Farmers’ incentives for choosing most appropriate environmental measures must increase

Lovisa Nilsson walking in a field. Photo.
Lovisa Nilsson doing field work. Photo: William Sidemo Holm.

Many farmers are positive to measures beneficial for biodiversity and the environment. But bureaucracy and regulatory hassle often stand in the way, says Lovisa Nilsson in a new dissertation, while also calling for better financial incentives for the individual farmer to choose the best environmental measures.

In a new doctoral dissertation, presented at the Centre for Environmental and Climate Research (CEC) at Lund University, Lovisa Nilsson investigated how different demands and support affect the environment in the agricultural landscape and what factors contribute to farmers' decisions when implementing environmental measures.

“I think there is a will among many farmers to do environmentally good and that they care about their land and want to do right, but then the legislation that they must relate to can be very confusing", says Lovisa.

The European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) developed in the 1950s and has been continuously reformed. The latest reform proposal has been criticized by many researchers for being weak in relation to environmental goals and climate protection. During the autumn, the final negotiations will be held for the agricultural policy that will be applied in the EU after 2022.

Skåne in focus in a combination of evaluations

In her dissertation, Lovisa Nilsson examines parts of the criticism directed at agricultural policy and how the management of agricultural landscapes can be made more effective in promoting both the environment and economic goals. The focus of the investigation is on multifunctional agricultural landscapes which can provide crops to animals and humans but at the same time preserve biodiversity and ecosystem services such as water and climate control. Lovisa and the other contributing researchers have mainly studied agriculture in the region of Skåne, where agriculture is more large-scale compared to in other parts of Sweden and where many farmers get part of the EU support measures for agriculture.

In addition to investigating decision-making and economic factors, Lovisa has, together with other researchers, studied how sowing of annual flowers on so called ecological focus areas affects pollinators and natural enemies of insect pests in the agricultural landscape. The measure was found to have a positive impact on bumblebees, which could contribute to better pollination in the landscapes. In contrast, the measure had little or weak effect on other insects studied.

Lovisa stresses that the action programmes must be evaluated in different ways, for example to better utilize synergies between different types of ecosystem services in the agricultural landscape.

“In my dissertation, we combine economic modelling with ecological modelling and then we match it to reality through interviews with government officials and farmers”, says Lovisa.

Cooperation positive for farmers and biodiversity

During a workshop with farmers, which was conducted through the study, it was argued that collaborations between farmers is perceived as positive when working with implementing environmental measures, since you can then share the costs for machines and labour and you get a meeting place for discussing problems and solutions where you can also learn from each other.

This view was shared by government officials who had experience in agricultural co-operation, while government officials without this experience thought it would entail complicated processes, a heavier administrative burden and increased difficulty in monitoring compliance with guidelines. Lovisa also points out that collaboration between farmers can benefit biodiversity, especially for some unusual species that are not very mobile. This is because through collaboration one can create larger, more coherent areas with good habitats for these species, something that is often missing in the agricultural landscape of today, which is one of the important causes of the biodiversity loss.

Unclear objectives and effects

Lovisa believes that a common criticism of the support measures by various stakeholders within agriculture is that there is no evidence that the measures really work and are useful and that in some cases the EU has compromised a number of measures that have subsequently proved to be ineffective. The objectives of the measures must be made measurable and the definitions of concepts, such as biodiversity, must be clarified. It is also necessary to develop measures that are more voluntary to increase farmers' engagement, says Lovisa.

She also points out that research has already been conducted on many of the various measures which should be taken into account to a greater extent before the measures are introduced as part of the agricultural policy. For example, one of the studies in Lovisa's thesis has already had an effect on rules for how ecological focus areas should be managed.

Need for increased incentives for most appropriate measures

Although agricultural profitability can benefit from measures that enhance biodiversity, e.g. through increased pollination, Lovisa believes that incentives must increase for taking the right environmental measures. One example is to clarify synergies between private and public good, e.g. show that one can simultaneously promote pollination of the crops and increase biodiversity. At the same time, one must be prepared to compensate for costs that arise when measures mainly benefit the public good, which is for example done in the environmental support within agriculture.

Lovisa points out that when the measures are mandatory, such as different types of ecological focus areas, there is a risk that farmers choose measures that are cheap and easy to perform. This is especially a problem if there is a large menu of measures to choose from, since farmers must primarily get their businesses to cover the costs. Instead, better governance towards the right measures is required and making sure that the measures end up in the right places in the landscape. It is also important to take into account the effects of mandatory measures on agriculture as a whole and not just look at the effects that arise on the specific agricultural field.

“Expensive measures may result in more farmers quitting, so that we get bigger farms and that this in the long run affects the landscape and its opportunities to produce ecosystem services", Lovisa argues.

At the same time, she says that we must not stare blindly on that it only creates problems when the farms become bigger, although this is a contributing reason for many small habitats disappearing. It is often the larger farms that have resources to invest in various environmental measures.

Common agricultural policy entails challenges

Lovisa also emphasizes the challenge of having a common European agricultural policy, since the countries' desire to do environmentally good must be combined with ensuring the competitiveness of their national farmers towards other farmers in the EU and globally. She therefore sees both opportunities and challenges in the EU's new agricultural reform proposal.

“The new proposals will give member states greater flexibility in implementing environmental measures. And then there is a risk of lowering the bar in some countries, when we should raise it instead.”

Definitions and facts

Green direct payment (or ”greening”)
A financial support for farmers who adopt or maintain farming practices that help meet environmental and climate goals. The support requires a certain number of crops on the land, that you have at least five percent ecological focus areas on the land and that you contribute to the conservation of grasslands and pastures.

Ecological focus areas
Ecological focus areas are areas that can improve biodiversity, e.g. flowering fallow and uncultivated field edges on arable land. This does not mean that they must be organically grown.