Agri-environment indicators - essential tools to assess EU agricultural policy
From Statistics Explained
- Published in Sigma - The Bulletin of European Statistics, 2010/01
In the last decade the European Union (EU) has focused on making agriculture more sustainable and integrating environmental concerns into the Union’s agricultural policy. The aim is to head off the risks of environmental degradation, while encouraging farmers to continue to play a positive role in the maintenance of the countryside and the environment. In order to assess the interaction between agriculture and the environment and to develop correct policies, Eurostat, together with other European Commission directorates-general, has begun to develop a set of sustainable agriculture indicators.
The idea behind the revamp of the EU’s agriculture policy has been to remove incentives which have encouraged farmers to raise more livestock and grow more crops than the market demands. Therefore, incentives to intensify the production process have been removed in the new agricultural policy and payments to farmers are no longer linked to the production of specific crops or breeding of animals. Member States also set environmental standards, which farmers should follow as a condition for benefiting from financial support, the so-called cross-compliance. One example is to respect a maximum permitted volume of fertilisers and another to respect specific conditions for the cultivation of sloping lands. Furthermore, countries can shift payments from market support policies to agri-environment measures.
‘Due to the shift in the EU’s agriculture policy, we need to better monitor changes in the agriculture production systems and land use patterns, as well as the policies’ positive and negative effects on the environment,’ said Marcel Ernens, Head of Eurostat’s Farms, Agro-environment and Rural Development Unit.
‘We also need the indicators to assess the impact of policy decisions, to identify shortcomings in current measures and to pinpoint the need for new initiatives. Data are also required to improve the targeting and tailoring of measures to local conditions,’ said Johan Selenius, Agri-environmental Indicators team leader in Mr Ernens’s unit.
Easy to do? No. Collecting and measuring of the interaction between agriculture and the environment is complex. Mr Selenius mentioned measuring of agriculture’s share of greenhouse gases and its impact on global warming as an illustrative example.
‘In order to assess the impact of cattle, it is important to know the race of the cow, how it is fed, in what kind of building it is kept, how much manure the cow produces, how the manure is stored, how the manure is spread as well as the time of the year it was spread. All these things impact how much greenhouse gases are finally emitted into the air,’ said Mr Selenius.
Twenty-eight agri-environment indicators
Eurostat, together with the European Commission’s Environment and Agriculture and Rural Development DGs, the Joint Research Centre and the European Environment Agency, started to collect data on 28 agri-environment indicators in 2006, after the Commission had issued a communication on the subject, based on earlier pilot projects.
The indicators are meant to address precise questions related to agricultural driving forces, pressures and benefits, the state and the impact on habitats and biodiversity as well as agri-environment policy responses.
The indicators will help understand how regional farming patterns are developing. They will help assess whether policy or production changes pose risks to the conservation of the environment, or, if they are contributing positively to the preservation and enhancement of environmental resources.
‘We will also know the state of different environmental resources and will be able to focus on the effects of agricultural activities on regional or local environmental resources, as well as the global impact,’ said Mr Ernens.
Finally, the indicators will help assess if agri-environmental policies respond quickly enough to environmental concerns and how changes in, for example, technology affect the system.
The five EU bodies work closely together and Eurostat is responsible for the overall coordination and long-term development of the indicator system. Each service is in turn in charge of developing a number of indicators. Eurostat is, for example, responsible for the indicators related to the European statistical system and the Joint Research Centre is in charge of those indicators which rely on pan-European geo-environmental databases or where models need to be built or research undertaken. The Agriculture and Rural Development DG works with those indicators which are based on administrative information which the directorate-general collects. The Environment DG takes the lead of those indicators where the policy development has been assigned to them, for example on pesticide use, and the European Environment Agency is in charge of those indicators associated with data flows linked to its network Eionet, which includes around 900 experts and more than 300 national institutions.
At the moment Eurostat and the other services are consolidating the selected set of indicators and extending the coverage to all European Member States. Work is also done to improve concepts and methods and to find new data sources or better access to existing data.
Regional data essential
Today 6 of the 28 indicators are ready to use (see box), with well-defined concepts and measurement and with data available at the appropriate regional level.
For many of the other indicators, such as nitrogen balance, energy use, soil erosion and water quality, the availability of regional data is the main issue and needs to be developed. Regional data are of particular importance for agricultural data and especially for the new risk indicators, because Eurostat and the Member States will need to define hotspots and evaluate if policies are efficient, or not, on a finer geographical level.
‘The impact of the same amount of fertiliser is quite different in the French regions of Brittany and the Central Massif. Policymakers also need to see if policies need to be directed to those farmers who are close to water — because of a greater risk of leakage of fertilisers and pesticides — or to all farmers,’ said Mr Selenius.
Farm structure survey as the basis
The main source for Eurostat’s agricultural statistics is the Farm structure survey, which is carried out every three years. Crop and animal production data, agricultural monitoring statistics, and the land use/cover area frame survey (LUCAS) are also important. These ‘regular’ data sources will be used for the agri-environmental indicators as well as the other partners’ databases.
However, there are still many gaps to be filled. One solution has been to attach a module on production methods to the farm structure survey which will be carried out in 2011. It will make available data on, for example, tillage methods, animal husbandry, manure storage and irrigation. A new regulation on pesticide statistics will also provide important data.
‘Existing data sources as well as administrative sources will be explored to the fullest and modelling will be used as much as possible, but unfortunately we will need a few more surveys,’ said Mr Selenius.
He said that Eurostat and its partners are conscious of the potential burden on farmers and always think about how to collect data without disturbing the farmer.
One potential source could be the information farmers are obliged to keep for the cross-compliance controls. In some countries, farmers are, for example, required by law to keep book over how much manure and fertilisers they use and how they use them. However, normally the information is only used if the farm is inspected.
‘In Finland the Statistical Branch of the Ministry of Agriculture is carrying out a pilot study on how to use this information, which reduces the burden for farmers as they do not have to provide the information twice. Furthermore, most farms in Finland use computers, which means the information is digitalised. Therefore, statisticians could extract the information directly from the source. In return, farmers would be given feedback on how much fertiliser they use compared to other farmers, which in the end could save them money.’
Mr Selenius said that the agri-environmental system is still in its early days. The long-term objective is to have a stable arrangement which provides all the necessary data for the indicators within five years.
‘But, already before that, we should have a database, an indicator section on Eurostat’s website, factsheets with definitions and metadata, and a regular publishing policy. We will, therefore, be able to better monitor the impact of agriculture on the environment.’
Further Eurostat information
- SIGMA - The Bulletin of European Statistics, 01/2010: From farm to fork - Focus on sustainable agriculture and fisheries statistics