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Environment

Europe: Trading away its natural wealth?

At Green Week in Brussels - the biggest annual conference on European environment policy - reform to two key nature laws is being debated. Results could extend to food security in Europe.

The title sums it up: "Nature - our health, our wealth." At the 15th annual Green Week conference, a clear economic influence is present.

The focus of this year's conference, held June 3 through 5 in Brussels, was nature and biodiversity. And several recurring threads are pointing to a potential shift in regulation for conservation of biodiversity - not as plants, animals and places to be preserved, rather as elements of systems that humans depend on. A trend toward monetizing biodiversity could help species - or it could backfire.

A point of contention at the conference is a "fitness check" for two laws that form the backbone of European Union nature legislation: the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive. While some players seek to open the regulations, others are pushing instead for full implementation and enforcement.

Recent reporting under the laws found that the diversity of species and quality of habitats in Europe are declining. What happens next could have broad consequences, including on fundamental systems such as food production.

Intensive agriculture takes its toll

In the recently issued "State of Nature in the EU" report, 77 percent of habitats and 60 percent of species were assessed as being in an "unfavorable" situation.

According to the report, this is due in part to changes in food production over past decades. The intensification of agriculture, which involves mechanized tilling of large swathes with a single crop, destroys habitat that many species rely on. Increased use of pesticides has also affected species.

Deutschland Lerche

The once-common skylark is one species declining as the result of habitat transformation

This has taken a toll especially on birds - about a third of bird species in Europe were found to be threatened or declining, while only about half were assessed as being "secure."

Conservationists have for some time been seeking to draw attention to the need to make agriculture more sustainable. "We have to be a lot smarter about agricultural development - large extensions of intensive monoculture are not the answer," said Patricia Zurita, who is the CEO of BirdLife International.

"It's not only birds: pollinators too, like butterflies and bees - intensive agriculture is actually collapsing the system," she told DW.

Ronan Uhel of the European Environment Agency - which compiled the report - also pointed out how intensive agriculture is depleting the very land itself. Broad application of pesticides and herbicides required for such farming has led to a loss of biodiversity within soils. "We are losing the richness and diversity of the arable land," Uhel told DW.

Lack of enforcement

So what is going wrong? Conservationists point out that the habitats and birds directives are not being enforced.

"Where the directives have been properly implemented, nature is thriving, development is thriving, people are happier and we are maintaining a sustainable future," Zurita said.

"But we don't have consistent and coherent rollout of the rule - where the nature directives are not implemented, we are having problems," she added.

Uhel also acknowledged an "implementation gap." The directives are "not fully respected," he said. Enforcement, he said, "comes down to the ability and will of the different actors to really go for compliance" - something he sees as lacking.

Monoculture field of crops

Monocultures reduce biological diversity - in soils and for agriculture-dependent species, but also in diversity of crop species

Uhel promoted market approaches - involving dialogue with all stakeholders, and innovation in coming up with way to protect the environment - as one potential solution.

"We need to work harder with agriculture, with forestry, with planners to avoid complete misuse of natural resources - this is the so-called mismanagement, and it's real," Uhel said.

'Fitness check' for laws

Discussion of implementation, enforcement, and market approaches are particularly relevant since the habitats and birds directives are up for review.

As part of its standard policy, the European Commission has initiated a regulatory fitness and performance check for EU's nature legislation. This is in currently its second phase, which involves a 12-week public consultation.

This consultation, taking place via the Internet, has so far resulted in a record 188,000 responses - more than for any other public consultation in the EU. The consultation period ends July 24.

Draft results of the evaluation will be shared and discussed with member states and key stakeholder groups in Brussels toward the end of this October.

Potato harvest in Brandenburg, Germany (Photo: Patrick Pleul)

Crops farmed in Europe form a large part of exports - and make up the food we eat

Stakeholders, however, aren't waiting until then to put forward their positions. Pekka Pesonen of COPA-COGECA, a lobby group for the EU farming industry, made his position clear at Green Week.

"We deliver one-quarter of habitats under scrutiny here - we feel that the main question should be how to continue market-oriented, economically viable primary production while ensuring social and ecological sustainability at the local level."

Pesonen cited more flexibility in implementation, less red tape and more involvement of all stakeholders as COPA-COGECA targets for regulatory reform.

Trading away environmental assets?

Conservation groups, meanwhile, are sounding the alarm. "This is world-class legislation that the rest of the world is actually looking up to," Zurita told DW. "It's not about what the rule is saying, but how it is being enforced - don't change the baseline."

Patricia Zurita at Green Week in Brussels (Photo: Sonya Diehn)

Zurita sounded the alarm for Europe's birds - and over potential legislative reform

And not only conservation groups are concerned. Elsa Nickel, director general of the German Environment Ministry, told DW: "The EU legislation is very helpful - it is the backbone for everything we want to reach, the objectives of the EU biodiversity strategy 2020."

"We don't see any reason why we should change it - we should implement better," Nickel said. She emphasized both the need for regulatory stability for economic players - and another crucial aspect.

"This is really about our credibility in Europe - we have to fulfill the obligations from the convention on biodiversity, we have to meet the targets," Nickel said. "If Europe does not meet them, who else will?"

Nickel pointed out that the agricultural sector in Europe receives abundant public money. Common Agricultural Policy subsidies can be used to support biodiversity, Nickel said: "Farmers should also produce biodiversity."

Karl Falkenberg, environmental director general for the European Commission, stated at Green Week that "Modernization does not mean lowering the standards." And in the end, the European Parliament will decide whether to adopt proposed changes.

It remains to be seen whether decline of species can be reversed in time to prevent impacts to food production systems in Europe - and thus global food security.

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