers wanted to use Nitrogen-fixing crops to do that, they would have had to declare 3.33ha to achieve 1ha of the EFA – this would have acted as a disincentive. Now only 1.43ha of Nitrogen-fixing crops would be enough to fulfill 1ha of the EFA requirement, even if that production uses pesticides which would prevent pollination.”

Straightforwardly, this weighting change from 0.3 to 0.7 for N fixing crops is why EFAs are not working for biodiversity as they should be.

That real impacts are not measured – to quote the report itself “the observations on potential environmental effects do not aim to measure real impacts” – is not good value for citizen funding (aka taxpayers money).  Agriculture has gotten off the hook for too long with this level of validation of public money use. While results-based schemes are on the increase, they are minority pursuits.

Part 4 – EFAs Vision vs Reality

This ARC2020 website is one of the few places  – along with Alan Matthew’s excellent blog  – where the story of CAP greening in general and EFAs in particular can be traced. In 2011, our first link to EFAs via greening, links to the Commission proposing that EFA would be not 5% but in fact 7% of farmland. Then, there was no notion of productive crops being included, but, rather, “field margins, hedges, trees, fallow land, landscape features, biotopes, buffer strips, afforested area” are cited.

This post on Alan Matthews’  CAPreform.eu blog, by J Christophe Bureau, from 2013 is especially interesting because it compares EFAs to their inspiration, Swiss ECAs, or Ecological Compensation Areas: “the literature on the Swiss ECA experience suggests that EFAs would have had a positive effect on plant biodiversity.” (emphasis added).

Bureau also points out that “When it drafted the 7% EFA requirement proposal, the Commission estimated that at least 3% of the land on almost any farm qualifies as EFA, once existing buffer strips, field borders and field sections where tractors can hardly access were all taken into account.”

In 2013, we also reported that Germany – home of Europe’s largest number of industrial farms – was at logger heads with France over EFAs and greening: Germany wanted to radically reduce the size of EFAs:

“The credit for saving the agricultural budget and for backing the Commission’s greening concept went to France’s president Francois Hollande, who prevented Frau Merkel from slashing funds and greening efforts. According to inside sources, Merkel had been determined to promote 3,5% instead of 7% of ecological focus areas.”

In October 2013, we reported for the first time on a European parliament vote which foretold the potential inclusion of nitrogen fixing crops in EFAs, and the use -incredibly at the time – of pesticides in EFAs. By December 2013 we revealed that 23 Member States had come together to bring pesticides and mineral fertilizers into EFAs.

January 2014 saw the beginning of a campaign to save EFAs from pesticides and mineral fertilizers (dedicated campaign page here). While this was ultimately unsuccessful, it is very noteworthy that the current Commission, for all its faults, seems quite steadfast in its intention to take pesticides out of EFAs.

EFAs What Now?

As we reported earlier in the month, “a Delegated Act (downloads .PDF) including 14 changes has been adopted on greening by the Commission. The Council and European Parliament will in the coming months take a position, which involves accepting or rejecting changes,  but  not making amendments or changes to the text. Following this, the Delegated Act should come into force.”

It appears that, after all of the above watering down of the idea and practice of EFAs – at EU and Member State level – it may be the case that pesticides will now be taken out of Ecological Focus Areas. Specifically there are three EFA related suggestions by the Commission:

  1. The introduction of ban on using plant protection products on productive areas (land lying fallow, catch crops and nitrogen-fixing crops);
  2. The extension of minimum fallow period from 6 to 9 months and
  3. the introduction of obligatory 10-week period for catch crops.

There is still much Member State opposition – this time from 18 Member States –  so the decision is not final, and the historical record is not good.

There is something dismissive and disingenuous in the way this process has been handled. In the previous CAP reform, EFAs were weakened drastically and not even measured properly. Two years ago, we warned that “this policy of rolling back the few improvements which  have actually survived the farce of so called CAP Reform would cause citizens to loose even more faith in CAP.” And now, when the CAP budget is threatened by external factors – increased boarder control, increased militarisation –  it turns out little real evidence can be put forward to justify EFAs or other aspects of greening, so weak and badly measured has greening been.

Nevertheless, the proposed changes to EFAs, couched as they are in the language of simplification, represents something of a step in the right direction. Let’s see if these improvements to EFAs survive the impacts of the lobby.

Further reading

Ecological Focus Area (EFA) in Germany: good for biodiversity & the tax payer?

Ecological Focus Area (EFA) in Germany: good for biodiversity & the tax payer?

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About Oliver Moore (130 Articles)
Graduated with his PhD in November 2007 having studied the sociology of buying and selling of organic fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers' markets in Ireland. Is published in academic journals and books, including the International Journal of Consumer Studies and the book Belongings (from the sociological chronicles series). Communications Manager and EU Correspondent with ARC2020.eu, a platform of 150+ NGOs campaigning for better food, farming, environment and rural policies in Europe.

A weekly columnist and contributor with Irish Examiner, columnist with Food and Wine magazine, contributor to lots of other publications, including the Irish Times. Regular contributor to on RTE Radio 1. On line, along with too many he's a contributor to websites like Glenisk's. He's also occasionally heard on radio talking about articles that have just appeared, or about farming/food/organics in UCC, where he give classes on organics, Fair Trade, CSAs and other agri-food related areas.
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