Merckx, T. & Pereira, H.M. (2015) Reshaping agri-environmental subsidies: From marginal farming to large-scale rewilding.Basic and Applied Ecology, 16(2), 95-103. DOI:10.1016/j.baae.2014.12.003 (IF2015 1,836; Q2 Ecology)
Despite continued discussion about market distortions and environmental impacts, agricultural subsidies continue to be a key component of European Union policy. About 10% of the agro-forestry subsidies are targeted at supporting agri-environment schemes, and at supporting farming in Less Favoured Areas (LFA) such as mountain regions. One of the main justifications for these agri-environmental subsidies towards marginally productive land is that they promote the conservation of biodiversity by maintaining low-intensity farming practices. Here, we critically examine this assumption and argue instead for a two-tier approach to Europe's agri-environmental policy based on inherent land fertility and spatial scale: (i) at a local, single-farm scale, fertile agricultural land should preferentially be intensively but sustainably farmed with a focus on high yields, (ii) while simultaneously and at larger, regional scales, less-productive land, and especially protected areas, may be ecologically restored into ‘wild’ and resiliently functioning ecosystems. As such, agri-environmental subsidies towards fertile land should support the implementation of measures that benefit biodiversity while allowing, and even helping, the achievement of high agricultural yields. In contrast, agri-environmental and LFA subsidies towards marginal land and protected areas should also promote rewilding and the management of natural succession. In order for this approach to be successful, a higher proportion of the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies would need to be allocated to environmental goals.