Innovation Environmental Protection

20 August 2019
Akke Kok




Land use and biodiversity conservation are intimately linked. Agriculture is the dominant type of land use in Europe, with about 75% of the terrestrial area used for crop production, grassland and forest. As such, it has an important role in European landscapes and biodiversity.

Agriculture causes some of the largest impacts of land use and is a key influence on biodiversity conservation. Agriculture has both negative and positive impacts on biodiversity. The conversion of natural land and changes in agricultural land use directly result in habitat loss and fragmentation. Also, agriculture contributes to environmental impacts such as climate change, that indirectly cause biodiversity decline. In contrast, agriculture is a major contributor to Europe’s biodiversity, through diverse farming traditions that have resulted in a wide range of agricultural landscapes. In aggregate, however, farmland biodiversity shows a rapid decline, due to changes in management such as intensification and industrialisation of agriculture. For example, populations of farmland birds have more than halved in the last three decades.

To effectively conserve biodiversity, we need to define what is biodiversity, and what targets to set. This is not a straightforward task. Defining biodiversity and setting targets relies, to a large extent, on stakeholder input and societal values. One stakeholder may wish to conserve a specific group of vulnerable or iconic species – such as meadow birds, whereas another focuses on generic conservation measures to reduce extinction risk across species within agriculture. Others may argue that it is better to produce food as intensively  as possible in a limited area, so as to spare other land from agriculture to conserve natural habitats, such as forest. Either way, creating or maintaining a suitable landscape for some species will potentially be less suitable for other species. Because it is not possible to boost all species everywhere while still delivering the provisioning services of food, fibre and increasingly energy, then one has to choose which landscapes and inhabiting species to conserve and to what extent.

The EU released the EU Biodiversity Strategy in 2011 to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020. To ensure conservation of biodiversity in agriculture, the target is to maximise areas under agriculture covered by biodiversity related measures under the Common Agricultural Policy. However, biodiversity assessments at EU level have so far shown that biodiversity loss has continued, and that more stringent protection is required to stop biodiversity decline. Moreover, how this more stringent protection should take place has not been clearly defined.


What could more stringent biodiversity protection on agricultural land look like?


To develop more stringent scenarios for biodiversity conservation on agricultural land, we interviewed experts and stakeholders in biodiversity conservation and assessed proposals for conservation. We defined scenarios for case studies in France and in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, two main scenarios were developed for more stringent environmental protection in the Dutch dairy sector, based on a recent report regarding meadow bird conservation commissioned by the Dutch government (Melman and Sierdsema, 2017) and an essay with a vision for future biodiversity conservation in the Netherlands (Berendse, 2016). The first scenario focussed on a targeted conservation of meadow birds in agricultural grassland, the second focussed on a generic change in agricultural land use to allow general conservation of biodiversity. These scenarios changed land use in the Dutch dairy sector. The meadowbird scenario required targeted measures to make the grassland more suitable for meadowbirds, including delayed mowing, extensive grassland, and rewetting of the soil. The generic conservation plan required more drastic changes throughout agriculture, including a reduction of inputs of nutrients from imported feed and fertiliser, an increase of permanent landscape elements, and a conversion of part of the agricultural land into nature (for a video on development of nature on agricultural land, see To meet the requirement of no imported feed, the land use was changed to include cereals for a complete ration for dairy cows.

Both scenarios (meadowbirds on the left and generic conservation on the right in the figure below) resulted in a land use distribution that differed from the baseline scenario consisting of intensive grassland and forage maize.


Land use distributions for a targeted conservation scenario of meadow birds (left) and generic conservation scenario (right) on a case study of agricultural land.


How did these scenarios affect food production and biodiversity?


Land use changes in both scenarios reduced food production, due to the lower productivity per hectare of extensive systems, and due to the lack of food production on area set aside for nature and recreation. The impact on food production was larger in the generic conservation scenario than for targeted conservation of meadow birds only. However, one could expect that additional targeted approaches to protect other valued species could increase this impact and further reduce food production.

Both scenarios increased the expected number of plant species per unit area, our measure for biodiversity. Moreover, this impact was greatest for the generic conservation scenario. However, the management considered in the generic scenario did not include management changes like rewetting, that would make the grassland more suitable for meadow birds. As a consequence, despite the greater expected plant species richness for the generic conservation scenario, this would not mean that also the decline in meadow birds is stopped! This shows that it is important to clearly define which biodiversity should be conserved, and that the indicator to report the impact on biodiversity should indicate this specific type of biodiversity.

Our scenario calculations suggested that measures to conserve a specific species or habitat, could be realized with a limited overall impact on the existing patterns of land use and food production, because measures only applied to a limited share of the land. Going to more extensive practices to mainstream biodiversity conservation throughout agriculture, however, would have a much larger impact on food production, because it would affect all agricultural production. Especially in case of a large reduction in food production, this could result in intensification of production or land use change elsewhere. Alternatively, a reduction in food production could be achieved by less food waste, less over consumption, and dietary changes.

In conclusion, there seems to be an unavoidable trade-off between (different types of ) biodiversity conservation on agricultural land and food production. Therefore, conservation scenarios may have unwanted effects in regions other than the conservation area due to land use change elsewhere. More effective biodiversity conservation will depend on societal values and stakeholder input around land use. Targets are needed, and policy-makers should be aware of the process, values, frames, and narratives behind these targets.


Interactive Tool 


Define land use in the Dutch case-study yourself with our interactive Excel tool, and see how this affects food production and different targets of biodiversity conservation. 


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