Main authors: Catherine Bowyer , Clunie Keenleyside, Silvia Nanni, Anouchka Hoffmann, Nathalie van Haren , Karin van Boxtel, Paul Wolvekamp
iSQAPERiS editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: Bowyer, C. et al. (2018) Initial stocktaking report on existing policy measures. iSQAPER Project Deliverable 8.1, 125 pp


Contents table
1. The role of national and regional decision making in protecting soil health 2015-2020
2. Arable Soils
3. Soils under permanent grassland
4. Will the potential of the CAP be used to support better soil management 2015-2020?

1. The role of national and regional decision making in protecting soil health 2015-2020

Member States have considerable freedom to choose how to implement key aspects of the CAP related to soil protection including the definition of GAEC cross compliance standards applicable at farm level; and the list of greening payment options and requirements from which farmers can choose. In the case of RDPs, which are designed and implemented at national or regional level, all measures are optional for farmers. For RDPs both the managing authorities and the farmers have even more freedom to decide how (or if) they will address soil protection and which measures to use.

The geographical scale of implementation also differs across GAEC, greening and RDPs. GAEC cross-compliance applies to the majority of farmland (assuming a farm is in receipt of payments under the CAP). In contrast the greening requirements, as implemented, mainly affect arable farms (and/or those converting significant areas of permanent grassland to arable) but require changes in management only on a small proportion of the affected farms. In contrast, RDP measures are much more targeted both spatially and in terms of their focus. They may be focused clearly on soil protection but the scale of implementation on the ground depends entirely on voluntary applications by farmers (ie. interest on the part of farmers) – and on the budget allocation for schemes within RDPs (each scheme will be given an allocation from the overall budget, this may or may not be sufficient to cover all applicants for that scheme).

Here we present the CAP implementation decisions relevant to soil protection in 2015, but do not cover subsequent changes, for example in Member State definitions of GAEC standards or in revisions to RDPs. It is intended as a snap shot to show the diversity of implementation and choices made in terms of the implementation of the CAP across the EU Member States and the impact on soil protection.

We consider first the measures most relevant to arable soils (including both crops and temporary grassland) and secondly those affecting permanent grassland and pasture land. We draw on recent studies and analysis for the European Commission, is illustrated by examples from the current RDPs. We conclude with a discussion of the extent to which Member States and farmers are using the potential of the CAP to improve soil management.

2. Arable Soils

The main CAP instruments relevant to arable soils are GAEC cross-compliance standards for soils, the greening payment requirements for crop diversification and Ecological Focus Areas, and RDP land management measures.

GAEC soil standards

Most Member States define these standards at national level, but Belgium and the UK apply the definitions regionally, which means that for EU-28 as a whole there are 32 different sets of GAEC standards. The analysis below covers the definition of GAEC standards for the claim year 2015.

The EU framework (»Understanding the EU Common Agricultural Policy in the context of soil protection Table 2) requires Member States to define standards for ‘minimum soil cover’ (GAEC 4) and for ‘minimum land management reflecting site specific conditions’ (GAEC 5). Member States’ or regions’ definitions under both standards often apply only in specific site-conditions, for example on erosion prone soils or sloping land or where specific crops are being grown. GAEC 4 is defined mainly in terms of soil cover but GAEC 5 definitions include many different types of arable cultivation techniques and protection features, as shown in Boxes 3-5 below. The third soil standard, GAEC 6, is the only one aimed specifically at maintaining soil organic matter, but there was little ambition in the definition adopted by almost half of the 32 Member States or regions – they chose only to ban burning of arable stubble (which they were required to include anyway).

Box 3 – Interpreting and Implementing GAEC 4 – National and Regional standards for minimum soil cover in EU Member States

Winter soil cover (mainly by crops, grass, stubble or spontaneous vegetation) is the most common seasonal requirement applied to determine the natural of minimum soil cover required. Some Member States require cover only on sloping land, usually defined as a gradient, but Portugal uses a composite indicator of soil erosion risk, based on the morphology of the plot. Not all Member States or regions appear to require complete green soil cover – where they specify a minimum percentage of green soil cover this varies from 30% to 80%, but in some cases this is only in specific locations, for example on the arable land from most vulnerable to erosion, or particularly during the winter.

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Figure 14

Box 4 - Interpreting and Implementing GAEC 5 – National and Regional standards for minimum land management reflecting site specific conditions to limit erosion

More than half of the Member States or regions use slope as the criterion to identify the land where farmers must apply specific management practices including, for example, contour ploughing, ridge planting, reduced tillage, maintenance of grassland or woody vegetation, green winter cover, and restrictions on growing particular crops.

