EU Eco-Farming Not So Green After All, Says Group

Bijal P. Trivedi
for National Geographic Today
October 31, 2001

Environmentally friendly farming practiced by the Dutch for 20 years isn't as friendly as many people had hoped, according to a new study.

The research showed that, contrary to expectations, the methods have not resulted in a broader diversity of plant and animal species than is found on conventionally managed farms.

The finding is a blow to the European Union's "green farming" movement, under which 20 percent of all farmland is managed using at least some practices designed to be more environmentally sensitive.

Since 1981, Dutch farmers have been encouraged to adopt farming techniques that were thought to benefit plant and bird life. Farmers who have voluntarily adopted these measures are paid a subsidy. The goal of the program is to counteract the negative effects of modern farming, such as declines in species diversity and the disruption of local nesting grounds and migration patterns.

Researchers led by David Kleijn of Wageningen University in Bornsesteeg, The Netherlands, studied 78 fields where the alternative farming methods had been implemented for at least six years. The results showed no significant increase in the number of plant species or of meadow and wader birds, according to a report this month in the journal Nature.

The Netherlands is an important breeding region for two species of wader birds—the black-tailed godwit and oystercatcher—and for meadow birds in general. Farmers who have agreed to participate in the environmentally responsive program cannot begin annual farming practices in certain fields until a specific date, in June or July, to allow birds to nest and their chicks to hatch safely.

The program also restricts the amount of fertilizer that can be used on the fields and requires delayed mowing and grazing to encourage the growth of wild plants around the farmland.

Kleijn's study revealed that neither birds nor plants seemed to benefit from these policies. Moreover, fields in which the practices were adopted actually had lower numbers of target species—including the lapwing, oystercatcher, common redshank, and black-tailed godwit—than traditionally managed farmland, which suggests that the birds may have an aversion to the presumed "eco-friendly" sites.

The authors speculate that the use of reduced fertilizers combined with delayed mowing may have led to an "ecological trap" in which the birds' nesting ground was better but their sources of food were inadequate.

Bees and hover flies did seem to prefer the environmentally responsive fields, although the authors believe this may have been because the grass was higher when the insects were counted.

Employing these allegedly "green" methods of farming costs the European Union about 1.7 billion Euros annually. This is about 4 percent of the budget for "Common Agricultural Policy," and the commitment is expected to rise to 10 percent within the next few years.

Continued on Next Page >>


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