Help to save wildlife on arable farmland

11th January 2017
News Item

You may remember back in October we alerted you all to the Irish Government's attempts to block a ban on the use of pesticides in Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs). Despite ongoing efforts from the EU's powerful farming lobby and various governments including our own, the European Commission has now approved a proposal to ban “the use of plant protection products on some EFAs. It is motivated by the need to improve the environmental effectiveness of greening and, in particular, to maximise EFAs' biodiversity's effect.” Needless to say this is the very least the Commission should be looking to do. Handing over billions in tax-payers' money to large arable farmers in return for farm-level biodiversity areas which can be sprayed with toxic chemicals does not make sense on any level.

This modest move from the Commission is the bare minimum that is required to salvage some credibility for its ‘greening’ of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Even this small positive action however is being strongly contested by the European farmers' union COPA-COGECA who right now are mobilising member states and MEPs to oppose the ban on pesticides. It has already been demonstrated through the campaign to save the Birds and Habitats Directives that EU citizens can positively effect EU biodiversity policies when we act.

The European Commission has right now issued an online consultation on the proposal to ban pesticides in EFAs. The deadline for comments is TOMORROW Thursday the 12th January so we are calling on you to take two minutes to fill in the EC consultation!: https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/initiatives/ares-2016-6991856_en Please leave a comment about why pesticides should be banned in EFAs.

If your short of a little inspiration here is what An Taisce had to say: “It is widely accepted that agricultural intensification is the greatest driver of terrestrial biodiversity loss in Europe. The need to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture in Europe is the most important action the EU must take to tackle the ongoing global mass extinction event being driven by humanity. The CAP has a budget of 58 billion euro a year, which accounts for about 40% of the EU’s total budget. Under ‘greening’ it was agreed that 30% of EU countries' direct payment budgets or 12 billion euro a year would be reserved for certain practices aimed at addressing biodiversity loss, avoiding crop monoculture and securing carbon sequestration. Ecological Focus Areas were introduced as part of the ‘Greening' of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy under the 2013 CAP reform. EFAs were established ‘to safeguard and improve biodiversity on farms’ as per recital 44 of Reg.1307/2013 “by boosting natural processes and so strengthening the ecosystem functions that are essential for the long term productivity and intrinsic fertility of our food production systems.” The use of pesticides in EFAs fundamentally destroys the ability of these areas to host natural processes or to carry out ecosystem functions. This practice critically undermines the credibility of 'greening.' EFAs which cannot support life do not contribute to the conservation of biological diversity in the EU in any way and are a waste of taxpayers money. Any efforts to tackle biodiversity loss under the CAP must be commensurate with the scale of the threats/pressures facing habitats and species associated with agricultural systems. Even banning pesticides in EFAs will not be enough to achieve the EU's 'No Net Loss' objective by 2020 but it is certainly a start. If greening fails then the CAP's budget must be called into question.”

Some Background to CAP ‘Greening’ and EFA’s

Ecological Focus Areas were introduced as part of the ‘Greening' of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy under the 2013 CAP reform. The need to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture in Europe came with the recognition that the intensification of agriculture, which was driven in the main by EU policies and subsidies had seriously degraded the environment in Europe, driving biodiversity loss and water pollution. The CAP has a budget of 58 billion euro a year, which accounts for about 40% of the EU’s total budget. Under ‘greening’ it was agreed that 30% of EU countries' direct payment budgets or 12 billion euro a year would be reserved for certain practices aimed at addressing biodiversity loss, avoiding crop monoculture and securing carbon sequestration.

Ireland is one of 18 member states who have moved to block a ban on pesticides in Ecological Focus Areas. The move echoes the efforts in 2013 of the then Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney to block a ban on pesticides within the EU linked to collapses in bee populations in Europe. Despite the expensive marketing of Irish agriculture as a leader in sustainable food and drink production under Bord Bia’s Origin Green initiative it is clear that the Irish government remains as backward as ever when it comes to environmental issues.

One of the key proposals under greening was the introduction of Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) on large arable farms. The scale and intensity of fertiliser and pesticide use in the EU's arable farming sector had resulted in extensive biodiversity loss, water pollution and soil degradation in many parts of Europe. To try to redress this, Europe’s farmers were obliged under greening to dedicate a minimum of 5% of their arable spaces to EFAs. These EFAs range from areas where land is left fallow, to landscape features such as hedgerows, trees, buffer strips, afforested and agro-forestry areas, and measures such as catch crops and winter green cover. The idea was that these areas would be free of intensive land use, free of pesticides and fertilisers so that there would be space for wildlife to live and for essential natural processes such as pollination, soil formation and water purification to take place. It was envisioned that these EFAs would form essential environmental infrastructure from the farm to the landscape level.

Unfortunately the ambition of the EFAs was critically undermined by the successful lobbying of agribusiness lobbyists who convinced agricultural ministers of 23 Member States (including Ireland) to send a letter to the Commission to allow the use of pesticides and fertilisers in EFAs. The Commission caved under pressure and left the banning of pesticides in EFA’s to the discretion of the individual EU states. The Irish government not surprisingly did not ban the use of pesticides and fertilisers in EFAs leaving us with the incomprehensible situation where billions of taxpayers’ money are being invested in farm level protected areas which can be sprayed with herbicides to kill all plant life and sprayed with pesticides that destroy all insect life.

Environmental groups such as An Taisce have been urging the European Commission to address this abhorrent situation and place an outright ban on inputs in EFAs so that they can deliver the environmental benefits which EU citizens have paid for. The establishment of EFAs which are capable of supporting life is the bare minimum that should be expected from a reform which promised a "greener and fairer” CAP. In response the European Commission (EC) has put forward proposals to amend the greening provisions under CAP, including ban on the use of herbicides and pesticides in EFAs. In response to this progressive move a delegation of 18 countries including Ireland have sent a joint statement to the European Commission ahead of an Agriculture Council meeting on Monday calling on the amendment to be dropped.

Fintan Kelly, Natural Environment Officer, An Taisce said: “Despite the rhetoric and the expensive Origin Green advertising, it is clear that nothing has changed when it comes to the Irish government's attitude to the environment. Successive Irish Agricultural Ministers have cemented our position as one of the most toxic countries in the European Union when it comes to the environment. Ireland has consistently sought to undermine any move which would address the impact of pesticides on wildlife and reduce the environmental impact of arable farming in the EU. To be clear, in 2015, €364,500,900 will be handed to Irish farmers for greening measures which the Irish government intends to render meaningless. Large arable farmers will be handed taxpayers money based solely on the amount of land they own and thanks to the government they will be given millions of euros in environmental payments for strips of land that can be sprayed with chemicals so that they support no life. This is an insult to us all”.