Nitrate pollution remains a major problem in France due to its intensive agriculture. The French Prime Minister has resolved to take action, after a new indictment of France by the Court of Justice of the European Union last week.
The latest indictment of France by the Court of Justice of the European Union, announced last week (4 September), has turned the spotlight back onto the issue of water pollution.
The Prime Minister Manuel Valls has assured French farmers that the government would “work to adapt the nitrates directive”, saying the EU text “has clearly shown its limitations”.
In simple terms, the French government wants to run new scientific studies and put the revision of the directive on the European agenda.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) criticised France for not having “correctly transposed the nitrates directive, leading to a risk of water pollution from nitrogen”.
The European Commission’s complaint centres on the minimum prohibition periods and conditions for fertiliser application, the absence of binding rules for calculating the storage capacity of manure and for calculating the exact quantity of nitrates that should be spread.
Second conviction for France
This is the second time the European Commission has taken action against France over nitrate pollution.
The European directive 91/676/EEC, also called the “nitrates” directive, requires France to define vulnerable areas where agricultural practices must be modified to avoid the risk of pollution, and in June 2012 the CJEU convicted France for failing to adequately designate these zones.
The latest CJEU ruling requires France to correct its failures as quickly as possible, or risk facing further legal action from the European Commission, which could see them presented with a fine of tens of millions of euro.
This has triggered criticism from the Greens. “In France we prefer to pay fines than to be proactive. But we must increasingly focus on preventative policies, especially where farmers are concerned,” Green MEP Michèle Rivasi commented.
“I thank Europe, because this ruling shows the citizens that France does not uphold its own laws that descend from European legislation. Without Europe, French legislation on water would not even exist,” shed said.
Government gives reassurance
Ségolène Royal, the minister for Sustainable Development, and Stéphane Le Foll, the minister for Agriculture, stated in a joint communiqué that the CJEU ruling was related to a “previous generation of action programmes”.
According to the two ministers, “most of the problems raised by the CJEU judgment have already been corrected under the new strategy (prohibition periods for fertiliser application, clarification of the regulations, methods of calculating storage capacities, standards for the release of nitrates for ruminants and pigs)”.
Paris also plans to discuss some “delicate” points with the European Commission, such as the procedures for storing compacted manure in fields and the application of fertilisers on steep slopes.
But Michèle Rivasi is sceptical and believes the EU court conviction is a result of France’s lax policies in this area. “Ségolène Royale should really put her foot down. I expect her to propose some very forceful measures”.
At the end of July, Royale announced the classification of 3,800 municipalities as areas vulnerable to nitrate pollution. 19,000 municipalities – or ‘communes’ – currently make up the zone deemed “vulnerable”, representing more than half of France’s agricultural area, according to the Ministry for Sustainable Development.
Discontent among farmers
Farmers were outraged by the EU court ruling. Several agricultural organisations have issued a joint statement in which they assert that “the current ‘nitrates’ directive has completely lost its mind!”, calling for an “overhaul” of the text.
The farmers also claim to be victims of the “obstacles of EU regulation and French implementation”. They blame the public institutions for driving them “into the wall”.
However, Michèle Rivasi places the fault squarely with the farmers, who she said acted “with the complicity of the state”.
“The agricultural sector should take a good look at its own practices”, the MEP said, indicating the leverage exerted by lobbyists on politicians and the significant power of the agricultural unions.
Beyond environmental problems, she is concerned with the issue of public health. “France is Europe’s largest purchaser of pesticides, but it is also has the most cases of hormone-dependent cancers”, Rivasi explained, pointing out that farmers themselves are often the first to fall victim to the fertilisers and pesticides they use.
The Greens reacted strongly to the Prime Minister's declaration, reflecting on the impact of the agricultural lobby. "Following the real-estate lobby, it appears that the agricultural lobby has found a sympathetic ear in Matignon", the group expressed in a communiqué.
Ecology Europe - The Greens (EELV) find "the state's response […] irresponsible, both from an economic and a public health point of view". "Cleaning the polluted water supply costs French taxpayers between 1 and 1.5 billion euro each year, according to the Ministry of Ecology. And today we are unfortunately only too aware of the ecological consequences of high levels of nitrogen pollution".
The increase in nitrate water pollution is due to the use of intensive farming methods. This means greater use of chemical fertilisers and higher concentrations of livestock spread over smaller areas.
Equally, the decrease in water quality in the 1980s came about principally as a result of intensive livestock breeding (chickens and pigs) in already saturated areas, and intensive cultivation using chemical weed killers.
The directive 91/676/EEC, known simply as "Nitrates", is part of the Water Framework Directive. Its aim is to protect the water supply from pollution from agricultural nitrates.
There are many regulations concerning the monitoring of surface water and groundwater, the designation of vulnerable areas, the development of codes of agricultural best practice, the adoption of programmes of action and the evaluation of action that has been taken.