Nearly 50% of the European Union is covered by croplands – both arable lands and permanent pastures – which means that agriculture plays a key role in land management and the sector holds enormous responsibility for the conservation of natural resources. The desired link between agriculture and the environment can be captured by the concept of “sustainable agriculture”. This requires managing natural resources in a way ensuring that their benefits are also available for the future.

Given the key interactions between agricultural land use and local ecosystems, the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) increasingly focuses on environmental issues and the achievement of sustainable development objectives.

Over the centuries, the agricultural sector has created beautiful countryside landscapes in conjunction with nature. Agricultural land management is a positive force for the development of a rich diversity of habitats and lands, including the mosaic of forests, wetlands and extensive open natural areas.

Ecological integrity and the visual values of the landscapes make rural areas an attractive place for setting up companies, places to live, as well as tourism and recreational establishments.

The links between the wealth of nature and agricultural practices are complex. Many valuable habitats in Europe are maintained by extensive farming. However, poor agricultural practices and land use can also have a negative impact on natural resources, including:

  • soil, water and air pollution
  • habitat fragmentation
  • biodiversity loss

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) sets out three priority areas for action to protect and upgrade the rural heritage of the EU:

  • biodiversity, conservation and development of “natural” agricultural and forestry systems and traditional agricultural landscapes;
  • water management and use;
  • tackling climate change.

The CAP ensures that its principles are compatible with environmental requirements, as well as that CAP measures promote the development of agricultural practices conducive to protecting the environment and the landscape. Farmers are encouraged to continue to play a positive role in maintaining the rural areas and the environment.

This is achieved through:

  • directing aid towards rural development measures promoting environmentally sustainable farming practices, such as agri-environmental programmes;
  • imposing sanctions on producers who do not comply with the environmental protection rules by reducing financial support from the CAP.