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Figure 15


Box 5 - Interpreting and Implementing GAEC 6 – National and Regional standards for maintenance of soil organic matter level through appropriate practices

This is the only GAEC standards for soils which specifies a minimum requirement which Member States must include in their definition of this standard – a ban on burning arable stubble (except for plant health reasons). Only 17 of the 32 Member States or regions in include restrictions on entering land when it is waterlogged or frozen, using crop rotations (including not growing successive crops with a high soil carbon demand), applying of organic matter, soil testing and stubble management).

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Figure 16



Implementation of crop diversification greening requirements

The objective of the crop diversification obligation, as stated in the Regulation, is improving soil quality. Evaluation of the first two years of greening implementation shows that, across a sample of ten countries, there was a change in crop on almost 515,000 ha of land (0.8 % of the arable farmland). This figure conceals major differences between countries, the greatest change being in Spain where 2.8% of the arable area changed crop, mainly from barley and wheat to legumes. Given the scale of the changes and the fact that diversification does not necessarily mean crop rotation, the soil benefits are likely to be confined to certain localities, although the study did conclude that crop diversification may have slowed a more general trend towards mono-cropping (Alliance Environnement and Thünen-Institut, 2017).

Implementation of EFA greening requirements

Complying with the EFA requirement does not necessarily mean changing the crop or management, if the farmer already has sufficient land that qualifies as EFA. Overall, in 2016, farmers declared mostly productive EFA, a total of 8.5 million ha or 14% of the EU arable area – this was principally under nitrogen-fixing and catch crops (73%) and fallow (24%). Both have potential soil benefits but realising these in practice depends on the detailed management requirements put in place by Member States, e.g. use of fertilisers, post-harvest management and duration of fallow (Alliance Environnement and Thünen-Institut, 2017).

RDP environmental land management contracts for arable soil management

The baseline for agri-environment-climate contracts under RDP is defined by the existing requirements for GAEC standards and greening requirements in the region concerned. Thus RDPs can offer arable farmers five year contracts to improve their soil management beyond this baseline, specifically tailored to regional or local needs. Some examples of RDP measures are shown in Box 6, including where the objective is biodiversity but where there are also likely to be considerable soil benefits.

Box 6: Examples of soil-relevant agri-environment-climate schemes for arable land programmed in 2014-20 RDPs

Sustainable olive growing in Andalucia: Olives are the main crop in Andalucia, grown on a third of the land with slopes of more than eight percent. This scheme aims to promote sustainable soil management of olive groves to minimize soil erosion and degradation. Instead of tilling the soil between the trees farmers must maintain plant cover (spontaneous or sown) between 15 October and 15 March of the following year. They have the option of an additional payment for shredding the olive prunings and spreading these as a mulch on the soil to increase the organic matter content.

Erosion dams on arable land in Flanders, Belgium: Straw is used to create micro dams on arable soils prone to erosion. The flow of water and sediment from land further up the slope is slowed down, allowing the soil particles and sediment to settle in the dam as the water seeps through. This has the additional benefit of reducing the risk of soil erosion downstream of the dam because peak flows are capped. The dams are maintained in the same place for the duration of the five-year agri-environment-climate contract.

Soil erosion control in Bulgaria: This sub-measure offers farmers a choice of erosion control measures for different farming systems including: conversion of arable land into permanent grassland using perennial grass mixtures; growing grass between the rows and/or building and maintaining protective run-off furrows across the slope in vineyards and permanent crops; establishing and maintaining buffer strips and/or crop rotation strips on arable land.

Precision farming in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany: Precision arable farming involves very specific, targeted soil and crop management within individual fields. It uses ICT-based sensor technologies and software to link in-field variables such as soil type and nutrient levels with farming practices such as tillage, seeding, and fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide applications, often carried out by computer guided machinery. Optimising inputs in this way helps to reduce the risks of soil pollution and compaction. The initial steps in precision farming require soil sampling and analysis of soil properties and nutrient content in sub-plots throughout the field.

Wildlife strips in arable fields in Croatia: Support is provided for establishing two types of sown strips in arable fields of at least 1 ha, aimed at biodiversity objectives but with benefits for soils too. Flower strips, whose primary function is to provide habitats for pollinators and a source of pollen and nectar during spring and summer; and grass strips, providing habitats for birds such as Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra), Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) and Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella).

Permanent conversion of arable land to grassland in Mecklenburg Vorpommern, Germany: This scheme is aimed primarily at water quality and biodiversity objectives (reducing nutrient inputs to surface waters and groundwater) but also has benefits for flood and erosion control, protecting soil carbon and soil biodiversity. Permanent grassland is established on arable land in lowland floodplains by sowing grass or other herbaceous forage of a type traditionally found in natural pastures or meadows. Pesticides are not permitted, and the land must be kept as permanent grassland, not converted back to arable cropping.

