Across Europe, diverse ecosystems are being converted into farmland, hurting biodiversity and the climate. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been a key driver in this process but, with reform, it can become part of the solution.

Celia Nyssens and Simone Liliu dig into this land use dilemma in Lithuania.

Lithuania is a good window on to some of the implications of competing land use interests and the inherent trade-offs making this such a complicated discussion. Since joining the EU, and with it the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), in 2004, the small Baltic country has massively expanded its  arable land. Between 2005 and 2017, the farmed area increased by 44% on the back of the strong incentives provided by generous subsidies for arable farming. As a result, biodiversity-rich meadows were ploughed up and carbon-rich peatlands drained to plant crops.

These changes have involved serious environmental trade-offs: rapid deterioration of soils (causing considerable carbon emissions), increased nitrogen pollution in rivers and the Baltic Sea from the expanding use of fertilisers, as well as the loss of wildlife habitats and biodiversity. 

Reversing rotten practices 

Approximately a third of global CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere from 1870 to 2017 came from soil carbon. Soils are major stores of carbon which is emitted into the atmosphere when land use changes (such as deforestation, urbanisation or the expansion of agriculture) or land is not managed appropriately (intensive agriculture and draining or exploitation of carbon-rich wetlands).

Peatlands are among the most important carbon sinks on the planet. Peat is formed when the decomposition of plants is slowed in waterlogged soils (due to the lack of oxygen), creating a large store of carbon accumulated over thousands of years. But peatlands are being drained all over Europe for agricultural purposes and peat extraction. When the soil dries, the dead organic matter exposed to oxygen begins to decompose, releasing enormous amounts of CO2. According to the IPCC, peatlands contain 42% of global soil carbon, while only covering 3% of the world’s land surface.

“Peatlands are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth: in their natural state they represent a huge carbon sink and a rich biodiversity habitat, supporting species like curlews and snipes,” explains Harriet Bradley, agriculture policy officer for BirdLife Europe.

For the EU as a whole, rewetting just 3% of agricultural land could save 25% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agricultural activities. In Lithuania, rewetting 6% of agricultural land could halve the GHG emissions from farming. Lithuanian GHG emissions from wetlands increased by 18% between 2005 and 2017 and emissions from land converted to cropland increased by nearly 80%. It is clear that land use decisions in Lithuania are taking their toll on the climate. But this is not the only issue at stake.  

Peatlands, such as this one in Pūsčia, north of Vilnius, are under increasing threat from drainage and agricultural cultivation (Image: L Jarasius, LIFE Peat Restore project

Feeding the world by starving nature

Intensive crop production achieves high yields by applying large quantities of fertiliser which provides easy nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, to the growing crops. But when too much fertiliser is applied, the excess chemical nutrients runoff into rivers and leak into groundwater, wreaking havoc on those ecosystems. Most Lithuanian rivers end up in the Baltic Sea, which is saturated with nitrogen and phosphorus from the agricultural activities of all the countries surrounding it. This causes algal blooms and dead zones deprived of oxygen. Fertiliser use is also a major source of ammonia emissions, which is very harmful to human health, and of nitrous oxide, which is responsible for more than a third of EU agricultural GHG emissions. 

Agricultural expansion and intensification is also one of the key drivers of the ongoing collapse of biodiversity, often referred to as the Sixth Mass Extinction. In the EU, biodiversity is in strong decline and both the European Court of Auditors and the European Environmental Agency name agricultural activities as the number one driver of this trend. In Lithuania, rural bird populations, a good indicator of farmland biodiversity, have declined by 22% in just the past 14 years

The farming and agrichemical lobbies often defend this intensive model of agricultural production in the name of the imperative to ‘feed the world’. But there is growing evidence that a fundamentally different approach is possible, desirable and necessary.

