The farming sector should be made financially responsible for pollution, especially water pollution, according to a new report by the European Court of Auditors, an idea welcomed by the EU’s Agriculture Commissioner.
The report, released 5 July, examines the use of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, which holds polluters responsible for their pollution and the environmental damage they cause.
In this way, it is those responsible for the pollution, and not taxpayers, who are liable for the associated costs.
The principle is required to deliver the EU’s Green Deal ambitions “efficiently and fairly,” according to Viorel Ștefan, the member of the European Court of Auditors behind the report, who stressed that polluters “need to pay for the environmental damage they cause.”
Currently, EU law only explicitly applies the polluter pays principle to environmental policies, and not to the agricultural sector.
But the auditors said this stance should be reconsidered and called for the farming sector to step up especially when it comes to water pollution.
Agriculture is “the sector exerting most pressures on renewable freshwater resources but contributes the least,” the report states, citing a 2011 study which estimated that agricultural pollution can cost up to €494 per household per year in France for the most affected localities.
In the EU, nearly 3 million sites are potentially contaminated, primarily by industrial activity, waste treatment and disposal, while 6 in 10 bodies of surface water, such as rivers and lakes, are not in good chemical and ecological condition.
Asked about the idea of introducing the polluter pays principle into agricultural policies, EU Agricultural Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said that he “fully agreed” with the conclusions of the report.
“This polluter pays principle should be also visible in agricultural policy,” he said, noting that key differences between member states and that effort needs to be proportional to the scale of the problems.
Pointing out that applying the principle to agriculture is challenging as it is “not strictly an environmental policy,” one of the auditors said that it is true that agriculture “creates a lot of pollution” but pays relatively little.
“It’s difficult to address but it’s vital,” the auditor stressed.
However, auditors pointed out that this is easier said than done, nothing that the principle is particularly difficult to apply in the case of pollution originating from diffuse sources, as is the case with agriculture.
As such, the report includes a specific recommendation for the Commission to consider how to deal with pollution from agriculture and the overall cost-benefit of applying the principle by the end of 2024.
Asked for concrete suggestions for extending the principle to the agricultural sector, the auditors offered several suggestions for how such a move could be implemented in the sector.
These included a move to tax the pollutant, in this case fertiliser, and also to revise water pricing to reflect the true price of water, including its extraction and diffusion in the environment.
This is not the first time that the auditors have called for such a measure to apply to the farming sector.
In their recently released report on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and climate change, released on 21 June, the auditors added a similar call to apply the polluter pays principle to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
The EU farmer’s association declined to comment at this time on the potential impact of such a move.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]