Multifunctional field margins - bio-belts on arable land Slovakia: A seeds mixture of year-round flowering plants is sown each year on strips of arable land at least 5m wide and 200m long (1000 sq.m in area) along the edge of a block of arable land or between two different arable crops, and managed without chemical pesticides or mineral fertilizers.

Source: Frelih-Larsen et al (2016)

Members States’ use of CAP measures to support arable soil management

A recent study for the European Commission illustrated how Member States and regions have used the flexibility available to them to support arable soil management through different CAP instruments. Figure 17 shows at EU level, for each of 19 typical soil protection practices, how many Member States have chosen to support the practice using GAEC standards, greening requirements or RDP agri-environment-climate contracts (for the latter, contracts designed for soil protection are identified separately from those designed for other objectives but have soil benefits too).

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Figure 17

3. Soils under permanent grassland

In the EU, soils under permanent grasslands are one of the main terrestrial carbon sinks, especially on carbon-rich soils that originated from historical wetlands and mires (fossil peat) or land converted to grassland from drained wetlands and mires (bogs, fens etc). Permanent grassland is mainly used as pastureland, and converting it to arable land by ploughing leads to the loss of carbon at twice the rate at which carbon is sequestered when cropland is converted into permanent grassland. Protecting the soil resources under existing permanent grassland is therefore a priority for the EU (FAO, 2009).

The main CAP instruments relevant to the protection of permanent grassland soils are the greening requirements for permanent pasture and RDP land management contracts and environmental investment measures.

Implementation of greening requirements for the protection of permanent grassland

It is important to note that the area of land classified as ‘permanent grassland’ under CAP rules at EU level reduced by 7% (3.8 million ha) between 2014 and 2015. This resulted from changes in the CAP definition of ‘permanent grassland’ and in the criteria determining what constitutes ‘agricultural activity’. The missing permanent grassland is no longer eligible for CAP support or subject to greening requirements, but the available data do not show if it is still managed as permanent grassland, outside the influence of the CAP (Alliance Environnement and Thünen-Institut, 2017).

As detailed in »Understanding the EU Common Agricultural Policy in the context of soil protection the greening requirements necessitate Member States to set up two forms of protection for permanent grassland, aimed at carbon sequestration and biodiversity. Firstly, they have to monitor the ratio of permanent grassland to total agricultural area (as classified within the CAP rules) and ensure that this ratio declines by no more than 5% compared to a reference year (if it does go beyond 5% some farmers will have to reconvert land). Secondly, Member States must designate permanent grassland within Natura 2000 areas as Environmentally Sensitive Permanent Grassland (ESPG) which is protected from ploughing, and they can choose to designate further ESPG outside Natura 2000 areas, including grasslands on wetlands and/or carbon-rich soils. It is unclear how much additional protection ESPG designation affords, because some of this land will already be protected from ploughing under other legislation, for example the Habitats Directive.

Both requirements come with significant flexibilities for Member States. These have often been taken up and in some cases in ways that limit the potential effectiveness of the measures to protect permanent grasslands. Almost all Member States manage the permanent grassland ratio at the national level, which could mask significant grassland conversion at sub-regional or local scale. Just four of them (BE, DE, FR and the UK) opted to apply the ratio at regional scale, although a further six (DE, IT, LU, PT, CY, FR) require individual farmers to apply for pre-authorization, which does appear to be a disincentive to grassland conversion in some cases, especially in Germany.

In the first two years of the operation of this measure under greening declines in the relative ratio between the area of permanent grassland to agricultural land of more than 2% have been seen in 10 Member States. In five Member States the level of decline appears to have dropped below the 5% threshold, triggering requirement for reconversion (CY, EE, FR-Haut-de-France, RO, UK-En ). The greening evaluation concluded that the ratio measure is probably beneficial for soils in most Member States but the scale of benefit is uncertain due to lack of data on the types of grassland affected and the effectiveness of the current protection. (Alliance Environnement and Thünen-Institut, 2017).

The implementation in 2016 of the second permanent grassland greening requirement, ESPG designation, shows that 51% of permanent grassland in Natura 2000 areas was designated as ESPG (approximately 7.7 million ha) and 31% were declared by farmers (i.e. were subject to the requirements of the measure) (Alliance Environnement and Thünen-Institut, 2017). It is unclear how much additional protection ESPG designation affords, because some of this land will already be protected from ploughing under other legislation, for example the Habitats Directive.

Only five Member States designated ESPG outside Natura 2000 areas in 2016 (BE, CZ, LV, LU and UK-Wales). In all of these countries, with the exception of the Czech Republic, there are very large areas of permanent grassland and peatlands outside the Natura 2000 network that remain undesignated as ESPG (Alliance Environnement and Thünen-Institut, 2017).

