In the recent Biodiversity and Farm to Fork (F2F) strategies, the European Commission recognised the need to reduce nutrient losses by at least 50 percent and fertiliser use by at least 20 percent by 2030. (Photo: Wikipedia)


EU rules seen as insufficient to fix nutrient pollution

Free Article
In the recent Biodiversity and Farm to Fork (F2F) strategies, the European Commission recognised the need to reduce nutrient losses by at least 50 percent and fertiliser use by at least 20 percent by 2030. (Photo: Wikipedia)

From rivers and lakes to lagoons and seas, numerous aquatic environments across Europe are grappling with a silent yet ubiquitous threat – an excess of nutrients that disrupt their ecological balance and imperil their very existence.

This pollution is largely the by-product of factory farming and intensive agriculture, where too much manure and man-made fertiliser is spread on farmland to grow crops, resulting in nutrient-rich runoff getting into downstream waterways.

The leakage of these substances, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, can trigger algae bloom, eventually leading to eutrophication – a reduction in oxygen levels in water bodies. This can undermine their ability to provide vital ecosystem services, and, in severe cases, cause mass deaths of fish and other species.

Nutrient contamination can also have adverse effects on people’s health, as toxins released during algae blooms can contaminate drinking water sources and heighten the risk of the spread of waterborne illnesses.

One study observed a link between nitrates consumed through drinking water and an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

The EU has had ambitious policies and regulatory frameworks aimed at reducing nutrient inputs from agriculture since the 1990s.

Yet the farming sector remains the main source of nutrient pollution in Europe.

In the recent Biodiversity and Farm to Fork (F2F) strategies – two cornerstones of the Green Deal – the European Commission recognised the need to make food production more sustainable, setting goals for reducing nutrient losses by at least 50 percent and fertiliser use by at least 20 percent by 2030.

However, experts contend that such lofty targets are not attainable without better implementation of existing strategies and stricter, more ambitious policies.

Scientists also say greater reductions would be needed to achieve sustainable nutrient flows. 

Limited effectiveness

The main EU law focusing on nutrient emissions to water is the Nitrates Directive (ND).

The directive, introduced in 1991, requires member states to develop policies to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus emissions from farming, along with monitoring nutrient levels in water bodies.

National governments are asked to designate sensitive zones known as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs). Within these areas, protection measures such as capping the use of nitrogen-based fertiliser must be adopted to mitigate the risk of contamination.

The ND is also one of the Statutory Management Requirements that European farmers need to comply with to receive Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) subsidies, with funding reduced. in cases of non-compliance.

Despite setting fairly rigorous standards, the directive's effectiveness has been limited. 

More than a third of rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, as well as more than 80 percent of marine waters in the EU, still suffer from some degree of eutrophication due to excessive nutrient levels

While nitrate concentrations in surface and groundwater have decreased across the EU since the directive's introduction, a considerable percentage of monitoring stations still indicate nitrate levels above the maximum limit.

Low progress and derogations

Moreover, more than a third of rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, as well as more than 80 percent of marine waters in the EU, still suffer from some degree of eutrophication due to excessive nutrient levels.

The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers does not seem to have been affected, with consumption that has remained relatively stable since 2000. 

Progress has been particularly slow over the past decade.

Erik Gerritsen, an ecologist and public policy expert at Rotterdam-based consulting firm Trinomics, says that states have often struggled to integrate the directive into domestic law.

“National implementation often takes place sectorally, within policy domains such as the water domain or the agricultural domain,” explained Gerritsen.

As a result, multiple cross-sectoral objectives need to be realised simultaneously at regional and local levels. Although efforts have been made to create linkages between directives, requirements such as monitoring and reporting may be different, creating gaps in enforcement.

Gerritsen said progress may have been hindered by loopholes.

The Water Framework Directive, the broader regulatory framework to which the ND belongs, allows countries to designate water bodies that may never achieve “good ecological status” – even if they are located near intensive agricultural areas, he says.

"It is just possible to set less strict goals for them," said Gerritsen.

