Page last updated at 00:50 GMT, Saturday, 2 August 2008 01:50 UK

Conservation no longer a farming priority

The EU's response to the food crisis is to encourage greater production - meaning conservation is much less of a priority, finds the BBC's Paul Henley.

French farmer harvests flax
Farmers say their priority will always be to produce food
"We heard for years and years that we were producing too much and now that's changing. It's a turn-around for farming in Europe. And I think it's a big improvement for us," says Kris Colsoul.

He is showing me around his farm, 200 hectares (500 acres) of arable land on rolling hills on the outskirts of Landen, in the centre of Belgium. We are walking through shoulder-high maize on a piece of land by a railway line that, until recently, was uncultivated.

Since the European Commission - an hour-and-a-half away in Brussels - suspended the obligation for farmers to set aside some of their land last autumn, there has been a quiet revolution in European farming.

The reason is the rise in food prices and what is increasingly being referred to as the "global food crisis".

Surplus - in the form of butter mountains and wine lakes - is a thing of the past, according to the EU officials, as Europe reacts to the recent up-swing in demand for food by putting more and more land into production.

What we are seeing is a big drive towards intensification which will put huge strains on the environment
Ariel Brunner
Birdlife International

In less than a year, 5% more of the EU's countryside is being farmed - 1.3m extra hectares. Quite suddenly, Europe is growing around 14% more food, because there is a market for it and a profit in it.

The changes are visible. The view from the car window on the drive across Belgium is one of intensive cultivation.

Fields tend to be ploughed right up to the edges of roads, woods and rivers. It is very rare to see anything resembling a meadow.

And across the EU, the picture is becoming similar. It is not that farmers have lost their subsidy for set-aside land - that has been incorporated into other areas of their grant income - it is that they are now also allowed to bring disused pieces of land back into production.

And, thanks to the increase in prices, for the first time in many years, they can do this profitably.

'Threat to species'

Alarm bells have been sounding among conservationists. Set-aside was designed to protect the farmers, not the environment, but the accidental benefits to plant, animal and bird species have been significant.

Dartford warbler, picture courtesy of RSPB
Conservationists fear the changes could devastate wildlife populations

The non-use of fertilisers and pesticides on disused land has meant an improvement in ground-water quality. The aesthetics of the countryside, it has been argued, have been improved.

Ariel Brunner, who monitors the changes in European Agriculture for Birdlife International, one of the more influential environmental lobby groups in Brussels, says the bureaucrats have made big mistakes.

"Basically, what we are seeing is a big drive towards intensification which will put huge strains on the environment," he says.

"Set-aside has been abolished with hardly any thought to the implications. We are predicting a threat to many wild species. Biodiversity will feel the heat from this.

"One of the most important issues will be water quality. We are already facing very severe ground water and river pollution problems in Europe's most heavily-cultivated regions.

"What we are saying is that when you take set-aside away, you need to replace it with a targeted scheme which will keep its environmental benefits, or face the consequences."

Should we do the biodiversity thing or should we respond to the market requirements? I don't think we can do both
Pekka Pensonen
General secretary of Copa-Cogeca

The European Commission itself denies that it is running risks with the environment.

Michael Mann, spokesman for the agriculture commissioner, says the abolition of set-aside shows that the Common Agricultural Policy - that most derided of Brussels expenditures - is capable of moving with the times.

"We were widely criticised for over-producing", he says, "having huge surplus and dumping them on world markets.

"The whole philosophy now is to free farmers to follow the market and not just chase after the biggest subsidy from Brussels."

And, indeed, there are still funds available to encourage farmers to safeguard the environment through what is called the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

Farmers can opt in and out of it, though. And set against market incentives to plough up every spare scrap of land for greater profit, they do not stand much of a chance.

'Change coming'

Pekka Pensonen, general secretary of Copa-Cogeca, which represents farming unions across the EU, is candid about the situation.

Until autumn 2007 EU farmers had to set aside 10% of land
Since then 5% of land (1.3m ha) brought back to production
This set to boost cereal output by 13.5m tonnes (5.2%) in 2008
Better harvest set to boost output by further 23.3m tonnes

"The pressures are quite controversial for farmers", he says.

"We are asked to deliver food for reasonable prices and, at the same time, we are asked to maintain biodiversity.

"And it's a difficult question; should we do the biodiversity thing or should we respond to the market requirements? I don't think we can do both.

"The main issue over the last one or two years is the high food prices internationally. And if we didn't respond to that by producing more, then the accusations against farmers would be more serious.

"There is definitely no doubt that the drive is on at the moment to produce more".

Belgian farmer Kris Colsoul
Kris Colsoul says the changes are a big improvement

Roger Waite is editor of a newsletter called AgraFacts in Brussels.

"For years", he says, "I've been following agricultural policy and it's the sort of subject that stops dinner parties in their tracks.

"Suddenly it's on the front pages and everyone is crucially interested in how farming affects what they're paying in the supermarkets.

"I think a fundamental change is coming. It's that farmers will concentrate less on their role as custodians of the countryside and more on providers of food. The return a farmer gets from the market will always come first."

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