Climate change and rising temperatures are the main culprits as insect migration and reproduction patterns change, forcing farmers to battle invasive bugs.
“Many people underestimate the effects of pesticides on water quality,” Matthias Liess, head of ecotoxicology at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, said yesterday (7 December).
“I would say that this is rather a conservative scenario, and it calls for action in terms of buffer strips – that is the most convenient and efficient measure,” he told EurActiv by telephone.
Insecticides enter rivers through runoff from fields and to a lesser extent when they drift into the water during application. Contamination levels have been rising in many central and southern European countries for 20 years with the biggest growth expected in areas that now have relatively low agriculture pesticide pollution, the Helmholtz study shows, based on projections through 2090.
Liess and his fellow Leipzig researchers say climate conditions – including warming in Scandinavia and the Baltics - will require farmers to use more and more insecticides to protect crops.
This will have devastating effects on biodiversity as farmers fend off invading insects while water contamination kills native species that are part of the food chain for birds, fish and other stream wildlife. The researchers estimate that in the decades ahead, some 40% of Europe’s waterways will be degraded.
The researchers recommend a reduction in pesticide through organic farming, but the most effective approach is creating buffer areas along streams to filter out chemical runoff.
Commission seeks buffers
In its proposals for the next Common Agriculture Policy, the European Commission wants to encourage farmers who use buffer areas and who switch to crop rotation, measures that would reduce fertiliser and pesticide use.
The proposals, if approved, would take effect in 2014. The Commission’s ‘greening’ plan for agriculture is facing criticism at a time of rising global demand for food and inevitable conflicts between conservation and production.
The EU has long regulated nitrogen pollution from fuels and pesticides, and has sought to protect waterways, but conservation groups contend that pesticides continue to pose a threat to air and water quality.
Industry and farm groups have acknowledged concerns about the impact of pesticides on waterways. Earlier this year, the European Crop Protection Association launched a programme to train farmers and pesticide operators to reduce the impact on rivers from pesticide run-off and drift.
According to the industry group, the €2-million programme expects to reach 350,000 farmers in seven countries and addresses European water protection and pesticides legislation, and seeks to promote modern agricultural technology with an eye on sustainable development.
But the environmental group Greenpeace says water resource pollution goes beyond just application of pesticides, arguing there are broader environmental effects.
“The industrial farming methods that are used to grow much of the world’s food are highly dependent on oil, not only for fuelling machinery but also to manufacture the chemical fertilisers and pesticides used to maintain high crop yields,” Julian Oram, a political advisor to Greenpeace International on agricultural matters, argues in a recent blog on hunger and climate change.
Threat may be sooner rather than later
The new Helmholtz Centre threat assessment may already be outdated given reports that the planet is failing to cut emissions that contribute to climate change.
“What we can read nowadays, it looks like these climate changes which are projected to happen in the next 80 years or so will mostly likely happen much faster,” Liess said.