Furthermore, countries can ask for exemptions: in September 2022, the EU Commission granted a derogation to the Netherlands allowing the application of grazing livestock manure up to 230 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year in NVZs. The highest amount of nitrogen that can be applied annually is 170 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare.

That was the sixth such derogation granted to the country since 2005 and was made despite over half of freshwaters monitored across the country being reported eutrophic from 2016 to 2019.

Similar derogations are in place for Denmark, Ireland, and the Netherlands, as well as for Flanders in Belgium, Emilia Romagna, Piemonte, and Veneto in Italy, and England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.  

No fines 

While the implementation of EU law is a national responsibility, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Commission as the guardian of the treaties to ensure that member states comply and that adequate mechanisms are in place where they do not. 

In cases where a member state fails to comply with a court ruling, the European Commission is empowered to initiate infringement procedures, which involve legal action that may ultimately lead to cases being brought before the EU Court of Justice and result in fines. 

Individuals or organisations can also submit complaints directly to the EC, either through the EU’s Ombudsman or by petitioning the European Parliament. Based on the information received, the Commission can then decide whether or not to take the case further.

Data from the EC reveals that infringement procedures have been launched against every EU member state in the realm of water-related legislation since the 1990s, most of which to check the accurate transposition of community water legislation into national laws. Twenty infringement procedures of non-compliance with the ND have also been initiated.

But proceedings that result in court referrals and fines are rather rare. According to the EU infringement database, only ten infringement procedures related to water policy have led to countries being penalised so far.

Sergiy Moroz, a policy manager for water and biodiversity at the European Environmental Bureau, noted that infringement procedures are usually so long and cumbersome that “they can drag on for years,” to then be dropped or left pending. 

Last year, the EU closed a case against Germany for breaching the terms of the ND that was initiated in 2013.

Another example is Italy, which was served a formal notice by the EC in 2018 for failing to designate NVZs, properly monitoring water bodies, and implementing additional measures in regions affected by nitrate pollution. Despite receiving a further formal notice in 2020 and a reasoned opinion in 2023, the issue remains unresolved to this day.

More is needed

Modelling by the Commission’s own science and knowledge service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), has revealed that measures under existing legislation and policies, even if fully implemented, will only reduce nutrient losses by 30 percent.

“This is far from the 50 percent target and clearly shows that the EU needs to put forward additional measures to bridge this gap,” said Jerry van Dijk, associate professor of restoration ecology and biodiversity conservation at Utrecht University in The Netherlands.

That was the aim of the Integrated Nutrient Management Plan (INMAP). But the strategy, for which the preparatory public consultation already closed in the summer of 2022, is still missing.

Last September, 14 NGOs and three academics, including van Dijk, sent a letter to the Commission stressing the need to “ensure that this key component of the European Green Deal is delivered swiftly.” 

However, it seems increasingly unlikely that this will happen before the elections set for next June, as the EU executive has not set out a date for when it does plan to present it.

“We have no date for the publication of this document,” Fabien Santini, deputy head of unit in the Commission’s agricultural service, told the press during an event at the European Parliament last year.

van Dijk suggested actions can be taken also by strengthening the CAP to bring it in line with the Biodiversity and F2F strategies. This would include setting legally binding targets for reducing nutrient losses and improving the indicators for nutrients balance reporting.

Unfortunately, the most recent version of the policy, which was formally adopted in 2021 and will last through 2027, does not set any clear objective for reducing nutrients losses or fertiliser use. Assessments of draft national CAP plans have also found a substantial lack of action on environmental objectives, including nutrients management.

Nevertheless, much greater reductions than those planned could be needed. In the Knowledge for INMAP report, JRC researchers concluded that the EU should reduce its annual mineral fertiliser input by about 60 percent to reach sustainable nutrient flows.

“Such cuts may sound daunting, but we know for a fact that this can be done without sacrificing yields,” said van Dijk, “It is a necessary piece of the transition puzzle towards a greener farming future."

This reporting for this piece was supported by Journalismfund Europe.

Author Bio

Marcello Rossi is a freelance journalist specialising in environmental and climate change topics. Davide Mancini is a freelance journalist and videomaker, based in Spain.