Editor's Choice: The price of a dedicated farmland indicator

February 2016 (Issue 53:1)

Geijzendorffer, I. R., Targetti, S., Schneider, M. K., Brus, D. J., Jeanneret, P., Jongman, R. H.G., Knotters, M., Viaggi, D., Angelova, S., Arndorfer, M., Bailey, D., Balázs, K., Báldi, A., Bogers, M. M. B., Bunce, R. G. H., Choisis, J.-P., Dennis, P., Eiter, S., Fjellstad, W., Friedel, J. K., Gomiero, T., Griffioen, A., Kainz, M., Kovács-Hostyánszki, A., Lüscher, G., Moreno, G., Nascimbene, J., Paoletti, M. G., Pointereau, P., Sarthou, J.-P., Siebrecht, N., Staritsky, I., Stoyanova, S., Wolfrum, S., Herzog, F. (2015), How much would it cost to monitor farmland biodiversity in Europe? Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12552

Both common sense and the principles of adaptive management suggest that we should monitor the effectiveness of expenditure on environmental policies. However, monitoring progress towards environmental targets is often expensive. Shrinking budgets often mean that governments rely on the efforts of concerned citizens, adapting available monitoring data to the targets rather than designing monitoring with specific targets in mind. The result is that progress towards environmental targets must often be inferred from information on a subset of taxa of high public interest, monitored using protocols that have not been developed to match the demands of the target.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) accounts for well over a third of EU spending, of which about 30% is directly allocated to environmental and biodiversity targets. Understandably, EU tax-payers would like to be sure that the money they’re spending is achieving intended results. But how should we determine whether that is the case? The EU has no routine, standardised monitoring approach for its agricultural lands. Consequently, it is very hard to tie local conservation outcomes to large scale agri-environmental policies. In this issue, Geijzendorffer and colleagues address this problem with a bold proposal for a continent-wide network of farmland monitoring.

The specific aim of the paper by Geijzendorffer et al. is to provide a start point for development, discussions and eventual implementation of a European farmland biodiversity monitoring system. At this early stage, extensive involvement of stakeholders has identified four taxa as foci for monitoring: plants, earthworms, spiders and bees. The authors have assessed a wide variety of aspects of diversity of these taxa but, in this paper, have focused on species richness as a common index of biodiversity. Pilot data from nearly 200 farms in 11 different countries have been used to inform estimates of variance in species richness by farm type and taxon. This enabled the authors to estimate the sample sizes required to detect, with a 90% probability, a 10% change in species richness within a taxon over a 5-year period (whilst keeping the risk of false detection to below 10%). Inevitably, the required sample sizes depend on which of the taxa are to be monitored. For a fully effective monitoring scheme, covering all of the focal taxa, the authors estimate that about 5% of farms would have to be monitored.

The number of farms that would have to be monitored is large (over 180,000 for comprehensive monitoring). However, whether this represents good value should be viewed in light of the substantial budget of the CAP (over 400 billion Euros). In that context, Geijzendorffer and colleagues estimate that the programme would cost substantially less than 1% of the total CAP budget, and less than 2.5% of that part of the budget allocated to environmental and biodiversity targets. This seems a small price to pay to determine whether hundreds of billions of Euros of tax-payers’ money is being used effectively. Moreover, such a programme would represent the first example of a monitoring approach designed specifically to determine the impacts of changes in EU environmental policy. As such, it would be fit for purpose and would deliver insights with pre-defined statistical power.

The findings of Geijzendorffer and colleagues remain preliminary, pending more work on regional differences in variance in species richness by farm type and taxon, more consideration of sampling strategies and focal taxa, and more input on synergies with ongoing national monitoring schemes. Nevertheless, this preliminary work is striking in both its thoroughness and its geographic coverage. In addition, and in contrast to the often ad hoc approach used to monitor the efficacy of environmental policies, Geijzendorffer et al. offer a vision of continent-wide, systematic monitoring that has been designed for purpose. Given the huge sums of money invested in environmental policy, this vision is one that should be widely applicable.

Philip Stephens
Senior Editor

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