Farms or Industry Pollution?
What to do when everything cannot be done at the same time? In present day Europe farm pollution as opposed to industrial pollution is gaining more attention and effort. While factories were once the big concern, more attention is focusing on pollution from farming, which accounts for more than half of land use in the EU and is overall the biggest consumer of water. Industrial releases once dominated the attention such as the sludge that broke through containment walls in the Hungarian town of Ajka in October 2010, the immediate concern was the safety of hundreds of nearby residents. In the end 10 people died from exposure and the toxic muck spilled into waterways, including the Danube, prompting alarms downstream. These spills are relatively rare and industrial pollution in many European rivers has declined since the 1960s. Tougher treatment laws, international cooperation and EU policies like the 2000 Water Framework Directive and 2006 Groundwater Directive are credited with the improvements.
Dietrich Borchardt is among those worried about agriculture’s effect on waterways.
"What we call good agricultural practice today," Borchardt said in a telephone interview, "from a water perspective is not a good practice."
Fertilizers are the prime cause of farming pollution. These typically contain nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and sulfur, nutrients that help ensure healthy crops and boost yields. Commercial fertilizers use a form of nitrogen — nitrates - while organic fertilizers such as manure also contain high levels of the compound. Nitrates quickly leach into the soil and wash into streams, lakes and aquifers.
The European Environment Agency (EEA), an EU body, identifies nitrogen runoff from fertilizer and manure as one of three main pollution threats in Europe, along with particulate matter from vehicle exhaust and ground-level ozone from industrial and auto emissions.
Globally, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization identifies farming as a leading cause of groundwater pollution, producing three times the nitrogen emissions of industrial sources.
Nitrate is a potential human health threat especially to infants, causing the condition known as methemoglobinemia, also called "blue baby syndrome". When Nitrate is taken in by eating food and drinking water, Nitrate is converted in the gut to nitrite, which then combines with hemoglobin to form methemoglobin, thus decreasing the ability of the blood to carry oxygen. Infants are more susceptible to nitrate toxicity than older children or adults.
Even more so nitrates also have profound effects on watery ecosystems, promoting growth of algae that chokes off oxygen for fish and other marine life.
The WWF environmental group says agricultural runoff is the main cause of nutrient overload in the Baltic Sea, which along with other pollution and excessive fishing are blamed for depleting fish populations.
A recent study by Borchardt’s colleagues at Helmholtz warned that pesticide contamination of European waterways will worsen in the decades ahead — especially in northern countries — as climates warm and insects migrate to areas once too frigid to populate. The researchers estimate that in the decades ahead, some 40% of Europe’s waterways will be degraded from increased pesticide use.
Acknowledging agriculture’s risks to water quality, the European Commission has proposed a set of measures to update its Nitrates Directive and fertilizers regulation. Its proposed reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would give farmers cash incentives to rotate crops to reduce fertilizer use.
Some of the common approaches are to prevent farm water runoff and limit pesticide use by crop rotation.
The Commission wants to encourage farmers who use buffer areas that could protect streams and rivers from nitrate and chemical runoff. The proposals, if approved, would take effect in 2014. But the Commission’s greening plan for agriculture is facing sharp criticism at a time of rising global demand for food and inevitable conflicts between conservation and production. How do you feed the world while saving the world from excessive use of fertilizer and pesticide?
Farm and industry organizations like the European Crop Protection Association have acknowledged concerns about the impact on waterways and supports training programs for farmers on fertilizer and pesticide use.
The problem is one of balance. How much is enough? How much is too little?
"Nobody asks whether we have enough water to grow them, and what will be the additional risks on the ecosystem," Borchardt said, adding that "energy security, food security but also water security need to be more integrated" in EU policy making.