Agri-environment measures provide payments to farmers who subscribe, on a voluntary basis, to environmental commitments related to the preservation of the environment and maintaining the countryside.
Agri-environment measures are a key element for the integration of environmental concerns into the Common Agricultural Policy. They are designed to encourage farmers to protect and enhance the environment on their farmland by paying them for the provision of environmental services.
Farmers commit themselves, for a minimum period of at least five years, to adopt environmentally-friendly farming techniques that go beyond legal obligations. In return, farmers receive payments that provide compensation for additional costs and income foregone resulting from applying those environmentally friendly farming practices in line with the stipulations of agri-environment contracts.
Agri-environment measures play a crucial role for meeting society's demand for environmental outcomes provided by agriculture. Extensive farming systems, a mosaic of landscapes, environmentally sound farming techniques adapted to region-specific needs, or extensive pasture systems are highly valued. Agri-environment payments encourage farmers to adopt agricultural activities or levels of production intensity that deliver positive environmental outcomes, while not being necessarily the first choice from the point of view of profitability.
Examples of commitments covered by national/regional agri-environmental schemes are:
- environmentally favourable extensification of farming;
- management of low-intensity pasture systems;
- integrated farm management and organic agriculture;
- preservation of landscape and historical features such as hedgerows, ditches and woods;
- conservation of high-value habitats and their associated biodiversity.
Agri-environment measures may be designed at the national, regional, or local level so that they can be adapted to particular farming systems and specific environmental conditions. This makes agri-environment a targeted tool for achieving environmental goals.
Agri-environment measures are co-financed by Member States. EU expenditure on agri-environment measures amounts for 2007 - 2013 to nearly 20 billion EUR or 22 % of the expenditure for rural development.
Agri-environment schemes were first introduced into EU agricultural policy during the late 1980s as an option to be applied by Member States. Since 1992, the application of agri-environment programmes has been compulsory for Member States in the framework of their rural development plans, whereas they remain optional for farmers.
The legal obligations that form the reference level for the agri-environment measures are indicated in article 39.3 of Regulation No 1698/2005. Up to this reference level the "Polluter-Pays-Principle" applies.