Commission under pressure to ease rules on nitrates use in farming

The European Commission is under increasing pressure to ease rules on nitrate use in farming allowing the use of processed manure in sensitive areas to help cope with rising fertiliser prices.

While the Commission says it supports the proposal in principle, it must be handled with care.

The Ukraine war has skyrocketed fertiliser prices, leaving the EU agrifood sector vulnerable and throwing the bloc’s dependency on third countries for crucial inputs, such as natural gas, critical raw materials and chemical fertilisers, into sharp relief.

In efforts to cope with the fallout from the war, the Dutch delegation put forward an ‘any other business’ proposal to agricultural ministers on 21 March, pushing to increase the re-use of locally available nutrients, such as manure.

However, this would require a derogation to, or amendment of, the nitrates directive.

The directive, introduced in 1991, aims to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources from polluting ground and surface waters and by promoting the use of good farming practices.

“Given the urgency and the need for a short term solution, we propose to allow a derogation for member states to apply fertilisers with recovered nutrients from manure that meet minimum quality criteria in nitrate vulnerable zones,” the document reads.

This, they maintain, is in line with the objectives of the European Green Deal and, in particular, the EU’s flagship food and farming policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy, which calls for more circularity in the agrifood system.

This is not the first time the Netherlands has raised this issue, which was first put forward during the Council meetings of agricultural ministers in November and December 2021. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought a new flavour to the debate.

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Longer-term view

While the document maintains that, thanks to developments in the field of nutrient-recovery from livestock manure, anaerobic digestion and other organic waste streams, residual flows can be “valorised and kept within the nutrient cycle”, it emphasises that investments into this kind of technology are  “large and have a return on investment that is usually 10 years or longer”.

As such, the Dutch call for this derogation to be “long enough to allow producers a return on their investment”.

Specifically, it requests the Commission to develop a derogation method for allowing the application of fertilisers with recovered nutrients from manure for a minimum period of eight years.

This would mark a change to other recent derogations, such as one allowing farmers to plant crops in ecologically sensitive areas, which is a temporary derogation of one year.

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Commission open to consideration 

Asked by reporters during a press conference on 24 March, DG AGRI’s Tassos Haniotis acknowledged the idea was supported by “quite a number of member states”.

“Let’s express the view that it needs to be followed up on,” he said.

Asked by EURACTIV, a Commission official said that the EU executive “supports the use of nutrients from manure or recycled manure so as to increase circularity,” pointing out that there is already some flexibility permitted for the use of processed manure in polluted areas.

While the official told EURACTIV that the EU executive had not yet received any requests for a derogation, sources say that DG ENVI expects to start receiving requests for derogations soon, and it will likely be “under pressure” to approve these.

However, the official stressed that any further derogation would require a “more prudent approach” and must be applied in a “restricted manner and in compliance with the provisions of the law that foresees such derogation”.

The procedure for examining and granting such derogations is subject to the favourable opinion of the nitrates committee, they added.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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