By managing a large part of the European Union's territory, agriculture preserves farm-genetic resources, bio-diversity, and a wide range of valuable habitats.
‘Biodiversity' refers to the variety of life and its processes. The concept is closely associated with 'ecosystems' and 'habitats'. Agricultural biodiversity includes
- all components of biological diversity of relevance for food and agriculture, and
- all components of biological diversity that constitutes the agro-ecosystem.
Sound agricultural management practices can have a substantial positive impact on the conservation of the EU's wild flora and fauna. Traditional farming contributes to safeguarding certain natural or semi-natural habitats. Many valuable habitats and the presence of species have a direct interdependence with agriculture (e.g. many bird species nest and feed on farmland).
Two major changes have contributed to upsetting the delicate balance between agriculture and biodiversity:
- specialisation and intensification of certain production methods (such as the use of more chemicals and heavy machinery),
- marginalisation or abandonment of traditional land management being a key factor in preserving certain habitats and site-specific bio-diversity.
In some EU Member States, land abandonment and the withdrawal of traditional management may become a threat to biodiversity on farmland. Therefore, preventing these processes is a key action for halting the loss of biodiversity. The Common Agricultural Policy addresses the preservation of habitats and biodiversity by
- specific Rural Development measures targeted towards the preservation of habitats and biodiversity (agri-environment and Natura 2000 payments) and
- requirements included in the scope of cross compliance (Birds and Habitats Directives).
The emphasis on these measures has been confirmed in the context of the CAP "Health Check", where biodiversity remains one of the top challenges to be addressed.
A specific Community programme which finances measures to promote the conservation, characterisation, collection and utilisation of genetic resources in agriculture has been launched in April 2004 and is in progress.
At EU level, the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives form the cornerstone of Europe's nature conservation policy.
In addition, the adoption of an EU Biodiversity Strategy and sectoral Biodiversity Action Plans are central elements for the preservation of biodiversity.
The Biodiversity Action Plan for Agriculture was adopted in 2001. It is based on the use of a number of CAP instruments benefiting biodiversity. This includes measures that encompass environmental requirements integrated into market policy and targeted environmental measures that form part of the Rural Development Programmes. The priorities of the Action Plan are:
- the promotion and support of environmentally-friendly farming practices and systems that benefit biodiversity directly or indirectly;
- the support of sustainable farming activities in biodiversity-rich areas;
- the maintenance and enhancement of good ecological infrastructures, and the promotion of actions to conserve local or threatened livestock breeds or plant varieties.
In December 2008, the Commission published a mid-term report on implementation of the EU Biodiversity Action Plan which provides the first comprehensive assessment of progress at both European Community and Member State levels.
On 3 May 2011, the European Commission adopted a new strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020.