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22.02.2010 Studies
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Provision of public goods through agriculture in the European Union

IEEP, 2009


  • Discussion of the public goods concept, list of public goods provided through agriculture, overview of existing and alternative measures for the delivery of public goods, examination of current and future levels of public goods provision.


  • ’The challenges relating to food security do not appear to relate to shortages in supply - in the immediate future at least - and therefore the justification for significant increases in agricultural production in Europe on the back of arguments of food security is less robust than is often described. What perhaps is more critical in a European context, is to ensure the maintenance of a sustainable resource base, including safeguarding water supplies, managing the land to improve its resilience to flooding, maintaining soil fertility, and safeguarding the integrity and resilience of ecosystems – all public goods in their own right – as a means to secure the long term capacity of the land to produce food in Europe over the longer term.’
  • Two categories of practices can be identified as being most associated with the provision of public goods: 1) Those that are inherently less intrusive on the environment, for example, those that do not involve deep cultivation, irrigation, heavy input use, the removal of semi-natural vegetation, etc. Many correspond to more traditional extensive practices but also include some modern ones (for example, drip irrigation). 2) Those that are designed to address a specific environmental concern, for example, the use of buffer strips, skylark scrapes, or slurry injection.
  • Furthermore, the more extensive livestock and mixed systems, the more traditional permanent crop systems; and the organic systems are singled out as desirable.
  • But extensive practices can also be problematic: ‘Comparisons of GHG emissions per kilogramme of meat or milk produced show that ruminants grazing semi-natural grassland at low stocking densities release larger quantities of methane per animal and therefore per kilogramme of product than livestock on intensively managed grasslands. This is because the semi-natural vegetation is grazed at a more mature stage when it contains higher concentrations of cellulose, the essential substrate for methane production.’
  • ’Small field size can be beneficial because of the retention of natural or historic features, the contribution to a mosaic of land uses, the greater density of seminatural vegetation likely to be present, and the constraints imposed on the use of larger and heavier machinery etc. Field boundaries and margins contribute a disproportionately larger share of most public goods relative to the area of land that they occupy, so a higher density of boundaries and margins will often be associated with a greater than average provision of environmental benefits.’ And: ‘Smaller farms have a number of attributes which may, in principle, result in their adopting less intensive management techniques. One is the more limited economies of scale to be achieved, reducing the returns from significant infrastructure works, or investment in sizeable machinery.’
  • But: ‘farmers with larger holdings may have more time and resources to devote either to increasing economic returns and production levels or to adopting practices that are more sensitive to the environment. This may include leaving patches uncultivated, distributing livestock over a larger area, employing labour to help with environmental management, investing in more technically advanced equipment, seeking advice from professionals and providing for a larger scale of habitat where this is needed.’ And: ‘there evidence suggesting that larger farms may be more willing to enrol in voluntary agri-environment schemes.’
  • ‘In other parts of the world, most notably in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and where the agricultural sector is operating in a more liberalised economic paradigm, there are more examples of the use of market based instruments such as auctions, cap and trade, systems for reducing pollution levels, taxation of inputs and habitat banking, as a means of achieving environmental outcomes. Land purchase and covenant agreements are also widely used in the US and New Zealand. Whilst evidence exists of the success of certain of these approaches, as measured through participation and renewal rates for some, this study has not been able to access detailed evaluations of the environmental impacts of these schemes, and this clearly warrants further investigation.’


  • A good overview of the state of knowledge, and a recommended starting point for non-experts (the 175 pages of main text, and 400 pages in total, may be a better investment than reading several lighter though overlapping studies).
  • Annex 2, which examines the effects of specific farming practices and systems on the provision of several public goods, is of great value. Its move beyond policy objectives to specific farming practices and systems foreshadows the discussion to come, which will rely more heavily upon readers’ expert eco-agricultural knowledge.