Implementation RDP measures to protect permanent grassland

Restoration and management of permanent grassland and wetlands can be supported by two RDP measures, agri-environment-climate management contracts and environmental investment support (for example to raise the water table on carbon-rich soils). These may be used in combination or separately, as illustrated by examples from the 2014-20 RDPs in Box 7.

Box 7: Examples of soil-relevant agri-environment-climate schemes for arable land programmed in 2014-20 RDPs

Conservation of steep meadows in Slovenia: The aim is to preserve grassland habitats on very steep slopes, preventing biodiversity loss on the one hand and reducing the risk of erosion on the other. This sub-measure applies to meadows with a slope of 50% or more, and annual agri-environment-climate payments compensate farmers for the continued use of existing practices of manually cutting and harvesting the grass, which are a net cost to the farm business.

Wetland management in England, UK: The England RDP offers a wide range of measures to maintain, restore or create ponds, ditches, bogs, fens and reedbeds, supported by a combination of the agri-environment-climate (M10.1) and non-productive investment (M4.4) measures. For example: creating buffer strips of tussocky grass and low scrub at least 10 m wide around ponds and along ditches, to be maintained by mowing and without the use of organic or mineral fertilisers; implementing a water management regime, including disabling ditches and drains where appropriate, to maintain or restore the quality and extent of wildlife-rich wetland habitats; constructing earthworks to re-create these habitats from previous wetland sites on, for example, arable land on deep peat.

Maintaining lowland peat bogs in Scotland UK: The aim is to keep the bog surface (both the vegetation and the peat) as intact, undisturbed and as wet as possible. The plants that grow there such as Sphagnum mosses are adapted to wet conditions with limited nutrients, and they contribute to the active creation of peat and also help to reduce flood risk by holding large volumes of water.

The analysis of Member States’ and regions’ choice of CAP measures that can protect permanent grassland, shown in Figure 18, suggests that beneficial management practices on permanent grassland are more likely to be supported by RDP management contracts and less by GAEC and greening than is the case for arable soils (see Figure 17 for comparison). This partly reflects that the balance of GAEC and greening requirements at farm-level falls more on arable land. It also has potential cost implications for Member States (who co-finance RDP measures) and for the scale of coverage, because the RDP measures rely on voluntary uptake by farmers. On the other hand, agri-environment-climate contracts can be much more issue-specific and geographically targeted than GAEC or greening requirements.

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Figure 18

4. Will the potential of the CAP be used to support better soil management 2015-2020?

The evidence presented here of the choices made by Member States and regions in how they implement these three key CAP instruments suggests an imbalance in addressing the range of soil problems facing EU farmers and governments. The use of GAEC standards for soil cover and for minimum land management to limit erosion, plus relatively high targets for RDP land management contracts under focus area 4C suggest that Member States are addressing the issue of soil erosion using a range of Instruments.

The picture for soil organic matter is very different. Between 2014 and 2015 there was a sharp decline in the number of Member States defining anything more than a ban on stubble burning as a requirement under the soil erosion GAEC. In the first two years of the operation of greening requirements the negative trend in the ratio of permanent grassland to agricultural land seen in 10 Member States is of concern. These two measures have a ‘reach’ that covers most of the arable and permanent grassland (respectively) in the EU, but are not being used to their full potential for soil protection. Added to this, in 2016 only five Member States have chosen to provide protective ESPG designation for grasslands and carbon rich soils outside Natura 2000 areas. This ESPG option was introduced partly because in the previous CAP reform Member States (the European Council) were unwilling to accept a new GAEC standard defining technical requirements for maintenance of organic matter in agricultural soils. There appears to be continuing reluctance on the part of many Member States to address the need to safeguard the carbon sequestration potential and existing carbon stores in EU peatland soils, many of which are still in arable use. This could affect not just agricultural productivity and sustainable soil management but also the ability of agricultural land to help meet EU climate mitigation obligations.

It would be unreasonable to criticise Member States for failing to address soil problems when they are simply using the flexibility available to them in the Regulations. Theoretically there are significant opportunities to improve the soil achievements of both GAEC standards and greening requirements, for example by defining minimum requirements for all soil GAEC standards in the framework of the Regulations, ensuring the additionality of EFA requirements by excluding afforested areas and agroforestry that have already been funded by the CAP, and requiring the identification and targeting of protective measures at carbon rich soils. However, all of these would have an impact on farmers’ costs or on their freedom to use land in response to market opportunities (for example to convert permanent grassland to arable). To achieve progress the EU will have to find ways of balancing the economic needs of farmers with the need to protect carbon rich soils, including making an effective link between positive action linked to land management and the delivery of Land Use and Land Use Change Forestry climate goals.


Note: For full references to papers quoted in this article see


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