This approach focused on building natural soil fertility through agroecological practices which boost and protect the multitude of micro-organisms living underground, providing nutrition and protection to plants. These are practices such as long and diverse crop rotations, including nitrogen-fixing legumes (such as peas and lentils), constant soil cover (from crops, straw and mulch), and using compost as a soil improver. A study modelling an agroecological future for Europe found that if we scaled up such practices, we could phase out the use of synthetic fertilisers in the EU completely. This would greatly help clean up our rivers, lakes and seas and reduce agricultural GHG emissions drastically while benefiting biodiversity.

 Aquatic warblers (Acrocephalus paludicola) rely on peatland and are now one of Europe’s rarest songbirds. (Image: Ron Knight / Wikimedia Commons)

For peat’s sake

While standard “dry” agriculture should be banned on carbon-rich peatlands for the reasons outlined before, there are ways to keep this land in production. This is possible through agriculture where high water levels are maintained, also known as ‘paludiculture’.

Paludiculture permits the cultivation of specific crops on preserved or rewetted peatlands while conserving the peat. Apart from storing carbon, this maintains the ecosystems services associated with natural peatlands: nutrient retention, increased flood protection,water storage and conservation of biodiversity. Crops suitable for paludiculture can provide income for the farmer, such as canary grass and sedges (for combustion and biogas), reeds and cattail (for construction materials and biogas), peat moss (for horticulture substrate) and black alder (for carpentry, interior fitting, furniture and energy).

A recent feasibility study found that 40% of Lithuanian peatlands, or 262,689 hectares, are suitable for paludiculture, 78% of which are currently used for  agriculture. Rewetting these areas could be a formidable win-win-win solution for nature, climate and farmers.

In Lithuania, EEB member the Lithuanian Fund for Nature (LGF) is amongst the proponents of paludiculture as one way of promoting sustainable peatland management.

“Paludiculture is a great way to make active farming and environmental goals work together. It is not necessary to turn all peatlands into Natura 2000 sites to protect their value if we widen the scope of farming model and the mind of the farmers,” explains Nerijus Zableckis, project manager at LGF. “In this way, we do not work against the farmers, but rather cooperate and solve the problems together.”

Subsidising natural choices

The future of peatlands and the dissemination of good practices, such as paludiculture, depend on political decisions. Incentives and disincentives must make it attractive for the farmer to adopt peatland management measures that protect the fragile ecosystems, which often requires inspiration, knowledge and investments.

Valdas Balčiūnas, a farmer producing horse bedding and fodder in peatlands in the Nemunas Delta by the Baltic coast and in Baltoji Voke close to Vilnius, agrees: “We need special support programmes for the protection and sustainable use of peaty wetlands. Many conventional farmers today face a dilemma of how to work on peatlands adjacent to their crops and pastures. Many of them lack experience and knowledge of what to grow and how to work in these types of areas.” He explains that uninformed experimentation often leads to degradation of fragile areas which then take decades to recover. 

Valdas Balčiūnas inspects a bale of hay (Image: Žymantas Morkvėnas, Baltic Environmental Forum)

So far, the CAP has been a driver of peatland degradation, rather than of conservation and restoration.“The current direct payment system is directly responsible for the expansion of arable land, encouraging the growing of crops in areas where crops are not suitable to be grown,” explains Karolina Gurjazkaite, ecologist and expert in sustainable agriculture for Lithuanian EEB member Žiedinė Ekonomika.

Concretely, the new CAP legislation and national strategic plans must end the perverse incentive to drain peatlands, instead encouraging climate and biodiversity friendly management practices. Making paludiculture eligible for CAP income support payments is a crucial first step. In addition, clear GHG emission reduction targets and adequate funding will be required to deliver the necessary shift. “Restoring peatlands is not only urgent from an ecological point of view, but also creates jobs, and hence should be a key component of both the EU Green Recovery and the future CAP,” posits Bradley.

“We want the future CAP to come up with an ambitious package for the environment, spending public money for public goods. Perverse subsidies and funding of environmental deterioration should be ended,” says Gurjazkaite. “This may sound like a cliché, but the CAP should benefit everyone, not the few.” 

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